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2009

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Conversations:
What was the best political literature of 2008?

The November 3rd Club community

ERIKA JAHNEKE: Keith Olbermann's Prop 8 Special Comment ... I can only speak for myself, (and I am a huge Olbermann partisan, so bear that in mind), as much as I love the snark and the capacity for dramatic outrage that Affleck and SNL nailed so firmly a few months ago, this Comment was different because it boiled things down to simple concepts that most of us learned as children. Love. Fairness. Respect for the other guy.

Also, he did a marvelous job of tying in other re-definitions of marriage, most notably Loving vs. Virginia (?) and Obama. This part is kind of obvious, but I think it's cool for someone with his trailblazing background in sports broadcasting to stand so firmly against homophobia. Even though I have mostly gotten over my teenaged prejudice against all things athletic, you still don't see that every day. Also, people are linking to it literally all over the world.

MARC SOLOMON: Hard to think of anything better.

ERIKA JAHNEKE: Of course, it owes something to delivery, too, don't you think? It's not usual for Olbermann to not think about being funny, erudite or living up to the Murrow image.

MARC SOLOMON: What's that line from Beckett?  ”Even sincerity is a tactic”

JERRY QUICKLEY: The new Chris Hedges article America's Best and Brightest Have Led America Off a Cliff.

Full Disclosure:  I interviewed Chris Hedges about the article this week and I find the piece particularly resonant right now because it talks about the broad enduring failure of Ivy League schools, and I'm just about to begin a teaching fellowship at Stanford.  If all you have is a hammer...

Also Senator Chris Dodd's speech against the FISA bill last June. My general view of Congress, both parties, is, “a pox on all your houses.”  But Dodd's speech stirred something deep and near forgotten in me related to the American political process - hope. Imagine that, hope from someone other than lil babe jebus... I mean Obama.

RICHARD MODIANO: I second Jerry. All of Hedges' columns from last year are worth reading. He writes with concision and passion and his positions are well-argued. And he was one of the few US columnists who didn't drink the Obama Kool-Aid.

OSCAR BERMEO: Patricia Smith's Blood Dazzler writes in the moment of Hurricane Katrina, from the formation of Katrina all the way to its monstrous after effects on the citizens on New Orleans, from every internal and external point possible. Persona poems written in the voice of Katrina, New Orleans (before and during the storm), former FEMA Director Michael Brown, the 34 victims of St Rita's, and even a local dog left out to weather the storm.

Another point-of-view that Smith pays poetic attention to is the fate of Ethel Freeman, an elderly black woman who died waiting for rescuers to arrive and whose son was forced to leave her body behind for days.  This tragedy came to symbolize the government's inept response to Katrina but, like many symbols, the story and life of Freeman becomes secondary in the eyes of traditional media. Smith shows us the power of poetry by giving her voice and agency.

Utilizing a variety of poetic forms--sestina, ghazal, tanka, abecedarian – and shifts in language that relay power, dread, scorn, and (ultimately) survival, this collection moves past the trend of poetics emerging from large scope tragedies--where the poet writes in simple response to the tragedy but rarely places the poetic speaker in the complexities of the tragedy itself – and sets a new benchmark for the poetics of witness.

LENORE WEISS: Find a copy of Wandering Star by J.M.G. Le Clezio and read it now, a novel that recently was named the 2008 Nobel Prize winner in Literature.

“Wandering Star” is story of two young women, growing up in the turmoil of the Middle East  Esther, a Jewish girl who flees Europe and takes part in the founding of Israel, and Nejma, a Palestinian refugee. This is a narrative that aches with beauty amidst wrenching pain, and uses point of view to relate the story of Israel from two perspectives. The language and deepness of feeling opens the heart to hear both voices, something that politicians and peace summits have failed to do for decades.

Translated from the French by C. Dickson, the author, Le Clezio, was born to a French mother and a Mauritian father who also holds British citizenship and has written more than 15 novels, in addition to essays, short stories, and translations into English. Curbstone Press, based in Connecticut, is a nonprofit press dedicated to publishing “literature that illuminates the issues of our times.”

