World War Z

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I have always been fascinated by the whole zombie apocalypse trope. The scope for social commentary – are they a metaphor for communists? or mindless consumerism? – is huge. Are zombies still people? Or or we the real monsters? Will science enable us to overcome all the world’s problems? Is it a disease or some sort of punishment? There is so much scope in the “zombie trope” that can be explored. Ultimately, the zombie apocalypse appeals to us because it’s a guiltless way to end this hyper-corporate, profit-for-profit’s sake world that we live in now.

In some ways, it’s surprising that it has taken so long for an actual zombie war book to come out, especially when the first (classical) zombie flick – Night of the Living Dead – was 1968.

But it’s here now and very popular. I was intrigued by it being an “oral history” in the venerable tradition of The Good War by Studs Terkel. To me, this suggested a certain artistry and depth to this book, beyond a simple zombie flick in print. The work of a real connoisseur.

I was mostly wrong.

The problem is that Max Brooks took the path of Tom Clancy instead of the way of say, Stephen Ambrose. This book recounts in verbal anecdotes the history of humanity’s war against the zombies. Fine. But really this method is utilised mostly to obscure the myriad of weaknesses in Brooks’ writing style. It allows him to distract you with the novelty of the a given anecdote (say, fighting zombies underwater) before you get used to it and realise that the idea of fighting zombies underwater stupid and lame. After two or more pages, the stilted, cliched writing becomes too much to bear, Mercifully, Brooks then non sequiturs to the nest story which holds out the promise of zombie excellence.

This leads me to a larger gripe with World War Z: there is no big picture, no message, no real story arc and no personality. It’s fan fiction wearing the garb of high science-fiction. It has not occurred to Max Brooks that “zombies” might be a metaphor for – (purely for example) decaying 21st century, global pollution, or technology destroying fragile human relationships – he’s rudderless. Zombies is simply his way of providing an easy-to-dislike bad guy for his Clancy-esque adventures. Brooks had this chance to gloriously dramatise the entire zombie universe; recreate it as his own and he totally failed. He failed to see much less realise the potential of his book.

His zombie world is very much a world of cliche and clumsy national stereotypes. The Scots really like bagpipes; Americans like individualism, classic rock and the stock market.   In a book which implies that humanity unites to face the zombie threat, Brooks is obsessed with nationalism. The “extreme” cases of nationalism are singled out: apartheid South Africa, North Korea, Israel and Cuba are highlights in a world full of only America with references to Russia, China, Canada, France, and Germany. Each nation is trapped in it’s own cliche-ness. Here’s this epic war where everything changes and at the end Brooks has nothing to offer except a vague, pathetic reference to the Dow Jones index climbing back a few points every day.

All that just to restore Wall Street? Great

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Rogue One, a spoilers-laden review

I feel bad for criticising this movie. Really, I do: I even feel guilty. More then ever, the challenge of making a new Star Wars movie was on display. They tried so dang hard – you can tell – and they still didn’t quite get it right.

The truth is that with Star Wars being “mainstream” now, it is impossible to please all the different groups of movie watchers. The attempt to please all of them, once again, killed it.

Rogue One is a slavish, obsessive monument to those-like me-who worship the original movies, and only the original movies. The costumes and outfits are copied directly from the original movies; even some clips from A New Hope are spliced into this new movie. Never has so much effort been put into recreating the look and feel of a movie made so long ago. Another nice touch is that they noticed that in making the original movies, Lucas cribbed off of the WWII movies that where being churned out at the time (ranging from Casablanca to 633 SquadronThe Guns of Navarrone and The Battle of Britain); and so they did the same. Certain scenes, certain characters and costumes riffed (visually) off of Saving Private Ryan and any movie that has been made about the Battle of Britain and the Resistance.

Did they succeed here? Sort of: it proved to me that they had done their homework, that they appreciated why original fans of the movies loved the originals so much.

