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Film Review – Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America

March 25, 2017 Leave a comment

Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America (2016; Directed by Matthew Ornstein)

Daryl Davis has a simple question that he wants answered: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” The African-American musician, speaker, and activist has been seeking an answer to that question in a person-to-person manner for over 25 years, and Accidental Courtesy is a documentary film depicting the green shoots and the persistent frustrations of his approach.

Davis is nearly 60 years old, and has performed with major musical artists such as Chuck Berry, Bruce Hornsby, Jerry Lee Lewis, and more over his long career. He has also spent much of his offstage time since about 1990 meeting, conversing with, and even befriending dozens of prominent hardcore racist members of the Ku Klux Klan, the reactionary fraternal American white supremacist organizational movement infamous for its hate-group-level rhetoric, protests, and often violence directed against Jews, Catholics, immigrants, non-whites, and, most prominently, African-Americans like Davis. As Davis explains to the filmmakers in interviews, to seminar crowds at speaking engagements, and to sceptical listeners from across the political spectrum, he hopes through honest good-faith discussion, ordinary politeness, and basic acts of kindness to impress his humanity and decency upon men who inherently deny his claim to both.

Davis has met with some success over the years, making friends with many Klansmen and even gently persuading some of the errors of their racist ways. Those who discard their KKK membership and ideology altogether and credit Davis’ respectful, non-judgemental personal outreach for their conversion gift him with their disavowed Klan robes and paraphenalia, which he keeps in a private collection that he hopes one day to display in a museum. Some might see this practice as strange or even troubling (and some tell Davis so right to his face in no uncertain terms), but for Davis, it constitutes a combination of trophies of victory and a tangible reminder of the deep past and enduring present of white supremacy and social and cultural discrimination against African-Americans.

Director Matthew Ornstein films Davis’ interactions with Klansmen, former Klansmen, and other white nationalists, men who are so often dismissed as frothing bigots and so often dismissive of any and all racial others and political opponents. Very little that any of the stubborn enduring white supremacists who speak to Davis on camera say or do contradicts such generalized labelling, and some who count him as a friend hold him only as an exception to the general negative nature of his “race”. Davis’ desire to recognize the humanity of these men (and very occasionally women) is certainly fraught, lest it perversely, unintentionally justify or normalize their hateful, damaging, extreme ideology (which a more recent credits post-script added to the film’s streaming release recognizes has been emboldened in an unprecedented way by Donald Trump’s election as U.S. President).

It’s impossible, however, to watch and listen to Davis speak during and after these encounters and consider him anything but well-intentioned and sincere. In the wider American political and social discourse, the exhortation to hold a meaningful dialogue on racial issues often seems a naive and perhaps cynical faux-panacea suggested by even nominally anti-discrimination figures as a productive-sounding substitute for the fundamental and nigh-on revolutionary social and institutional adjustments necessary to properly address and redress the country’s historical and continuing structures and process of anti-black oppression. Daryl Davis, however, is a charming, low-key evangelist for the transformative potential of such dialogue, at least on a micro level. The son of a State Department diplomat, Davis lived as a child in many foreign countries and in a variety of locations in the United States as well. Like Barack Obama growing up in Indonesia and Hawaii, Davis learned to relate to and connect with a diverse and oft-changing group of peers and was inculcated with the necessity and later the inherent value of forging personal liaisons with those outside of his own background, experience, and culture.

Credit is due to Ornstein and Davis, however, for being willing to include in Accidental Courtesy resonant instances of when, as it did with Obama and his most intransigent critics on the right, this dialogic approach falls short. While some of these instances predictably feature white supremacists (one major KKK leader flatly refuses to even acknowledge Davis as a friend let alone give an inch on his master-race beliefs, and an important American Neo-Nazi treats Davis politely but seems unconvinced by his soft pitch), the most explosively contentious and challenging one involves fellow African-American political activists.

Davis meets with two young Black Lives Matter marchers and organizers in Baltimore, where they have been active in civil disobedience and forceful protest against police brutality and discrimination against African-Americans, particularly following the arrest, beating, and death of Freddie Gray in 2015. Any assumptions an observer (white, especially, but otherwise as well) might have made about the potential common ground between Davis and these men is dispelled very quickly. They are aggressively sceptical about Davis’ methods, about his collection of Klan memoribilia (one flatly states that he would never take his children to any museum about the KKK), and more than anything about the effectiveness of his efforts and their tangible benefits for the African-American community. Through active protest and building of robust black institutions and communities, they feel, their people can derive more advantage than could ever be possible from having coffee with Klansmen who despise them and deny their very personhood.

