7/26/13

Rand Paul: The Worst Politician in America.

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Rand must get some of his ideas from beyond the galaxy! 

A few years ago I was in Amsterdam, where I struck up a conversation with a young Dutchman named Hans. I enjoyed his animated observations of peoples from around the globe and his razor-sharp political analyses of world events. Out of the blue, Hans uttered this observation and question: “In the Netherlands, we pass laws to control corporations, but we let people do what they want. In the United States, it looks to me like you let corporations do what they want, but you control the people. Is this correct and, if so, can you explain to me why?” What more could I say beyond,  “Yes, and no I can’t.” The Dutchman nailed it.

I mused on this encounter recently when I was at the gym and a friend asked me who got my vote for being the biggest disappointment in all of American politics.  Now that’s a loaded question! Where does one even begin? American politics is filled with loathsome, inept, and deplorable creatures. Look up the word “buttocks” and the first definition is Eric Cantor. Harry Reid is a synonym for ‘sclerotic.’ Mitch McConnell is to the right of Mussolini, David Vitter is dumber than gravel, Michele Bachmann escaped from the asylum, Rick Scott is why the word “creep” was invented, Anton Scalia represents the Vatican with such naked fervency he’s in danger of losing his U.S. citizenship, and Clarence Thomas is rumored to be a fully owned subsidiary of Scalia, Inc. Then there’s the American Svengali, Barack Obama, who has mesmerized millions of liberals into believing he’s one of them without actually having paid any attention to them whatsoever.  But in the end, my vote goes to Rand Paul. Not because the most corrupt, amoral, or dumbest politician in the land, but because he fails the simplest task of all: he can’t even do nothing.

Before you jump on me for bad syntax, let me explain. Paul calls himself a libertarian and says that government should stay the hell out of people’s lives. That’s his main (only?) appeal. Lots of Americans hate government, taxes, and regulations. Paul’s bad-boy libertarianism appeals to the anarchist fantasies of so many Americans that even those smart enough to know better–a smaller number than one might presume–occasionally find themselves nodding in agreement. The problem is that Rand is the Wizard of Oz—all smoke and mirrors. He doesn’t believe what he says; it’s just a ruse to trick people into thinking he’s on their side. Has it escaped the feeble minds of Paul supporters that the Great Libertarian Phony introduced a bill that would outlaw all abortion and define life as beginning with conception? Or that he opposes gay marriage? Or that the guy who says he wants the U.S. to stop giving foreign aid and going to war faithfully votes for whatever military budget that is put before him? Or that he’s against immigration reform because it doesn’t “secure” U.S. borders? How hard is it to shut up and do nothing if you claim that’s what government ought to do?

I suspect that Rand embodies the true spirit of American libertarianism. That is to say, libertarianism as practiced is little more than a temper tantrum, not a serious political ideology. Few self-proclaimed libertarians actually believe much beyond wanting to have unrestricted access to guns and tax dodges.  What would true libertarianism look like? Probably something like the Netherlands, except with more guns. If you really don’t think government has any right to interfere in people’s lives then every woman can make up her own mind about abortion, drugs should be as legal as guns, sodomy among consenting adults is nobody else’s business, government (state, federal or local) should sanction the marriage of anyone who buys a license, prostitution would be legal, workers seeking jobs should freely cross borders in search of them, and the First Amendment ought to be interpreted broadly in matters of appropriate speech, dress (or undress), film, print, web, and music content. True libertarianism would mean a society in which we stop trying to “prevent” much of anything insofar as individuals are concerned, and one sanctions only public harm, not private preferences. In essence, one can be as stoned or drunk as one wishes, as long as one doesn’t go on to drive a car or rob a bank.

Rand Paul doesn’t believe this. I’m not sure I’m in favor of all of this either, but I’ve never claimed the libertarian mantle and he has. That makes me inconsistent, but it makes Rand Paul a charlatan and a hypocrite. All hail Rand Paul–the worst politician in a land of political rogues. His old man must be proud. Too bad Hans is Dutch; he’d be a candidate worth supporting.

7/24/13

The Nines Worth a Video Watch

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THE NINES (2007; video release 2012)
Directed and written by John August
Destination Films, 100 minutes, R (language)
* * *

The concept of the great chain of being is Platonic in origin, but proved so attractive that it became a basis of Christian ontology. In its simplest form, the great chain of being divides all things into an ascending hierarchy. Religions generally place God outside of the reality pyramid and humans at the top of the created order. John August’s clever film­–recently released on DVD–begins with perplexing premises. What if the great chain is wrong? What if God is a ten and humans a mere seven on the creation scale? What if there are some nines floating about the world, beings with the power to create, manipulate, and destroy? What if one of them suffers from supernatural amnesia and doesn’t realize the games he’s been playing? And what if the best we sevens–I won’t spoil the identity of the eights–can aspire to is a Candide-like hope that all things will turn out for the best in this best of all possible worlds?

