Against The Wall: Israel's Barrier to Peace
Michael Sorkin, Editor
The New Press, 2005
The seemingly intractable set of problems created by the Israeli/Palestinian situation is, in so many ways, central to our modern world. It encompasses splits in religion, social ideology, geography, and politics. It also has a widely resonant symbolic power and often reflects all our national and personal insecurities and conflicts.
I am no scholar of the almost impossible complexities of the situation, but I know that when I see corpses in an Israeli restaurant or dead children on the dusty streets of Palestine I feel despair and anger. Against the Wall is an excellent reference book, one that will help any sympathetic observer face and understand the issues and arguments.
As a detailed and wide-ranging critique of the Security Wall this book is, of course, pretty sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. But beneath the sometimes obvious and one-eyed politics it is also manages to reflect what most sympathetic people feel - Nothing is black and white. The Jewish people deserve their own state, but so do the Palestinians. Both deserve freedom; and neither deserve to be blown up whilst shopping or on the way to work. Because many of the viewpoints expressed in this book are based in architectural and urbanist theory, the whole provides a general survey that goes beyond the blinkered shouting that often counts for argument when the Middle East is the topic. Ultimately Against The Wall is on the side of fairness and tolerance. Its impulse is towards a solution.
Sorkin has gathered a number of essays from many different contributors that dissect aspects of the Wall in both practical terms and as an idea. As such, the thoughtful opinions presented have meaning beyond the Middle East. For example, those who think a bloody great big wall along the Rio Grande is a good idea will find much in here to consider.
The choice of topics is wide-ranging, from post-modern philosophy through to architectural description and on-the-ground reportage. The overall effect is profound. Sorkin builds an effective argument against the wall by looking at it from all sides, exposing the historical and philosophical complexities behind its conception, as well as the current effects and future implications of the policy. Taken individually and together, the essays in this collection build a compelling case against this wall specifically, and politically motivated walls in general. The Wall is not just the simplistic bomb-stopping solution that I thought it was. It is in fact the physical manifestation of a backward looking and bankrupt set of ideologies. The wall literally sets in stone a position that is declared temporary, but appears permanent. As the subtitle implies, it blocks the psychological and physical paths to peace.
As a polemic, Against The Wall is impassioned and very well formulated. But this book, for me, also acted as a uniquely detailed and fascinating source of information and context about a situation, that has import far beyond those remote sunbleached images of random violence we see on TV.
American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination
South End Press, 2006
In American Methods, Kristian Williams tracks the use of torture by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies from theory to practice to policy. Starting with the well-documented abuses at Abu Ghraib, Williams shows convincingly that these acts of violence and sexual humiliation were not shocking aberrations, not the sadistic impulses of a few individuals, but part of a pattern of behavior that is routine and accepted—so accepted that only one member of the entire company of military police at the prison thought to report the abuse and leak the infamous photographs to commanding officers. Instead of a breach of military ethics, what happened at Abu Ghraib represents an ethic of domination that infuses American military activities globally.
From that starting point, Williams works outward examining the U.S. reliance on torture and placing Abu Ghraib into context operationally, historically and politically. Drawing on military reports and other classified government material as well as reports from human rights organizations, he makes clear that Abu Ghraib was not a spontaneous response to exceptional circumstances but the application of techniques approved by the Bush Administration (for the CIA in early 2002 and by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for the Armed Forces in 2003) and refined in Afghanistan and Guantánamo before coming to Iraq. Williams provides substantial documentation of the deliberate migration and intensification of techniques such as sleep deprivation, stripping and forced nudity, shortshackling into stress positions, the use of dogs and the threat of electrocution or drowning until methods introduced originally as last resorts became common practice.
Williams then goes on to chart CIA and U.S. military involvement with torture over years from so-called extraordinary renditions (which were initiated under the Clinton Administration) to the support of repressive regimes around the world—Israel, Egypt, El Salvador, Turkey and Colombia are singled out for extended discussion—to the teaching of torture by the School of the Americas or through Project X, a kind of global torture correspondence course created by U.S. Army Intelligence. Though he could have gone back decades, Williams purposely limits this overview to the past 25 years, a period too recent to be dismissed as irrelevant yet taking place after the reforms to restrict covert activities of the mid- to late-70s, which makes his point that much stronger.
Williams's main interest is power and the violence necessary to maintain it. The two are intimately connected, if not one in the same. And torture is the most fundamental expression of both. It is the expression of power and the means through which power is maintained. As the U.S. has aspired to unprecedented global power, the necessity of force has come with it. "Torture," Williams writes, "is not incidental to state power; it is characteristic of that power. Torture doesn't represent a system failure; it is the system."
Such abuse of power is not just projected outward either, but is unavoidably ingrained within U.S. culture as well. American Methods concludes with a detailed look at the use of torture by police and within the American prison system, the reflexive and constant repression and its long term effect on society as a whole. Here Williams goes beyond most treatments of human rights and torture to show conclusively how the domestic and the international use of force are connected in a continuum of domination and dehumanization, one feeding the other.
He also goes beyond analysis alone and ends the book by examining the possibilities for dismantling the structures of domination as they exist now: "Rights only exist if they can be defended. For rights to be universal, then, what is needed is not simply a redistribution of power as it is, but a radical re-imagining of power as well—power as cooperation and capacity rather than force and dominance." Only by taking such steps do we have a chance at all to put an end to torture as an American method.