The encounter degenerates into shouting and namecalling over an issue of minor consequence (which his chats with white racist never seem to, at least that we’re shown), and Davis does not come off very well from the episode. Neither do his younger antagonists, though, who blithely declare their preference for the openly racist Donald Trump (“At least you know where he stands,” they pronounce with a disastrous naiveté which they might come to regret if his administration’s promised law enforcement crackdown on Black Lives Matter and other left-wing protest groups comes to fruition) over the unreliable neoliberal Hillary Clinton. Nor do they substantively refute Davis’ accusation of the preference for segregation and separation evident in their views, although his greeting-card sentiment that they must all share the same country, black or white, seems a weak stab at persuasion.

But the whole episode is indelible, hard to shake, and challenges the perspective that has developed and been nurtured throughout the rest of Accidental Courtesy. The utility and even moral standing of Davis’ conversing approach, which Ornstein treats as fascinating and wondrously impressive up to this point in the film, is deeply shaken, and even a feel-good concluding story of one of Davis’ converted Klan scalps who now actively campaigns publicly against racism and white supremacy cannot restore the prior equilibrium. The pregnant dichotomy of the scene in Baltimore, the conflict between the macroscopic, self-righteous, mass-focused activism of Black Lives Matter and the microscopic, self-effacing, modest and friendly activism of Daryl Davis, strikes one as not only unresolved but perhaps tragically unresolvable, seeing as there are elements of merit in both approaches.

If only, the BLM agents insist, they had the time or the patience (or, one must admit, the privilege) to convince one white American at a time to treat them with equal respect and grant them equal opportunities and rights as citizens. But the plight of Black America is simply too urgent, they feel, requiring action more wide-reaching and drastic than Davis’ dialogues, which for all of their good intent strike them as irredeemably foolish and a waste of resources. Davis, for his part, does not see the effective conversion potential in BLM’s activities, and worries their tactics and aims merely calcify the racial divide that he hopes to see erode away. This dialectical collision leaves no answer for the viewer, only deepening the questions and doubts about the correct path to righting America’s most enduring wrong.

A further post-script to Accidental Courtesy, unmentioned in the film due to the proximity of the event to its release, further destabilizes Daryl Davis’ paradigm of hope for American race relations. One of Davis’ KKK friends in the film is a man called Frank Ancona, a Missouri Imperial Wizard (Klan titles and honorifics are like something out of pulp sword-and-sorcery novels; Exalted Cyclops is another). In the days before the film’s release, Ancona’s body was found in a Missouri river. He was murdered, his wife and stepson charged in his death. Personal issues appeared to be the motive, and the world of white supremacist terror groups is a harsh and violent one of its own accord. But one must wonder if the film’s revelation of Ancona’s willingness to relax his racial ideology in the case of Davis played into his death in any way as well. Hate is resilient, even if Daryl Davis kindly and doggedly suggests that love is as well.

Donald Trump Wants his Worst Policies to Fail: An Unsupported but Plausible Line of Thought

March 16, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve never bought into the suspicious, nigh-on cleverer-than-thou American political observer line of thought that U.S. President Donald Trump is not dim-witted, incompetent, imprudent, or hopelessly led by impulse and instinct but is, in fact, strategically brilliant and always thinking several steps ahead of his critics and the media, laying down narratives in advance to distract their attention from real problems and reports less-favourable to him. When weighing the choice between genius and ineptitude to explain Trump and his team’s seemingly haphazard and bumbling actions through the turbulent opening months of his Presidency, I’m generally inclined towards ineptitude on Occam’s Razor grounds, at the very least.

With all of that being said, I think there could be a consistent case to be made that Trump and his Administration is allowing certain policy promises from his presidential campaign to fail, or at least they are curiously deigning not to lift more than a perfunctory short finger to battle on their cherished, America-greatening policies’ behalf as they go down in flames. The case study for this argument is his notorious travel ban applied to citizens of seven six Muslim countries. Struck down by federal judges after its sneak weekend application at the end of January created chaos and sparked indignant protests at airports across the U.S. and the globe, a watered-down version of the ban (which Trump’s acolytes won’t even openly acknowledge is a “ban”) due to go into effect this week has also been blocked by federal courts in Hawaii and Maryland (at least partially on the basis of public statements by Trump lieutenants that the order, however it was worded, had specific religious discrimination at the forefront of its aims).