The Nines uses the theme of “knowing” to probe the various scenarios a nine could unleash. The film takes place in three acts, “The Prisoner,” “Reality Television,” and “Knowing,” with Ryan Reynolds the lead actor in each scenario (and several minor roles as well). He plays, variously, a famous but psychologically unhinged actor that has run afoul of the law (think Robert Downey Jr.); an ambitious TV script writer trying to get his show produced; and an ordinary family man who designs video games. Each act is a triad between Reynolds, Melissa McCarthy, and Hope Davis, with McCarthy variously serving as Reynolds’ agent, best friend, and wife; and Davis as temptress, Machiavellian nemesis, and guide. Elle Fanning also appears in each act, twice as a mysterious mute and once as Reynolds’ daughter. You’ll also see personalities such as Octavia Spencer, Dahlia Salem, David Denman, and Ben Falcone in cameos.

The central dilemma of the film is whether Reynolds will become aware that he has, in essence, become the lead player in his own video game. It’s a relentlessly weird film that falls through the genre cracks–it’s part psychological drama, part science fiction, part tongue-in-cheek spoof of belief systems, part mystery, and part rom-com, yet it’s none of these. It mainly plays like one of those odd Neil Gaiman stories where Olympian gods live in the world and hold down ordinary jobs. The film certainly challenges viewers and did next to nothing at the box office–just $63,000 in the U.S. market and only $131,000 worldwide. I guess audiences don’t want to pay for ambiguity, but I found it a fascinating way to spend a hundred minutes. Who are the nines? Are they angels and demons, Olympian gods, the Greek Demiurge, or something like Star Trek’s Q-Continuum? You take a look and get back to me!

Rob Weir

7/22/13

Andrew Erdman Brings Vaudeville Back to Life

Queen of Vaudeville: The Story of Eva Tanguay. By Andrew L. Erdman. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-8014-4970-9.

Perhaps the name Eva Tanguay (1878-1947) rings no bells now, but a century ago familiarity with the “Cyclonic Comedienne” would have conferred considerable cultural capital. She was the most famous vaudeville star of the early 20th century and, as Andrew Erdman notes in his fascinating portrait of Tanguay, an ambitious and tempestuous tour de force who was “cyclonic” on many levels. Tanguay was an immediate influence upon Sophie Tucker and Mae West, though in their heydays neither was as renowned as Tanguay. (West’s public persona was modeled on Tanguay’s in much the same way that young Bob Dylan channeled Woody Guthrie.) Erdman also connects Tanguay to Madonna and Lady Gaga in that she was the template for an exuberant female performer who dictated her own terms and built an image centered on sexual innuendo and strategically exposed flesh.

As the late historian Warren Sussman (1927-85) observed, the early 20th century saw a cultural shift in which one’s character mattered less than one’s personality. This was the very foundation of a celebrity culture that’s often anchored more in likability (or notoriety) than socially significant achievement. Celebrity is also more malleable, and Tanguay was one of the first to understand that it is an invention and, if one seeks to stay in the public eye, a series of reinventions. Erdman presents Tanguay as an unlikely candidate for celebrity. She was born in the English-speaking Eastern Townships of Qu├ębec, but moved to Holyoke, Massachusetts, when she was six. The family struggled when paterfamilias Joseph, a doctor, died when Eva was just eight. His death indirectly led to her stage career; Eva entered a Holyoke amateur contest to compete for its one-dollar first prize. She won wearing a dress fashioned from an umbrella, the first of many outlandish costumes for which Tanguay was noted. From that point on, Tanguay was also considered a Holyoke native daughter, and the city reveled in her successes and periodic homecoming performances.

Erdman presents Eva as a girl whose ambition vastly outstripped her talent. By most accounts, Tanguay was hardly the best singer, dancer, or comedienne on the circuit, nor was she beautiful­­—“striking” would be a better descriptor. After 1902, though, she became a full-fledged star, after paying her dues as a soubrette and chorine. She first gained renown as the “Sambo Girl” when she donned burnt cork and sang “coon songs” that came to vaudeville via minstrel shows. In 1909, though, she first sang the number that brought her ever-lasting fame, the mildly saucy “I Don’t Care,” which happened to debut at a time in which the “New Woman” was busy dismantling residual Victorianism. Among the many delights of Erdman’s book is his attention to cultural history and his understanding that the first two decades of the 20th century saw numerous borders blur. By then, minstrelsy, vaudeville, burlesque, musical theater, and Broadway were often hard to distinguish. Erdman also knows where the walls remained.

Tanguay embodied many of promises and limitations within an era in which the New Woman was still decades removed from Second Wave feminism. Fame came at a cost. Although Tanguay neither smoked nor drank, made enormous sums of money, and dictated terms to impresarios ranging from B. F. Keith to Florenz Ziegfeld, it was still a man’s world. Like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, Tanguay probably passed off an illegitimate daughter as her sister—the child the product of the first in a series of bad relationships. Male businessmen tolerated Taguay when she filled theaters, but when her looks faded and movies began to supplant vaudeville, she found few willing to put up prima donna attitudes she had honed during her several decades of stardom. In her final days, Tanguay often relied upon the largess of one-time rivals Tucker and West. Timing, in history and on the stage, is everything—Tanguay never made the transition to movies and her star eclipsed just as the Great Depression hit.

Queen of Vaudeville is a wonderful read that takes us inside vaudeville at its height and into its decline. This entertaining biography is at once a work of popular culture, gender dynamics, and social history. Erdman’s book would work well with upper-level undergraduates who can connect the dots between Eva Tanguay and Lady Gaga. --Rob Weir