Crown Forum, 2006
This book is a manifestation of an emerging ideological tendency in America. Many conservatives are beginning to realize that the Republican Party no longer cares about their priorities, if it ever did. Conservatives who care about the local values of discreet communities, who want to defend their lifestyles against increased pornofication, who believe that small farmers should have a chance against agribusiness; have finally started waking up to the fact that the GOP doesn't share their concerns. Rod Dreher, a former staffer at the National Review, has sketched an insightful critique of the GOP's bankruptcy, but goes horribly off the rails about what is to be done.
Crunchy Cons stands as a companion of sorts to What's the Matter with Kansas. This book examines a different sort of conservative from those left behind by the capitalist rapture in Tom Frank's book (one of Dreher's protagonists, Presbyterian lawyer Caleb Stegall, even shares an area code with Tom Frank's parents in affluent Northeast Kansas), but the alienation is the same: Today's Republican Party has no desire to conserve anything. It is in the consumption business. But where the conservatives in Frank's book remained steadfastly loyal to the GOP, the people we meet in Crunchy Cons are starting to realize that maybe Bush and Co. take them for granted while ignoring their concerns.
The cast of characters here is no less colorful. We meet people who I wouldn't mind living next to if they routinely forgot to vote; organic farmers, religious foodies, some genuine eccentrics, and conservatives who share the haute bourgeois pretensions of their blue-state counterparts among them. They genuinely care about the environmental depredations that sprawl, factory farming, and pollution cause. They are profoundly aware of the loss to families that shrinking incomes and the need for two wage earners causes. And they mourn the atomization that a rootless society - a society without organizations, cohesive communities, and adult friendships - causes. These people illustrate Dreher's view that conservatives should buy non genetically-modified foods and support organic farmers. They should skip the sprawl of McMansions and live in reasonably sized houses and build cohesive communities. They should ride bikes and walk instead of driving everywhere. They should care about the future of our environment. All these are laudable positions and, no doubt, ones common to most Clamor readers, if not all.
For some inexplicable reason, however, Dreher wants to make the GOP the place where he and his fellow "crunchy cons" can live and proselytize. Unfortunately, however, today's GOP is - first, last, and always - a party committed to nothing other than unbridled capitalism. No slow food, no organic gardening, no anti-sprawl ideas. Like Marxist-Leninists, there is no point in arguing with the GOP: Their ideology explains everything with no other priorities entertained. Dreher's enthusiasm for the GOP invokes the same deluded pathos that people exhibit by pining for a mythic past when the Mafia was a principled organization. It is not for no reason that, in order to support his ideas, Dreher must extensively quote from Howard Kunstler, E.F. Schumacher, early socialist William Morris, and Jimmy Carter even - all men of the left.
It's almost charming how credulous Dreher seems about the party that he loves. Continually turning to abortion as a reason why "crunchy cons" couldn't possibly vote Democratic, he ignores an inconvenient fact or two. For example, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, - a US territory that enables "Made in the USA" to be stamped on garments made in sweatshop conditions - multinational corporations force women to have abortions to keep them at their sewing machines. The CNMI, overseen by the Bush Administration's Department of the Interior and lauded by evangelical former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay as a place that "represent(s) everything that is good about what we're trying to do in America," is practically a wholly-owned subsidiary of the GOP. And when the GOP had to choose between capitalism and stopping abortions in the CNMI, it unambiguously chose capitalism.
I also can't shake the feeling that Dreher is tired of being ridiculed as a philistine. His desire to be liked by his fellow bourgies is palpable and his efforts to eccentric-up his conservative lifestyle are relentless. He and his wife are Catholic, but they attend an Orthodox church rather than a Roman one. He votes for fascists, but shops at co-ops. He shares the enthusiasm of lefty boomers for the Prairie Home Companion and he suggests that his Craftsman Bungalow would be inviting to a hobbit. There is a home for people who think like this - it's called the Democratic Party.
The chapter on the environment offers both the most interesting ideological arguments and proves the most frustrating. Here Dreher makes most clear that he understands the ideology of the GOP. He asks why the voters of Ellis County, TX continue to send anti-environment reactionary Joe Barton (League of Conservation Voters Rating for 2004=Zero) to Congress when pollution is so thick that his "asthma-suffering relatives - all of us conservative Republicans - (are) sucking on inhalers and struggling to breathe." He even quotes Wendell Berry bemoaning the "the corporate totalitarianism which is rapidly consolidating as 'the global economy'," but fails to follow up on it. Why, one wonders, would Dreher have any desire to be a member of any party that can be accurately called "totalitarian?"
To Rod Dreher, I offer this: The Republican Party hates you, dude, and please stop wearing Birkenstocks. Today's GOP is only interested in serving the needs of the owners of transnational capital, whether they're Russian oligarchs, conflict diamond traders, the Chinese government, or Saudi plutocrats who import "guest workers" to do jobs beneath them. This is the party whose leadership, represented by Guiliani and Bush—urged followers to shop in response to the attacks in the days after 9/11. All other priorities are irrelevant.
Crunchy Cons does a great job of diagnosing how destructive modern Republicanism is of the very things that conservatives should protect. But, of the cons that Dreher shows us, the most durable con is the one that keeps people like Dreher's Crunchy Cons voting Republican.
Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace
South End Press, 2005
In Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace, award-winning author Vandana Shiva writes for a specific audience, assuming that her readership has a political science background and does not need the complicated concepts of economics broken down. There is nothing inherently wrong with writing what is not a beginner's guide-to type of book; however, as a composition instructor, one of the most difficult ideas I try to teach my students is the value of clear, interesting, and logically ordered writing. If one does not have a political science background, she has two challenges to deal with when reading this book—understanding complex jargon without benefit of a glossary, and untangling what unfortunately amounts to bad writing.