RAY MCNIECE: A few books, David Sirota's The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour Of The Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street And Washington ; Derek Hess, a Cleveland artist, collaborated with Kent Smith's text for Please God Save Us, a graphic, literally, portrayal of the bush/cheney/neocon debacle http://www.strhesspress.com/. Any of Matt Taibbi's articles in Rolling Stone covering the campaign (maybe too main stream for many on this list)...John Leland's book, Why Kerouac Matters, the lessons of ‘On the Road.’

DEB POWERS: I've been thinking about Taibbi's Rolling Stone articles since this conversation started, and refrained from mentioning them for just that reason. I'm pretty mainstream myself, and admittedly not very well-versed in literature in general. Add to that the fact that because of the nature of my work, I tend to wade hip deep in the more right-wing sites on the net where the typical reader leans toward giving Bush and Cheney the benefit of the doubt and isn't entirely certain that Obama isn't the Antichrist incarnate. What I found was that Taibbi's articles served as good “eye-openers” for people who were just starting to dip their toes into questioning the things they'd been taught and the things they were hearing every day on talk radio. They were a good introduction and counter for people who believe that the mainstream media is hopelessly left-wing and liberal, and are easy to read and understand, unlike a lot of more esoteric literature that leaves folks without a solid college background bewildered and shaking their heads in confusion.

MIFANWY KAISER: A must read is The Wrecking Crew:  How Conservatives Rule by Thomas Frank. It's a devastating look at our situation today.  The subtext of the book  is that in order for the conservatives to stay in power, they have to maintain an underclass  (but we all knew that.  It's the most lucid analysis I've read)

RICHARD MODIANO: Political movies that stood out:

  • The Battle in Seattle
  • Che
  • Der Baader-Meinhoff Komplex
  • Milk
  • Frost/Nixon

Of varying quality, they all stood out because mainstream commercial cinema produces so few overtly political movies.

JERRY QUICKLEY: Clearly there is a film that stands out, head and shoulders above other releases this year. A film that wrestled society's notions of labels to the floor and kicked and spit in our faces.  A film that addressed the burdens of capitalism's expectations as well as what happens when those expectations, longing, raw talent, and the unbridled and extreme greed it breeds, rush headlong into each other. The film also addressed the life threatening destruction inherent in that intersection of violence.  But further, the subtext of the film was how capitalism and the narrow roles assigned to it's supplicants is actually responsible for acts of senseless violence and the subjects (even the able ones) of this morally bankrupt system slowly realized that they can't all win, Not every one of us is going to get the “brass ring”.  No matter our talent, dedication, ability, and desire, the ill math of capitalism and it's hard numbers were put on display in this film to show that there's room for only one winner.  And what happens to the talented losers who become embittered. Well, if you're very talented and very lucky, you will have your story told in a remarkable film.  Ladies and gentlemen, that film is my nomination.  I give you, Kung Fu Panda.

BRIAN DAUTH: Gran Torino,which is to Eastwood what The Tempest is to Shakespeare. (A Perfect World was his King Lear).

TONY WILLIAMS: The Changeling,as an allegorical political film dealing with corruption in high places, the unjust incarceration of an innocent victim (Angelina Jolie), and the torture of kidnapped children, symbolic of those rendition victims flown out to CIA controlled foreign interrogation centers.

The incarceration of the heroine strongly resembles the suspension of basic principles of justice and the lack of “due process” whereby an LA police department can willfully deny basic principles of American justice as well as “fake” evidence.

Yes, I know that Clint is conservative but many conservatives speak up for old constitutional and democratic values now despised by the present representatives of the Republican Party.

Thus the film is multifaceted: bleak, dark, pessimistic, but also affirmative in its depiction of a heroine who will keep searching for her missing son and takes pride in the heroic action he may have performed in his last 24 hours of life.

A political film does not have to be explicit.

BRIAN DAUTH: Tony's analysis is spot on and the best I have read. I am not sure what Clint's politics are now.  The right has disowned him and the left still does not know what to do with him.  When The Gauntlet came out 30 years ago, I thought: this is an action movie that doesn't behave itself and seems unlike what has come before.

People finally realized what a great film it was in the 1990s.  I think Gran Torino and Changeling will be respected properly in about 10 years when other movies start being as brilliant.

TONY WILLIAMS: Thank you, Brian. Clint is actually more complex than most people think and can not be labeled conclusively by any political category.

He is his own person and magical cinematic creation using The Tempest analogy.

However, what we have written here would be enough to start one certain contributor to davekehr.com. frothing at the mouth.