At the core of this argument, if you’ll stay with me as I make it, is the hoary, cynical old theory that Donald Trump only wants to be President for the money and the fame. This thinking has often been dismissed, and has been largely abandoned by pundits since he won the election, but I think it might still hold, at least in this case.

You don’t have to look very deeply or for very long at Trump’s public political statements to conclude that he holds them rather lightly. At the risk of getting bogged down in the much-mocked “take him seriously, not literally” morass, it’s clear that Trump very often just, you know, says things. He’s firmly stated his position on matters and then just as firmly (and sometimes conveniently) forgotten that he ever stated that position. It’s not that words don’t matter when Donald Trump speaks them, but more so that they cease to matter to him very soon after he does. The man is fundamentally a serial bullshitter, but even the supposed core values beneath that surface-level bullshit are unstable and mercurial. Certain specific views remain consistent over the years (particularly, and revealingly, those related to race), but most are up for grabs at any given moment.

What is consistent throughout Trump’s public adult (ha!) life is his shameless grifting and his bottomless gluttony for fame. His politics and even his party affiliations can and have changed depending on who he’s trying to extract money or adulation or power and influence from at any given moment, but he’s always trying to do that above all. This might be the reason why he liked campaigning so much, and why he retreats to campaign poses in times of political turmoil: ego-boosting rallies, plentiful money-making opportunities (from voters, donors, and from general brand exposure), and he could say whatever he liked without real or immediate concrete consequences.

Perhaps Trump thought it would be the same in office. It quite assuredly is not. The grifting continues, emoluments clause be damned: foreign dignitaries staying at his hotels, multiple weekends spent at his Mar-a-Lago resort club residence in Florida (which has recently raised membership fees, ostensibly due to the unspoken promise of access to the President), the purchase of items from his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line marshalled as a right-wing political act, any number of potential hidden bribes and secret deals that are not transparent to the public, etc. But Trump hasn’t gotten the adulation he feels that he deserves as President, though a man who launched his political career with nastily racist conspiracy theories casting doubt on the citizenship of the sitting President should know better than anyone that as many citizens hate the POTUS as love him, that respect for the office and its power and prestige in the abstract has rarely translated to concrete respect for the man who holds it. His (frankly worrying) choice of presidential model, Andrew Jackson, could have told him that.

More important for the purposes of this discussion than that, however, is that Trump’s words, often lightly chosen and even more lightly supported by facts, have greater consequences now. His dashed-off, seat-of-his-pants tweets, the dramatic complaining tone of which endeared this sheltered Manhattan millionaire to his horde of loyal common supporters, are now the official pronouncement of the Leader of the Free World. However flippantly Trump is used to deploying words to his perceived advantage, they mean more now.

This new reality has implications for all of those outlandish promises Trump made during the campaign. Now, as President with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, he’s expected to deliver on them, or at least to make a concerted and honest effort to do so. How firm those expectations are is unclear, based in voter perspective and passion, the support of his party, and media pressure, among other factors. Whatever the impetus for or level of these expectations, one can imagine Trump having a despondent Sideshow Bob-ish reaction to how his flood of campaign words are understood now:

The issue could be immigration, where both the blocked Muslim ban and his central promise of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border (paid for by Mexico) are proving to fall short, or health care, where the contentious and faltering Republican House bill to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a system that will cost needier patients more and cover millions fewer people flies in the face of his brash claims on the stump that he would deliver a health plan that would cover everyone. He can’t, in these and many other cases, deliver on these brazen promises and even in his isolated bubble someone around him has surely told him that much.

This brings us to his Muslim travel ban, which has again been blocked again by federal courts. Trump has legal experts of some stripe around him; someone lawyerish crafted the executive order, after all. Perhaps one should assume simple ineptitude again, but surely an advisor or few must have known that the order would not pass legal muster. And, as Trump said in a speech in Tennessee given the same night as the news dropped of the new court order blocking the revised ban order, he wants to go back to the original ban order, which he preferred anyway. And, of course, which was already blocked in court and would, in unaltered form, certainly be blocked again if re-implemented.