With that said, I feel like the struggle to decipher this text is worthwhile. Shiva presents "Earth Democracy" as the polar opposite to the current brand of globalization. The ten principle of Earth Democracy are:
All species, peoples, and cultures have intrinsic worth; the earth community is democracy of all life; diversity in nature and culture must be defended; all beings have a natural right to sustenance; Earth Democracy is based on living economies and economic democracy; living economies are built on local economies; Earth Democracy is a living democracy; Earth Democracy is based on living cultures; living cultures are life nourishing; and, Earth Democracy globalizes peace, care, and compassion. (9-11)
She explains these ideas throughout the scrambled text, but in a subsection describing the desired move "from cultures of death to cultures of life," she writes, "Ahimsa, or nonviolence, is the basis of many faiths that have emerged on Indian soil. Translated into economics, nonviolence implies that our systems of production, trade, and consumption do not use up the ecological space of other species and other people" (116). She describes nonviolence as active, rather than passive. She shows nonviolence in action when she tells the stories of people who have fought against the corporations and walked away with small victories.
Before showing a handful of successes, Shiva spends most of the book detailing what globalization really looks like, especially for people of India. In what could be called a quest for food sovereignty, the author writes about how seeds and water are increasingly privatized. It is illegal for farmers to save their own seeds, yet the ones available to them are modified and often fail to produce crops. As for water, Shiva explains the assault on the water supply by major soda manufacturers—Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola. She peppers the text with other alarming symptoms of globalization. In the chapter on living democracies, Shiva writes, "another example is the Indian governments' recent decision to raise the permissible level of MSG (Mono Sodium Glutamate), which has been found to cause severe health problems such as asthma, in order to prioritize the expansion of fast food chains like KFC over people's health" (87). Though she does not mention this, it isn't difficult for the American reader to connect this bit of information with the USDA food pyramid here in the United States.
Earth Democracy inspires the reader to walk away from an earth-harming system and embrace local, sustainable economies, but it also forces the reader to examine the "capitalist and religious patriarchal" structures that make unrestrained globalization possible. Despite its messy writing style and organization, and Shiva's apparent belief in gender essentialism (i.e. women as natural nurturers), Earth Democracy is a meaningful and challenging book that should not be overlooked.
The Ethnomusicologists' Cookbook
"This is a cookbook; not your average cookbook" is the profound understatement that opens the introduction by Williams, a professor of ethnomusicology at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. In stark contrast to the recent spate of "foodie" cookbooks full of glossy photographs and trendy ingredients, this is a very down-home book full of black-and-white photographs--many of which are so blurry and vague as to be actually unappetizing--and ingredients like powdered plantain fufu (Northern Ghana) and Spicy King brand Szechuan Salad Sauce (Sichuan, China). Where another cookbook might try to replicate the experience of getting cooking lessons from Mario Batalli or Julia Child, this one does its best to replicate the experience of getting cooking lessons from a series of kindly grandmothers, complete with instructions for feeding tidbits to "little children helping in the kitchen" (Sweden). It's a delightful introduction to the culinary styles and history of 45 cultures from around the world.
The musical aspect comes in via anecdotes following each set of recipes. Each of the contributors to the collection traveled to a place to learn about its music and found that music and food were inextricably entwined, especially when one is entertaining guests.
Whether discussing the ancient tradition of marriage ceremonies in Sephardic Morocco or investigating the popularity of veganism among punk and hardcore bands in Brazil, each piece returns again and again to the idea that culture is best claimed, studied, and shared by creating music and meals together. Whether playing or cooking, improvisation is key, as is the idea of a familiar theme that is then embellished to provide variety. While there's no implication that all cultures are the same--quite the opposite--one does get a sense here of common goals and priorities around the world. Making music with others creates a literally harmonious mood. Feeding people is a way of saying "Welcome" and "I love you" and "Share my bounty," no matter where you are. It's nearly impossible to come away from reading through these stories and recipes without a feeling of warmth for the ordinary people who created them, wherever they may be.
The cook must be willing to match this extensive preparation with a willingness to improvise, experiment, and adapt to the unfamiliar; even the most adventurous novice might want to have someone more experienced around to offer suggestions. Many instructions simply say things like "cook until done" or "add flour until dough is the proper consistency." When preparing the Southern Appalachia-style cornbread, I thought, "Isn't that an awful lot of salt?" I stuck with the recipe and found out that to my taste it was indeed a lot of salt. (Someone from North Carolina might disagree with me.) Later, when baking the honey cake from the Romanian Jewish New York section, I halved the recipe, tossed in candied orange rind and currants instead of walnuts and raisins, and baked it in a loaf pan. It came out perfectly. With this cookbook, I learned, it's particularly important to pay attention to your instincts (or your own cultural training) and make whatever changes seem appropriate. And each set of recipes makes a complete meal for six people. Williams notes that few of us usually have frequent opportunities to cook for six, so most of the recipes are easily halved and all make good leftovers. To further assist the cook, the book's website will have downloadable shopping lists for each recipe, and the back of the book has a list of which recipes are (or can be easily modified to be) Kosher, vegetarian, and vegan.
It's not an unfamiliar lesson: many of my music teachers have taught me just the same thing. "Authentic" is a slippery term, as Williams notes, and can too easily become prescriptive rather
than descriptive. I'll take Duke Ellington's advice instead: "When it sounds good, it is good."
Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 2006
This is the second collection from Found magazine. Found has a very simple premise - it features photographs of notes and other detritus found by people across the country. Everything from grocery lists to greeting cards to lost pet ads to love letters to post-its are presented here with a brief explanation of when and where they were found. The book is divided thematically, with a whole section of letters to Santa, a whole section of love letters, etc.