Another plus is that “the Force” is a religion/philosophy again, rather than a crude, biologically-driven magic. The visuals are rich and they succeeded in creating new worlds for Star Wars fans to explore. The space battle scenes were for the most part very well done; again, they went through and asked themselves: “What made it good?” And did their best to recreate that.

Here’s the problem: there is no character development, no depth in the plot, no meaningful ‘message.’ Put another way, Rogue One still hasn’t figured out that Star Wars is mythology. Rogue One is a Star Wars adventure, hoisted by its own petard of catering to lowest-common-demoninator movie audiences. Seriously: I can’t remember a single character’s name, nor could I describe their personality/motivation. No character growth. Nada. We have all come to expect this from Hollywood, but it’s worse because all of the characters are treated to dramatic, emotional deaths (oh, spoilers alert). This falls flat when you can’t even recall why they are their in the first place. Some major characters literally appear out of the blue. No explanation or backstory at all. All the characters are treated like we are already totally familiar with them.

The other item that bears some comment is the CGI insertion of characters from the original movie. Thus a young Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing appear digitally rendered with voice actors. Aside from the creepy “uncanny valley” effect that’s in full force, it shows a certain laziness in the movie makers who probably could have at least given a college try to tastefully excluded the characters. Carrie Fisher’s digital appearance is especially forced and annoying. Peter Crushing, as Grand Moff Tarkin, was also poorly done….could they not have simply shown him from behind; have him stare out a window or look at a screen or something?

Darth Vader makes a few appearances, and on the whole was well done. In the ending scene, Vader is in full attack mode on some hapless Rebel soldiers. It’s super cool. Except that it’s  basically an orgy of instant gratification syndrome. There was no sense of build-up or restraint.

 

And that’s really the whole deal with this movie: it’s instant gratification.

 

Foucault’s Pendulum

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This is the definitive Thinking Man’s Dan Brown.

But it’s much more than that: it’s a meditation on the search for meaning in our lives. It’s an intellectual proving ground for ideas on language. One of the reviews on the back cover describe the book as “a magical mystery tour of the Western mind.” And that does ring true. Eco artfully, playfully mixes and matches all the conspiracies, secret orders of the past 2000 years into one single book. Templars meet ancient Celts and Egyptians, the Assassins meet the Masons, who meet Hitler…it’s all here, brilliantly presented.

Eco is witty and deep, well-researched (massively, and impressively, in fact) and erudite. I have never spent so much time looking up words, phrases, people and ideas. And they are all real figures, real ideas. Mystery, meets historical puzzle, meets novel.

I highly recommend this book: it’s fun, dramatic and very smart.

A Dirge for Libertarians

There is a longstanding, positive conception of what it means to be American. It has gone under many names – Jefferson’s yeoman farmers, rugged individualism – and you see it pour through pop culture in the figure of the cowboy and the pioneer. This is the notion that part of being American is a tough, practical self-suffieciency: being a burden to others is shameful. It’s a vision of Americanness as scrappy, hard and entrepreneurial: not stoic, but seasoned. Clear-sighted and bright-eyed with calloused hands. It is under attack.

I am going to call it “Crockettism” – as in Davy – and it must be distinguished quite vigorously from “capitalism,” “neoliberalism,” “libertarianism,” and the dubious intellectual project of Ayn Rand. Each of these terms come with their own intellectual history and set of ideas. None of them are “notions” about what it means to be American; they are technical terms which date to the 20th century, and therefore are distinctly separate from what it means to be American. Rather, it is the notion of Crockettism that has played into the widespread acceptance of “capitalism,” “neoliberalism” and”libertarianism.”

Crockettism is a “wedge issue” in that our attachment to it has been used for political gain  on the economic front; its equivalent on the social front, for example, is abortion. Huge numbers of Americans vote Republican every year in the name of Crockettism. It’s clearest political, contemporary articulation is libertarianism, which essentially occupies the position of “socially liberal and economically conservative.” This is a gross characterisation, but I feel like it has to be made in order for our own clear thinking on this topic. Anytime somebody says “I don’t want the government telling me what to do” that is libertarianism. Capitalism in a technical sense, simply refers to private ownership of capital and its use as the basic engine of economic activity. Straightaway, we can tell that no American political party is against “capitalism.” I include the Green Party and Bernie Sanders, and progressives in general, in this statement. Again, a distinction must be made between capitalism (Adam Smith) and neoliberalism, a very different beast.