Is the President just that dumb? Are his people that bad at finding ways to apply his harmful intended policies? Or is there an element of unwillingness at play, a disguised through-line of stealthy self-sabotage? Despite its basis in racist xenophobia (as close to a core belief as the ever-shifty Trump has), does he not really care that much about delivering on his Muslim ban promise? Or does he consider it only useful (or more useful) as source material for rousing rhetoric to please and rile up the xenophobic rubes in his support base? Judges block his ban so its messy consequences never come to pass. But Trump can still use the court order as a rhetorical cudgel against activist judges, the politically-correct institutions of the elite, the Washington consensus, sore-loser leftist protestors, etc. Specific initiatives fail, but the narrative endures. His political brand, Trump the besieged great man held down by limp-wristed snowflakes and corrupt technocratic global elites (but no anti-Semitism here, none of that, that is right out), endures.

This idea might furtively give Donald Trump some limited credit for secretly not wanting to prevent entry to the country for all Muslims from six countries (the original seven nations minus Iraq, likely removed from the order after bad press connected to Iraqi translators and other allies of U.S. forces in the country having visa troubles) for stated, dubious security-related reasons. But whether it’s true or not (and it certainly might not be, or might only partly be), it focuses on the man’s venality and irresponsibility in occupying the highest office in the U.S. Who cares about governing, it tells us, as long as Donald Trump is raking in the cash and the accolades of (a certain declining sliver of) the masses? True or not, this theory is plausible and well-grounded in Trump’s personality and predilections, and that inherent aura of plausibility tells us nearly as much about this odd, troubling, greedy figure in emperor’s robes as the actual truth would.

President-Elect Donald J. Trump: A Grim Assessment

November 9, 2016 Leave a comment

The nearly unfathomable has happened: Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States. Despite polling, media prognostications, and the seeming inevitability that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would win the White House, the Republican nominee triumphed instead, smashing through Clinton’s firewall of supposed safe states (and the establishment consensus that backed her) on a wave of hitherto unpredictable white nationalist fury. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but it likely won’t be good for progressives, persons of colour, Muslims, Hispanics, LGTBQ citizens, women, and basically anyone who isn’t a white male (and it won’t be nearly great for them either, despite Trump’s grandiose promises).

To say that the result is disheartening for anyone but Trump’s deluded workaday partisans and the considerable reserves of open racists in his camp would be an understatement. To say that his administration is almost certainly going to be a disaster of the highest magnitude for the country (and perhaps the world) cannot be overstated. The sole slim glimmers of light shining through the dark cloak thrown over the American project today may be as follows:

  1. If Trump runs the country the way he has run his litany of failed businesses, the rank incompetence of the man and his team may prevent the worst of his proposals – expensive border walls, travel bans on entire faiths, broken alliances and trade deals, ordering American troops to commit war crimes, utilizing the power of the government to pursue personal vendettas against his enemies – from being effectively enacted. Even in that eventuality, though, the waste of resources, time, and effort to pursue them would be astronomical and the damage done to the legitimacy of government authority as well as to the lives of hundreds, thousands, millions incalculable.
  2. Flattered by the attention and prestige of his office, Trump elects to play a mostly public ceremonial role as President and leaves the hard work of governing to Vice-President Mike Pence, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and Republican congressional leadership. This is not only unlikely but uncomforting, as Pence and Ryan subscribe to fiscal and social policy with as much or more mass hurtful potential than Trump’s wild (and perhaps safely impractical) schemes.
  3. Trump is 70 years old, so at least when he makes himself dictator for life, it won’t be for very long.

Grim assessments and sickened shock aside, perhaps Donald Trump’s victory is not so surprising. America’s two-party system tends to default to each party taking turns with a President from their ranks in the White House, and with incumbent Presidents’ natural electoral advantage, the switch is most likely when the incumbent leaves office at the end of their second term. Democrats have an especially difficult time achieving in-party electoral transitions, historically speaking. Trump’s crude and rude unconventionality made it seem unimaginable that he could win the election, and that unimaginability, that firm conviction and hope that he could not win, infected and displaced rational assessments from the left as to whether it was a possible result.