The result is much more profound that it might sound. It is a combination of art, humor, psychology, and archeology. Seeing these everyday notes taken outside of their context puts them in a whole new light, and gives us insight into the private lives and thoughts of the people around us. Some are just bizarre (like the note that says "Today is my grandmother's 100 birthday AND there is a raccoon in my bathroom. Open at 3pm"), others are hilarious. One of my favorite pieces was an excerpt from a very serious legal contract that breaks into the absurd, including clauses about feeding mythical beasts, and quoting Jay-Z lyrics.
Then there are the disturbing ones. The suicide notes are especially heart breaking, as are the letters from jilted lovers to their ex's. One piece is a police report from a riot cop assigned to a protest in San Francisco in 2003. The officer writes lines like 'I skillfully parried [the protester's] move and struck him twice in zone one. The coward then ran into the crowd." So, who's supposed to protect us from you, Mr. Officer?
What I like most about Found is it doesn't take an ironic or mocking attitude. For the most part it treats the found items for what they are - a voyeuristic glimpse into the life and thoughts of a total stranger. A thousand years from now, when whoever is left on this planet is trying to figure out what the hell happened to us, Found is as good a guide as any into the experiences, desires, and psychosis of Americans in the 21st century. For those of us still in 2006, it is a wonderful way to better understand ourselves and our neighbors, and is a hell of a lot of fun, too.
-Patrick Sean Taylor
The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community
The Great Turning is a book that I probably would have loved ten years ago - big on non-specific macro-theories about how we need a cultural shift to avoid an impending ecological crisis. But author David Korten is apparently so convinced that his audience will agree with him that he sees no need to provide any details about how these changes will take place.
Korten claims that the alternative to "empire" and its culture of domination is a thing called "earth community," while supplying very few examples of what "earth community" is. Maybe I'm just growing cynical but it seems like I have read one too many books that painstakingly detail the symptoms of an environmental crisis and then list "solutions" that the average reader has no power to enact.
Its disappointing then that in the entire book Korten only provides two examples (a ranch in Costa Rica where a manager gave employees more autonomy and saw improved performance as a result and the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) a sustainable business network Korten works with) of how cooperative structures might promote a "great turning" towards community in the face of ecological challenges. One of the problems with Korten's "earth community" argument is that communities are complex, nuanced undertakings which rely heavily on details. Ask anyone who has lived at an intentional community whether details like decision-making, ownership, communication, and economic structures matter. Even the less all encompassing community structures and organizations that we may belong to can succeed or fail based on small details.
The lack of clarity and detail is all the more disappointing given Korten's background and credentials. Korten has a long history in the field of economic development and has been involved in environmental and global justice movements since as early as 1992 when he was a delegate at the Earth summit in Brazil and also played in key role in organizations like the International Forum on Globalization (IIFG), BALLE and YES magazine. With so much experience over the last 15 years one would expect more analysis of the potential for community both in social change movements as well as his own community in Washington state.
The material that Korten does provide can best be described as interesting but inconsistent. He includes his own mini-version of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States recounting historical incidents from the founders to the current administration but he never explores any one historical incident very long. He also explores the issue of the culture of empires starting in ancient times. But many of the arguments he makes about culture have already been thoroughly explored in Daniel Quinn's Ishmael series nearly 15 years ago, or more recently Thom Hartman's Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight.
I really can't argue with the central thesis of Korten's book that successfully meeting the political and environmental challenges of the future will require a more cooperative era with different values and culture. But the book never really helps us to understand how such a scenario might take place. Community or the lack thereof is rooted in the places where we live. It's fascinating therefore that Korten never once mentions the community where he himself lives.
David Korten is a respected writer and organizer who has made many contributions to our understanding of globalization and corporate power in his previous writing. I'm sure fans of his will want to read this latest work. People who have never read him may want to start out with his earlier books on economics: When Corporations Rule and The Post-Corporate World
Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal
The New Press, 2006
"I stress immediate withdrawal, as opposed to various proposals for a timetable for withdrawal, gradual withdrawal, or withdrawal when the situation in Iraq has 'stabilized' at some undefined point in the future." With this single sentence Anthony Arnove clearly states the premise of his book. Arnove steps into the raging political debate about when and how this war will end - A bold undertaking especially for a book that is a mere 105 pages of text.
Arnove, an activist and freelance writer, begins by arguing that assertions made by the Bush administration and the media at-large led to a false sense of urgency and incited within the American public the unchallenged belief that war with Iraq was justified. He then contrasts these early feelings of public support with a brutal picture of daily life in Iraq since the U.S. occupation began. "Physical insecurity for Iraqis has greatly increased...At any moment, Iraqis know their doors may be battered down by U.S. or British troops, with family members humiliated, arrested and taken off to be detained, tortured or murdered." Arnove then relates stories from articles taken from the New York Times and Washington Post describing how U.S. soldiers treat the Iraqi people with unbridled cruelty. The impact of U.S. and British occupation, according to Arnove, places the Iraqi people in a more precarious situation than they were in prior to the start of the war.
Throughout this book Arnove stresses that this war is a "war of choice" one fought for economic and political reasons, despite the assertions of the Bush administration to the contrary. While Arnove paints a compelling picture that is emotionally and viscerally wrenching, he fails to provide an opposing viewpoint until the final chapters of this book. Arnove's myriad qualifications - he is an activist with a PhD and MA from Brown University - imply that this book will be a well-balanced argument for immediate withdrawal that provides an in-depth analysis of the opposing viewpoint. Arnove is an antiwar speaker and, as a result, this book reads like an extended speech.