I think The Changeling is much better than the trailer I've seen for Frost/Nixon, with Shayne not nearly approaching the servile nature of Frost, of whom Peter Cook once said, “I saved David Frost from drowning once and regretted it ever since.”

BRIAN DAUTH: What is amazing is that Eastwood has made the two best political movies of the year since neither movie simply confirms the political biases of its spectators, but complicates them, challenges them, and ultimately leaves them strengthened.  They are not the liberal-docu-porn that so many documentaries are.

JERRY QUICKLEY: Someone's been surfing with the wingnuts.

BRIAN DAUTH: Not surfing with the wingnuts, Jerry – just listening to NYC friends gush about their enjoyment of the most recent documentary they saw – I often think their mantra has become: “No I haven't done any community organizing, but I saw the documentary.”  It is not that this problem is new: it is at least as old as De Sica – the artful rendering of social horror/decay to give aesthetic pleasure.  Some documentarians are beginning to look at themselves at the same time that they are looking at the world, and questioning the rules about both the well-made documentary and that when filming they must document and not intervene in what they are filming.

JERRY QUICKLEY: There are few things in the world more annoying than listening to impotent liberals parrot out whatever perceived party line they think has been transmitted by the zeitgeist, liberal or otherwise.  Those people want to make me throw up and not stop. They are the definition and caricature of inaction.  A pox on their houses indeed.  That being said, I hardly think that excesses within the documentary form can be conflated with effete liberals.  Sure, there are occasionally some whack-ass documentaries made that have liberal leanings, but have you seen the shite that considers itself right-wing documentary filmmaking? It's not even like comparing the NY Times to the Washington Times, it's more like comparing all of the NY Times investigative journalism to the New York Post's Op-Ed section.

There are definitely problems in any form, but when I hear phrases like “liberal docu porn,” it sounds a bit precious and one-sided to my ears. Fuck armchair liberals and the Prius they rode in on!  But that being true, double fuck shite right-wing docs.

BRIAN DAUTH: How about with effete liberalism?  As I was riding the subway this morning, I was thinking about Adorno and Benjamin (major influences on my aesthetic writings on film) and about how what they (along with the rest of the gang) warned would happen has slowly and steadily come true.

Somehow the documenting of imperial horrors and domestic social injustices, its subsequent dissemination, and end stage approving consumption has replaced on the ground, collective efforts to change the system (hope Joe the Plumber is not a list lurker –
I just used the “C” word).  Instead of becoming collectivized around actions that redistribute wealth and annihilate the class system, liberals now bond collectively over informed appreciation of documentaries, books, news reports chronicling just how bad things are: a sensibility/sensitivity is the cohesive force rather than concrete actions.  It is a weird form of collectivization that renders untouched the hyper individualization destroying hopes for a just society.

RICHARD MODIANO: I haven't seen any right-wing documentaries. What ones did you have in mind? There are also the “production for use documentaries,” like the videos made by Cop Watch L.A. for use as evidence against police brutality. These are only shown in court and sometimes on the internet. They did make one movie about the 2007 Los Angeles May Day police attacks that's in distribution.

The Robert Greenwald films are another kind of production for use documentary. Most are freely distributed as DVDs and viewable on the internet, and I think one or two have received theatrical distribution. They are very informative and frankly agitational in intent.

Returning to mainstream political features, some seem to me to be didactic or agitational. For example, on armed struggle, Che part one shows how a successful insurgency is carried out, part two shows how an insurgency fails. Der Baader-Meinhoff Komplex shows the failure of urban armed struggle based on terror. For activism/organizing, Milk shows how a movement is started and how it builds, The Battle In Seattle shows how to combine civil disobedience, a mass demonstration and guerilla theater for a particular action. All these movies have end titles or codas about the aftermaths of the events depicted (as does The Changling too, for that matter.) By contrast, movies like The Changling and Frost/Nixon are not agitational, but rather history lessons that draw parallels with the present.