Furthermore, Trumpism’s victory makes a good deal of sense given a deeper knowledge of American history. Periods of demographic change, social upheaval, and expansion have often proven to be fertile breeding grounds for nostalgic, turn-back-time nativism such as that deployed by Trump this year. Witness Andrew Jackson’s damaging policies aimed at American Indians, or the Know Nothings of the mid-19th Century and their anti-Irish Catholic fervor, or the Southern backlash against Reconstruction, or the America First movement of the WWII era, or the John Birch Society in the 1950s and 1960s. Beyond these specific examples of spiritual heirs of Trumpism, however, reading back into American history shows a long string of political institutions and movements calibrated for the benefit of whites at the expense of non-whites (African-Americans in particular, of course, though not exclusively). In the light of this tradition of exploitation of cultural difference, much of it through the auspices of private enterprise capitalism, Donald Trump is not an aberration but a predictable mutation of the American predatory DNA.

There will be no limit to the designated scapegoats for this potentially world-shifting development: Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party that he defeated, of course, but also the Republican elites that mistrusted but made no attempt to stop Trump, third-party candidates, Russian interference, government institutions, the ineffectual media, and the working-class whites who turned out to elect him. But perhaps the forces, the American undercurrents, most responsible for this ominous result are the disavowed monsters of the nation’s history and culture.

The media specifically, and the national discourse generally, could not effectively counter Trump’s revanchist fantasies of restored prior glory because they have never properly and effectively faced up to the implications of American history, and to capitalism’s often pernicious role in shaping that history. In the practical short term, offering all possible lawful protest to Trump’s policies and practices, conducting a quick and effective forensic audit of the Democratic Party perhaps leading to a strong bounceback in the 2018 midterm elections is the immediate pushback against Trump’s masterplans (perhaps a deeper re-assessment of the entire two-party system may be in order, too, but neither major party is incentivized to engage in one).

But in the longer term, the United States will remain vulnerable to Trump and similar authoritarian demagogues unless it truly grapples with, and tangibly attempts to redress, the wrongs and crimes of its history. That is unlikely to happen under President Trump, who celebrates the tradition of brutality of power directed against the weak inherent to American history and will seek to recapture its “greatness”. But a wider effort in the cultural discourse to confront the past, while resisting the official reification of its darkest (and even less dark) chapters, might yet do enough good to make a difference in America’s now ever-more uncertain future.

Film Review: Citizenfour

October 28, 2016 Leave a comment

Citizenfour (2014; Directed by Laura Poitras)

The story of Edward Snowden, the NSA (National Security Agency) computer analyst contractor who leaked digital volumes upon volumes of information about the United States government’s top-secret data collection operations and thus revealed a sophisticated and alarming system of state surveillance of private citizens in America and worldwide, is one of the most vital political stories of our time. Citizenfour tells his story practically in real time via the camera of Laura Poitras, the intrepid political documentarian whom he first covertly contacted in his gradual, intricately-planned process of releasing the explosive information about the wide-net surveillance and data collection program.

Indeed it is Snowden’s intricacy, the elaborately considered care with which he chooses his every word just as he chose his remarkable, brave and personally dangerous course of action, that comes through so strongly through Poitras’ lens. The hyperbolic mudslinging directed at him by U.S. government spokespeople, politicians, and media (traitor, radical, Russian agent, even terrorist) invested in delegitimizing his damaging revelations about the NSA’s oppressive overreach of constitutional bounds fails to stick to this characterization.

Snowden states his objections to becoming a public figure via his whistleblowing as well as his reluctance to allow the personality-driven media to make him, rather than the compendious official abuses he exposed, the focus of the story. Still, Snowden has been in the public eye for a few years now, earning much of his income in exile through speaking engagements, and his statements and even his actions since his historic info-dump have not always demonstrated such exquisite circumspection. But in Citizenfour, in the midst of the act itself, he demonstrates a tremendously exacting determination to get every detail of his revelations precisely right. No wonder the NSA trusted him to work on their data dragnet program in the first place.

Citizenfour moves slowly in establishing the developing relationship between Poitras the investigative filmmaker (who remains ever offscreen) and Snowden the prized source, with the text of their encrypted email exchanges sometimes displayed onscreen and sometimes read in voiceover by Poitras, in one instance over footage of the construction work being done on a massive government data centre. But the film gains traction and becomes a galvanizing experience when Snowden joins Poitras and her camera, as well as Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, to hole up in a Hong Kong hotel room for days on end.

There, Snowden and the journalists whom he essentially hand-picked to sift through the information he leaked them about the NSA’s data collection program talk through its operations, its aims, its reach, and the consequences he expects and accepts for himself for revealing this stunning information to the public (he’s highly astute about even those implications; at one point, he tells his collaborators that he expects the authorities to charge him using some obscure and perhaps legally dubious 19th-century law, and sure enough when the charges come, they are under the World War I-era Espionage Act).