It is not until the final chapters of this book that Arnove presents the reader with "eight reasons why the United States should leave Iraq immediately, addressing common arguments why the United States needs to 'stay'..." The primary reason Arnove asserts for immediate withdrawal is that the Bush administration invaded Iraq based on a "series of deceptions." In contrast to the argument that Iraq housed weapons of mass destruction and was a training ground for terrorists, Arnove points out that no cache of weapons has ever been found. He then asserts that Iraq posed no real threat to the United States. This section provides valid arguments against occupation and could have been used as the book's underlying outline. Instead, it is relegated to a few pages at the end.
Overall, Arnove does provide compelling reasons to withdraw but those reasons need more support. Further examination of the opposing viewpoint, the one in favor of continued occupation, needs to be expanded. Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal is a relevant work and adds substantially to the raging argument about whether the United States should withdraw or continue to occupy a foreign country with seemingly negative results.
The Modern Amazons: Warrior Women On-Screen
Dominique Mainon and James Ursini
Limelight Editions, 2006
At first, I was skeptical. As much as I criticize television and film, I've had a consistent weakness for on-screen women who could feasibly break through the TV set and kick my ass. Growing up, I wanted to be Wonder Woman, Cat Woman, and later, Sarah from Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Fairytales in which the princess waited ever-so-patiently in a tower for rescue never did much for me. Despite my penchant for violent, angry, and wicked women in film, I had low expectations for a book on the subject.
If there were ever a case for not judging a book by its cover, this is it. The cover to this 400-page text is splashed with images of female characters that are either gasping for breath after raging against the enemy, or in mid-orgasm. Hard to tell. But once inside, the authors make it known that they are not out to just titillate adolescent boys with pix of sweaty, sword-wielding women.
In the introduction, Mainon writes that their, "main goal in writing this book is to document and explore some of the many interesting action roles played by women actors over the years and note some of the trends and patterns, including the folkloric origins of many characters" (xxi). This book doesn't exist to simply celebrate female actors. It sets out to analyze the characters, films, and even genres.
Mainon and Ursini provide a set of guidelines for characters to be classified as warrior women. To be included in the book, the character must have several of the following traits: "fights in an aggressive and physical manner when required," "not merely a sidekick to a man," "part of a female-run organization or culture," "displays some level of kinship and sisterhood with her own gender," "uses classic warrior woman weapons and tools," "dressed and adorns herself in warrior garments," "independent and doesn't need a man to save her," "lives or comes from a 'lost civilization,'" and "may be homosexual, bisexual, or simply not desire men" (11-16). Using this classification, the authors cover characters appearing in films from 1914 to 2005.
Mainon and Ursini analyze, just to name a few, Lara Croft, Tank Girl, Xena, and Foxy Brown. They devote about twenty pages to Kill Bill alone, comparing The Bride to Elle Driver, her doppelganger. A whole chapter is dedicated to giant female characters that appear in mostly B-movies.
In a section about The Fifth Element, the authors write, "It is not accidental that in the early part of the movie the priests, who are involved in the ritual of salvation, and the scientists, who seek to reconstitute this being, all speak of the entity using masculine pronouns. They are unable to break out of the cultural box, which assumes that any thing with that power must be male" (179). The authors maintain this feminist perspective throughout this massive text. Following the chapter on superheroes, they discuss the "occupational hazards of superheroines" by bringing up a debate over whether or not female characters in comics suffer more than male characters. They note that, "Male heroes may suffer, but they generally come back stronger, their tragedy improving them in some other way. Women in comics don't get over their own rapes the way men get over watching their rapes take place" (165).
I was amazed by the breadth and depth that the authors covered in The Modern Amazons—cartoons, superheroes, vampires, blaxploitation films, you name it—writing about everyone from the well-known (Buffy) to the obscure (Ilsa) to the old standby (Pippi). This book provokes thought, which leads the reader to look at the films and shows discussed within in an entirely new way.
Ms. Films DIY Guide to Film and Video: Third Edition
Niku Arbabi, Editor
Parcell Press, 2006
Check out any film list these days - the American Film Institute's 100 Best American Movies, or an Oscar history of Best Picture nominees - and what you may already suspect will be quickly confirmed: Films by women are conspicuously absent. Beeban Kidron, director of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004) once said that film is the telling of our stories - and given that women make up less than ten percent of all directors, it's alarming how few of our stories are shaping the cultural psyche.
The essayists of the Ms. Films DIY Guide more than recognize the need to motivate women to express themselves as the creators of cinematic narrative. While the guide will be useful for any burgeoning filmmaker (regardless of gender), the number of essays authored by women is particularly inspiring for the female auteur - as is the story of Ms. Films, a non-profit organization that gives women the tools to break into filmmaking. They've grown from a small event to a buzzed-about annual festival and overall resource center for women creating media.
The tone to this zine-styled guide is uncommon to the more conventional "introduction to film" books. It's insiderly, almost conspiratorial, initiating conversations that digress from formal film subjects as story rights and storyboards, timecode and lighting, marketing and post-production (though some of these traditional topics are touched upon too). Pat Doyen's article on cameraless filmmaking explores the process of scratching and painting on film directly - a win-win medium for filmmakers operating on a low budget who are especially interested in the experimental. Later, Doyen presents a thoroughly readable and rousing overview of Super-8 film, from its perks (cheap, accessible, distinctive) to how to shoot with it (lots of light!) to how to edit it, à la DIY (project the film onto a white surface while taping it with a video camera). These essays are a highly creative and fun supplement to standard textbook fare, and offer adventuresome, road-less-traveled approaches for the filmmaking novice, from organizing your own DIY Drive-In to practical strategies for fundraising.