Neoliberalism is the set of economic ideas and policies that originate with the writings of Frederick von Hayek, an Austrian who traumatically encountered the ideas of Milton Keynes in the ’30s. This has been the ruling ideology of the United States since Reagan’s Administration; it includes Clinton’s and Obama’s terms. Also known as “Austerity,” and “trickle-down economics” it is in fact an extreme pro-corporate, pro-elite set of ideas which is the true target of progressive figures like Bernie Sanders. It’s privatisation for privatisation’s sake, deregulation for the sake of deregulation and hero-worship of robber-barons for the sake of robber barons, er, I mean Captains of Industry. It sees government as a strangulation of enterprise; it has a telling connection to the adolescent ideas of Ayn Rand. Anytime somebody uses the parable of a rich guy buying and maintaing a yacht and how this employs people, or a crude allusion to “if we shouldn’t feed the wildlife because it makes them dependant, then the same applies to people,” that is neoliberalism.

As you can see, it has little to do with our cherished notion of Crockettism. Since Reagan, who instituted tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, deregulation and privatisation, we have seen a decline in the American middle class. Meanwhile, CEO pay has exploded along with corporate profits. The American work force has become more efficient and productive, yet works ever-increasing numbers of hours. We live in the most inquisitions society of all time; a handful of individuals and corporate control the vast majority of the wealth in this country. Thus, when somebody is against the redistribution of wealth, or resents welfare recipients for “getting something for nothing,” they are implicitly ignoring the current redistribution of wealth that is taking place in this country. That is, a transfer of wealth upward from the middle class. It gets even more ironic because even as conservatives and libertarians fret over taxation, it is the reality that the wealthiest Americans and businesses have escaped the tax burden. A vote for the Republican party directly supports a taxation system which puts billionaire paying as much in taxes as their secretaries. This, combined with a corporate system that pursues profit-maximazation above all else explains the decline of the American middle class.

Crockettism is under attack from profit-maximaization and the subversion of democracy by corporations which find buying government support through lobbying an excellent bargain. Adam Smith and Davy Crockett would not approve of Rupert Murdoch and the sinister manipulation of minimum wage laws by Wal-Mart. Americans for Prosperity and Citizens United have little to do with our own self-reliance. It comes down to what sort of society you want to live in given the current realities of our society. I think we can agree that Jefferson’s yeoman farmers is not a realistic option. Think of it like this: do you want a country of strip malls and Wal-Marts? Or do you want a country of hipster downtowns? It’s a simplification, but it’s the essence of your choice. Society is mutual cooperation, not about “the war of all against all” which conservatives seem to relish so much.

A counter-point might be government over-reach; the libertarian anxiety about “tax-and-spend” policies. First of all government is dedicated to the well-fare of its citizens, not profit. No matter how clunky or corrupt, government remains accountable to us, even if only in the abstract, the citizenry. A corporation must mindlessly pursue short-term profits, no matter the cost to human individuals, our democracy and society, and our fragile environment. Put another way, the unwieldy intuition of government is our only recourse against corporate oligarchy. If you want a society of strong, independent individuals the first step is restoring a certain economic/income equality which did actually exist during during the post-WWII years in this country. The Republican legacy is just as much “big-government” as the Democrats; the truth is that our government is in the hands of corporate influence, and both political parties are beholden to a handful of wealthy donors. How the Republicans managed become the party of Crockettism in the minds of Americans is beyond me. Is it because Reagan often appeared in a cowboy hat? Looking at the facts, the Republicans are more reliable the party of fossil fuels, gross military expenditure and creeping theocracy, not plucky individualism. Look at their record on surveillance, torture and the environment.