JERRY QUICKLEY: I agree with the points you're making Brian, and even more so with what's implied. The message makers (documentarians) are part of the same self-protecting system they sometimes seek to critique.  While that's certainly also probably true of 100 percent of the people on this list, the difference is admission and awareness.  The vast majority of the documentaries we consume are made by people who are in the top 1 to 5 percent of the world's wealthy elites.  More important than the (relative) wealth of the documentary filmmakers are the distribution channels and methods of legitimization conferred onto all messages designed for mass distribution in the first world.  Namely, wealthy elites self-create a very narrow set of boundaries that define what is legitimate and what can and should be debated.  And films (art, journalism, activism, etc.) that fall outside of those narrow self-serving strictures are not seriously discussed, and if they are discussed at all the debate is around their shaky legitimacy rather than the solvency of their message.

In a sense, Adorno and Benjamin's warning was restated by Barry Michael Cooper when he wrote with some menacing alacrity twenty years ago that, “New Jack City Eats It's Young.”  Ultimately, if we've somehow deluded ourselves into believing that real critiques, inherently revolutionary critiques, of the basic structures of injustice and oppression are likely to come from the upper most economic strata and further that those critiques will be supported by sophisticated, secure, and controlled mass messaging systems, aren't we just revealing our own first world hubris? Are we hoping for change or just ignoring our official collective status as that of Boo Boo tha Fool.

When a legitimate journalist does the most restrained and reasonable thing possible – chucking his shoes at Bush – in the face of nuclear and chemical weapon horror that we've unleashed on Iraq, his behavior is called into question. Only a self-serving and dysfunctional system could even think about questioning Muntadhir Al-Zaidi's actions.  And only a sick and oppressed population could let it's own journalists go on in print and broadcast every day questioning MAZ and his motives, while never calling into question the obvious brutal shortcomings and water carrying of it's own press corps.

Check the mirror.  The problem is us.

RICHARD MODIANO: We are. But what about Cop Watch L.A.? What about the Bus Riders Union, the Labor Strategy Center, MIWON, the Black Riders, Revolutionary Autonomous Communities, South Central Farmers among many other Los Angeles grass roots organizations that document their own struggles? True, it's sometimes with the aid of professional outsiders but “final cut” is in the hands of the organizations.

There are many cheap-and-easy to operate cameras--cell phones, mini-cam-corders, digital cameras that have been utilized by grass roots movements to record their activities. Burning DVDs is easy if not cheap, internet distribution is cheap and easy, so there are alternative methods of distribution, and there is a actual samizdat in America today. Agitation movies made by some of the above groups in Los Angeles find their way all over the world.

JERRY QUICKLEY: Outside of small – often marginally funded if at all – activist circles, none of those groups or their efforts are being discussed or meaningfully debated, even on a MUNICIPAL level in terms of media.  On a state and national level ... please.  This is no way discounting the importance and value of grassroots organizing, rather it is a critique of the ongoing war against grassroots organizing being waged by American media.

Just because you have the funds and ability to make a short film, or even raw video that you then post on the internet, does not mean that you're assured of any audience, not to mention the vastness of and the imperial nature of the digital divide in terms of computer and telecomm resources. 

The act of audience creation is used, or more accurately subjugated to the creation of marketing campaigns and support for approved political agenda.  We have the right to stand on a street corner and scream ourselves hoarse if we choose, but the broadcast medium that is owned by the public has long since been auctioned off for pennies to the elites, and any discussion of the inappropriateness of that gifting of critical national resource is written off as being so marginal as to not be worth discussing on the airwaves that have already been gifted.

Grassroots is important, but weighed against the combined power of co-opted media, it's a bit like light rain falling into the sea.  Net net, the fish don't even know it's raining up there.

RICHARD MODIANO: You said it, brother. I can't argue with a word of that, Jerry. Still, in spite of the forces arrayed against grass roots organizing and their self-produced media, the struggle is worth it (and I know you're in agreement.) After all, your voice goes to Southern California and somebody must be listening.

How to capture, reform or bring down the big media is another question, and I confess that I don't have any good ideas as to how to go about that.

(The following writers contributed to this discussion: Erika Jahneke, fiction writer & blogger; Marc Solomon, Nov3rd columnist; Jerry Quickley, poet, playwright, educator & journalist; Richard Modiano, Nov 3rd nonfiction editor; Oscar Bermeo, poet; Lenore Weiss, Nov 3rd fiction editor; Brian Dauth, film critic; Tony Williams, film critic and educator; Ray McNiece, Nov 3rd poetry editor; Deb Powers, poet; and Mifanwy Kaiser, poet and editor.)