If these pages have a weakness (aside from the occasional typo and weirdly out-of-date filmography of women directors), it's that the edition is too brief. Specifically, I was expecting more first-person articles like Lenn Keller's production diary of her film Sightings (1995) in which she explores the epic multitasking and roller-coaster reality of making a film. (There's also the pure, vicarious buzz for the reader when our struggling filmmaker shoots the killer scene or casts the perfect lead...). Yet however slim this volume may be, it's crammed with ideas, springboards, reference books, a list of film festivals and film festival tips. In short: viva la Ms. Films! For more information, visit their website at msfilms.org.
Pretend We're Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture
Duke University Press, August 2006
As a teenager I was plagued by dreams about friends and family members who had turned into zombies and were trying to get me. My mother always said it was because I watched too many scary movies. But to hear Annalee Newitz tell it in Pretend We're Dead, maybe I was reading too much Marx.
Newitz skillfully guides the reader through over a hundred years worth of pop culture monsters that reflect the horrors of capitalism in the United States. Pretend We're Dead discusses monsters as they appear in novels, short stories, and films in the form of serial killers, mad doctors, the undead, robots, and monsters of the culture industry. In each chapter, Newitz highlights narratives depicting "humans turned into monsters by capitalism. Mutated by backbreaking labor, driven insane by corporate conformity, or gorged on too many products of a money-hungry media industry." The "capitalist culture industry," Newitz explains, generates "gore-soaked narratives of social destruction" right alongside "happy fantasies of self-made men." The gore-soaked narratives, she argues, represent our cultural fears and anxieties about capitalism and physical horrors that manifest as we trudge through life "pretending we're dead."
A good example of how Newitz works it out is found in chapter 3, "The Undead: A Haunted Whiteness." She describes the Wes Craven movie The People Under the Stairs, about a Black teenage boy named Fool who gets trapped in the home of crazy, incestuous rich white people who own the run-down apartment building Fool's family lives in. Newitz interprets the movie as representing resistance to socially constructed monsters (insane rich white landlords) on the part of the inner-city Black folks (Fool and other tenants) and disenfranchised whites (the zombies living in the basement). People is just one of many narratives that Newitz believes stands as "a warning, and a hope" that the monsters capitalism creates can be resisted and destroyed.
Newitz's argument is stimulating, but her knowledge of horror films is what really drew me in. Let this stand as a warning to people who hate knowing the ending of a movie, this book reveals many plot lines. Rather than ruining the movie, Newitz inspired me to rent a few flicks I had missed, like The People Under the Stairs. Occasionally as I was roaming through the author's extensive descriptions of monster movies, I forgot where she was going with her argument. The introduction is a good template of her argument to refer back to, but the book was sorely missing an epilogue.
Like a carnival haunted house, I enjoyed the ride even as a groaned at the occasional cheesy display. Finally, a book to link all my nightmares with my politics.
Issues 2 & 3
In mainstream culture, our models for parents are those portrayed in commercials as frantic, protective, and usually white. The stressed out but selfless mother is shown driving a mini-van or SUV carting the kids to dance or karate lessons. The father, when present in popular media, remains the breadwinner who doubles as Little League Coach. Folks like Ariel Gore, Bee Lavender, Ayun Halliday, and now Tomas Moniz are making the prospect of childrearing more appealing to those of us who retch at the image of family presented by magazines like Good Housekeeping.
Moniz, publisher of the zine Rad Dad, shines a light on the need for men to awaken to their responsibility as fathers. But in "Fathering the World," he expands this idea to include accepting the role of father, whether or not they have biological children. Instead of criticizing the individual, he writes, "the society we live in disempowers men to break from the prescribed role of the 'male' parent, the role that supports patriarchy, capitalism, hierarchy, and authoritarianism!" According to the American Psychological Association, "Fathers who batter mothers are twice as likely to seek sole physical custody of their children than are non-violent fathers." If for no other reason, we need to support men like Moniz who are interested in being fathers out of genuine concern for their children, rather than for selfish, manipulative, and abusive motives.
In his second issue, he addresses the stigma attached to public assistance, the emotional aspects of having a vasectomy, poetry, and a reprint of Alfie Kohn's article on thoughtless praise. Again, I am taken by how this zine covers issues so far out of the consciousness of mainstream ideas of parenting. From my perspective as a resident of Hartford--the nation's second poorest city--I see the need for discussion on public assistance. On television, families are represented as middle-class. On occasion, they may struggle with the possibility of job loss, but rarely does that play on the screen. In reality, most of us are not living in luscious penthouse apartments. When children are added to the picture, the financial situation becomes more important. Rad Dad is unlike television or those magazines found in grocery stores - Moniz tells it like it really is, and not how he might fantasize life as being.
The third issue of Rad Dad includes Moniz's struggle with his child's marijuana smoking and subsequent lying, the importance of storytelling, as well as contributions from other writers. Rad Dad, while humorous, deals with real life questions that range from queer parenting issues to raising a child according to anarchist ideals. I would like to see this zine evolve into a glossy companion to Hip Mama magazine.
In Rough Music, Tariq Ali explains and explores what most of us knew all along: Those in positions of power ignore the real wants and needs of the masses. They always have and they always will, unless of course the masses force the elected aristocracy to hear them. This concept rests unsoundly at the heart of the book. Its focus is upon Blair-era Britain in the dawn (or dusk) of the U.S. crusade against any and all labeled "terrorist," particularly after the ignominious events of September 11, 2001. Through careful analysis and cogent introspection, Ali lends his great talents as a writer and thinker to the task of sifting though the issues facing Britain and the world. His conclusion is certain: the government wages war to ostensibly stop it, yet perpetuates and increases the bloodshed.