It’s a complex, painful issue. It asks you to see “beyond the horizon” if you will, of our everyday, concrete world, where the poor person is poor because they are lazy (and that is emotionally satisfying, like big cigar). The failure of identity politics, the clumsy, flawed functioning of the welfare state has many critics – and I agree with these critics. I just cannot fathom support for the Republican Party based on these ideas. It’s inexplicable to vote for a (born rich) billionaire who has gamed the system over and over again in the name of personal responsibility and hard work. Watch as the Republicans pull the levers of Big Government in the name of Small Government and Freedom. Watch as our rights are stripped away in the name of patriotism. Already, the bedrock foundations of democracy, be it First Amendment rights, or voter suppresion, or fake news is destroying what little is left of our democratic heritage. Clearly, Trump only values people based on their support for Trump. The Libertarian support for Trump will do serious damage to the concept of small, efficient government to everybody’s detriment.

By allowing our sentiments of Crockettism to vote for Trump, we may have ended the last vestiges of Crockettism itself.

 

The White Castle

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I loved Snow. I loved how Pamuk crafted both a riveting novel of love, espionage and drama, and at the same time was leaping into the breach of trying to explain the West to the East and vice versa. Pamuk was telling a story and seeking to accomplish something intellectually powerful. And I have been trying to get back to that Orhan Pamuk ever since. I’ve read My Name is Red, which is very, very good, but not equal to Snow, and A Strangeness in My Mind, which was sweetly sad and fell totally flat for me.

The White Castle – Pamuk’s first novel – held some promise because of its tantalising, symbolic title (echo of Kafka’s The Castle) and a back cover which hinted at an East-West exchange of knowledge.

And again I was disappointed. Far from a rumination about why the Ottoman Turks failed to modernise, or embrace science, or have a Renaissance of their own, this is more a dreamy tale about mixed identities. It is much, much closer (in terms of thematic preoccupation and writing style) to A Strangeness in My Mind, than My Name is Red or Snow.

The basic plot is that a young man of the Renaissance: Venetian, fairly wealthy, newly educated in the early science, gets captured on Turkish pirates and brought to Istanbul. As an educated man, he is spared from heavy physical labor, and gets noticed by a pasha, or what we would call a Duke or an Earl. While working for the Pasha, he meets a man who physically resembles him in every respect. This man – who like the narrator/main character we never get a real name – is also a learned man interesting in science.

These two main characters ostensibly set out to get the Sultan to embrace “science.” But we never really get to that. This book is about how they are psychologically different and the same. They switch identities at the end; it’s about how little “science” and “progress” have to do with what we really need or want as human beings. In the end, the Turkish army, assisted by the mechanic contraption that our two heroes have devised, fail to take the “white castle,” symbol for something pure, esoteric and good.

In all honestly, I want to blame the translation. Something about the tone; some vague sense of repetitiveness; is this really the author’s intent? Is this some favoured device in Turkish literature? Every time I pick up a book from Russia (like Dostoyevsky) I always wonder if I like or dislike it because of the translation. Keep that in mind.

The subplot of “why didn’t the Ottomans modernise alongside western Europe?” Did provoke my own thoughts on this rather important question. In brief: their strict feudal structure combined with the absolute strictures of Islam. Western Europe, while feudal, did have intellectual and actually existing alternatives to the feudal structure. There where the Italian and Dutch city-states, especially Venice, which operated on republican lines of civic virtue. These where backed by the classical tradition. This means opens up physical and psychological spaces for experimentation. In The White Castle, our heroes compete – along side fools, magicians, clowns, etc – for the attention and favour of the Sultan. One sees how this need to appeal to the Sultan’s personal whims (he enjoys stories about fantastic animals!) essentially turns our heroes into charlatans themselves. They where never that scientific to begin with anyway.

I would very seriously enjoin you to read Pamuk, but his work, at least for me, is very hit-or-miss.