Anyone using terms like "power" and "masses" ascends a treacherously slippery slope. Who really holds power? Is there one, unilateral, linear "mass"? And does this power or this mass share the same view, vertically, horizontally and otherwise? Ali clearly avoids generalization. His aim is to examine Blair's response to "terrorism," specifically in the wake of the bombings of July 7, 2005.
He draws parallels between British official response to IRA bombings and current responses to terror acts. In both cases, the government rushed through laws regulating the rights of citizens, in effect curtailing many of these sacrosanct rights. In both cases, Ali contends that terror is not outlawed or in any way hindered. If anything, it grows through the nurturing of bitterness and hatred. It's clear Ali alludes to the U.S.'s habit of obliterating once-impervious bodies of fiercely-guarded civil liberties in the face of fearless (though cowardly, as the President is wont to say) foes. In no instance do we feel any safer. Ali argues we feel more terrified thanks to the government's ceaseless war against (for?) terror. He writes, "When the state uses terror in this fashion it unleashes a parallel response. The cycle of violence continues until a political solution is found."
Ali spends much time looking at media coverage and media's role in the terror-related issues in Britain. As in the U.S., he shows that most journalists and major media outlets rest comfortably in the pockets of politicians. The media of Britain and the U.S., Ali believes, go out of their way to downplay any possible links between terrorist activity and either nation's respective foreign policy. He cuts deep to the chase when he contends, "To explain the cause is not to justify the consequence, but Blair and his toadies should be forced to confront what is now a widely held view across the political divide: the central British role in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and, more broadly, Britain's unquestioning support for the U.S.-Israeli war drive in the Middle East and across central Eurasia, has blown back in the shape of the London terrorist attacks."
Occluding connections between such violence and policy has long been the government and the media's forte; see for instance the issue of Palestine. Iraq is no different. The media and the government it works for would rather we believe terrorists and any who oppose "us" do so out of blind hatred and psychopathic rage. The lines are drawn- "us" versus "them" Their way versus our way. Ali demonstrates that the media of Britain are just as guilty as its U.S. counterpart in perpetuating this myth.
Shoulder to the Precollapse Wheel
Brendan M. Regan
Published by Brendan M. Regan, 2006
Lovers of Turgenev and Dostoyevsky will appreciate the nilhism inherent in Brendan Regan's chapbook Shoulder to the Precollapse Wheel. Written in two sections, Regan's free verse poems play with both page space and divisions while trying to capture the uselessness of life. The first section, "Six Visions of the Apocalypse," focuses on the unhappiness of life with lines like "Sad Earth howls/at night, and it's always night/somewhere" ("Sad Earth Howl") and the second section, "Fuck What's On the Menu - We'll have Wine," describes people seeking to get out of stereotypical molds or break out of the masses, only to have others put them back or destroy their uniqueness which he tells the reader to "[t]reat with: the music of a/soul's ascension above and/out of the grind" ("Days Too Much the Same").
Although he uses some worn wording like "gunmetal gray" ("The Only Viable Option") and "[s]hell-shocked" ("The Only Prayer Left"), Regan also has some surprisingly original phrases like "meathook/reality" ("Living Right Isn't Fun") and "ashen adulthood" ("Days Too Much the Same"). His view is consistent, even when referring to or subtly hinting at various religions, that life is devolving. In "To You, Humanity, Salud," Regan calls "humanity, a flash of/thought, a short/disappointment."
The last poem in the collection captures the essence of Regan's work:
Between green lights in this
city there's an eerie, beautiful silence -
era ending, fossil fuel lifestyle
sputtering, stoic towers continuing to
run, tumbleweed creeping in from the prairie.
The sun will still shine and
we'll make more of its shining.
More of wind and rain.
Night will mean more when
no one can pay the light.
Back to stories, singing,
silent boredom. Way
back into earthbound,
dirt-ground values. ("Tumbleweed Song")
Regan describes an earth that continues the eternal cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth; this time and everything in it is just a blip on the screen, and, far underground, where it can't be seen, nature eats away at society's progress while the people in it keep their shoulders to the wheel unaware of the ultimate collapse of their world. The reader senses not only does Regan not trust the order of the universe, but, like most revolutionaries, he observes the destruction of the earth and also welcomes its ending.
Scissor Press, 2006
Verbicide is a thrice-yearly zine dedicated to indie and punk music, art, and fiction. This issue features interviews with Saul Williams, the Gorillaz, and the two dudes behind Wondershowzen. There are also some stories, reviews, and a piece on artist Amy Conner. I was a little disappointed by the jokey Gorrilaz and Wondershowzen interviews, which stood in sharp contrast with the insightful discussion with Saul Williams. My favorite piece was the story on Chinese Gold Farmers, who are paid pennies an hour to play role-playing games and collect gold, which is later sold for actual hard currency. I've read articles in the Economist and New York Times about these black market economies, but this was the first time someone had bothered to include an interview with an actual Chinese farmer. His description of the racism he encountered online from other players put a different perspective on the whole issue.
Verbicide is commendable for its enthusiasm and efforts to highlight unknown bands, authors and artists. It's definitely worth your time and four bucks, so support independent media and artists buy buying a copy!
-Patrick Sean Taylor
Vignettes of Taiwan
Things Asian Press, 2006
In every country I've traveled to, I've run into an expat like Josh Brown, the author of this book - a little crunchy, a little eccentric, intent on learning about the host country and adapting to it as much as he can, so long as that doesn't include getting a haircut or wearing a button-down shirt.
Brown went to Taiwan by chance, simply because it was cheaper than Japan. He ended up falling in love with its people, culture, heritage, and quirks. In these thirty-odd vignettes, he lovingly describes various facets of Taiwan and his experience there. Brown is a gifted writer, and paints a vivid picture of Taiwan with all of its peculiarities without being patronizing or romantic. Well, maybe a little romantic; I can't see how else he could claim to actually like eating stinky tofu. Most importantly, he doesn't turn the Taiwanese into two-dimensional colorful caricatures. He allows them to keep their humanity, dignity, and individuality.
The book is informative, readable, and entertaining. Its episodic, journal-entry style disturbs the flow a bit, and his prose is occasionally a bit too florid, but not enough to detract from the experience. For the most part he gives vivid descriptions and tells his stories with warmth and humor. He's also a good photographer, and each chapter is illustrated with full-color photos. Vignettes of Taiwan is a terrific first effort from a writer that I hope to see more of in the future.
-Patrick Sean Taylor
With Liberty And Justice For All: A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose
Hudson Street Press, 2005
After Governor Michael Rounds of South Dakota signed a state ban on abortion last March, directly assaulting Roe v. Wade, Paul Chaim Schenck, director of NPLAC (the National Pro-Life Action Center) offered his commendations. He praised South Dakota for refusing "to abide by a deeply flawed and false interpretation of the Constitution, [voting] to restore human and civil rights to all Americans." Kate Michelman's political memoir presents a poignant rebuttal to Schenck's statement, revealing the recurring themes of the anti-choice vision, which appear to be more about paradox than civil liberties. Anti-choice activists and politicians want an end to abortion, but they do not typically support the mechanisms - contraception and sexual education - that will curb its necessity. Their position is to restore constitutional parity among citizens, yet their locus of interest does not address issues of poverty, prenatal and child care, and universal health insurance, where some of the most pressing crises of human rights exist in the United States.
We first meet Michelman as she faces the decision to have an abortion in the pre-Roe days. An economically disadvantaged and single mother of three, she undergoes a degrading interrogation process to convince a board of male doctors she is emotionally unfit to care for a fourth child. (Abortions prior to 1973 were available on a "therapeutic" basis - under state law, a hospital review board could approve an abortion if it evaluated the mother as mentally or medically unable to complete the pregnancy.) In the years that followed Michelman's horrifying experience, she climbed the activist ladder to become the president of NARAL, the National Abortion Rights Action League, a position she held for nearly twenty years. As president, she oversaw NARAL's campaigns to raise pro-choice awareness and momentum in the face of legal cases that foreshadow the situation in South Dakota - such as Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, a case in the late 1980s involving a Missouri law which prohibited the public funding of abortion, and the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which challenged a Pennsylvania law curtailing abortion access. (Webster infamously upheld the ban, granting states the right to restrict abortion. Casey allowed states to impose limitations so long as they did not create an "undue burden" on women.)
Michelman writes with the unmistakable tone of a lobbyist. She is forceful yet respectful to her opponents, searches for ways to create a dialogue with the anti-choice right and shares her strategies to rally Congressional representatives. There is also the backstory of one of the most brilliant sound bites of pro-choice activism. The "Who Decides?" campaign shifted the national discussion away from moral polemics to what is really at stake: the question of who has the final say over reproductive rights - the government or an individual woman.
While the author's objective is to give us a detailed account of her work with NARAL, she also sets out to provide a mainstream audience with a deeper understanding of the pro-choice movement. As such, her occasional omissions in the "big picture" of abortion dull the reader's full engagement with her prose and the history that has brought us to the contemporary debate. For one, the background of Roe v. Wade is never laid out. Nor does the author explain an intact D&E, what politicians call "partial birth" abortion, a non-medical term. Anti-choice politicians describe it as a form of infanticide, and while Michelman clearly takes issue with their sensationalized language, the fact that she does not offer a comprehensive medical counterpoint to anti-choice imagery feels dubious.
At the same time, one can't ignore how incisively these chapters assess the current political climate, in which states have passed more than four hundred restrictions on Roe since 1995. We would also do well to abide by Michelman's vision, which reads like the definitive manifesto of the pro-choice movement. We must stand with a woman no matter what choice she makes, and ensure she can make her choice in health and safety, whether she chooses to terminate a pregnancy or bear a child.
- Michelle Humphrey
Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC)
IPRC, 2006 (?)
For as long as there have been zines, there have been books and zines telling people how they can join in on the fun. So, what purpose does Zine Workshop serve when others have already produced instruction manuals for ripping of copy shops and mailing the product to people around the world?
I wish I had the answer to that one. Zine Workshop is not a bad zine. It is not overly redundant, but it does not do anything to set itself apart either. The layout is beautiful. The IPRC mixes kitschy graphics with interesting fonts that are easy to read. On the flipside, the zine size (half-legal) is not the most portable. They present some aspects of zines that do not usually get enough attention, like the binding, but still could do more with these things. At the end is a section of resources for reviews, distros, and stores. The downside to this is that I could not find a publication date anywhere in the zine. The reader could be quickly frustrated when attempting to make contact with someone who closed down shop. (editor's note: the first Zine Workshop was published in 1998; this is the most recent edition.)
It is a cute zine, don't get me wrong, but I can't imagine paying $2 for a 24-page item that essentially reiterates the information that is already floating around on both the internet and in old zines.