Basically, what he tells them is that the NSA, in concert with major telecommunications and internet companies, intercepts, collects and can instantly search the emails, cell phone calls, text messages, and internet activity of millions of Americans and other digital users outside the country as well (including heads of state, such as German Chancellor Andrea Merkel). It’s an extensive mass surveillance system straight out of Orwell which NSA officials told the U.S. Congress point-blank did not exist. Snowden could not countenance working on a secret, unconstitutional invasion of citizens’ privacy any longer, and decided to disclose it to the public in spite of the price that he himself knew he would pay for that choice. With the help of experienced journalists like Greenwald and MacAskill to sort through the documents he gives them and decide what is in the public interest to publish and what might be dangerous classified information to put out in the world (a stark contrast to WikiLeaks’ fanatical insistence on full disclosure), Snowden watches from his room as his revelations, and then his identity, break into the media.

It’s difficult not to be a little shaken by the depths of government surveillance that Snowden reveals, but the paranoid caution that Snowden displays on camera (at one point using a laptop with a bedsheet over his head and the computer to frustrate any possible “visual collection”) deepens the alarm. If someone who knows what he knows about this system is this paranoid, it must be justified (though Snowden’s position in that Hong Kong hotel room is hardly analogous to that of ordinary citizens texting and emailing about crushes, grocery lists, surprise party plans, or even political opinions). Even Greenwald, who has been writing trenchantly about the American government’s post-9/11 curtailment of civil liberties for years and has not a single scale on his eyes as regards the secretive and often malignant operations of the national security apparatus, is intermittently shocked by what Snowden tells him, especially when he reveals that a government watch list runs to over a million names.

Snowden eventually leaves the hotel room, Hong Kong, and Asia entirely, eventually winding up living in Russia indefinitely after the U.S. State Department revokes his passport while he was in transit through Moscow (he’s still there today, at an undisclosed location). Despite his qualms about celebrity and notoriety, and perhaps at least partly because of those qualms, Snowden is presented in Citizenfour as a sacrificing hero, a sort of secular ascetic saint suffering in relatively comfortable exile for America’s sins against its own fabled liberty.

Poitras respects her subject’s wish to not be the subject to some extent, leaving the only background on Snowden’s life to be provided by the man himself, but she’s too good a filmmaker to miss the human story at the heart of the larger, tentacular political one. If anything, it seems likely that she weighs the core issues more heavily than does Oliver Stone in his recent adaptation of Snowden’s story, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the infamous leaker (as much as I enjoy Gordon-Levitt, watching the real Snowden makes it clear that the only choice to play the man on film is mid-1990s Edward Norton). But the camera seeks out a star, and the forthright, intelligent, unerringly accurate Snowden is clearly its preferred focal point.

But let’s respect Snowden’s expressed wishes and focus on the cause of his exile, the sprawling program of official surveillance that he exposed and that, despite that exposure, remains in place. Snowden and Greenwald feel such a program contravenes the U.S. constitution and citizens’ privacy rights, while national security professionals insist that such trespasses, while regrettable, are the necessary cost of protecting the American people from threats they cannot begin to fully understand. Whatever you think of either of those opposing arguments (and I side with the privacy activists in finding the latter reasoning flawed; insert your contextless Benjamin Franklin “liberty/security” epigram here), the concept of a system of total surveillance of all American citizens at the disposal of the President and the government is more than a little troubling.

One might try to argue with any measure of authority that one commander-in-chief, say Barack Obama, would be of impeccable-enough character to only use this avalanche of personal data against truly dangerous enemies of the nation (although Greenwald has frequently asserted that the current President and administration is hardly above reproach in this regard). Even granting this (and we do not), what’s to stop an unstable authoritarian demagogue (I’m trying to think of one who might have a chance of becoming President but blanking at the present moment) from using the information to vengefully persecute personal enemies, discriminate against minority groups, or generally run a Real American neo-Stasi? Basically, nothing. Outside of this worst-case scenario, such power over the nation’s populace being entrusted to any government agency has disturbing implications, particularly if said agency is as non-transparent and immune to electoral pressures as the NSA.

Citizenfour is a conduit for these issues; indeed it focuses them like a laser beam. Despite Snowden’s personal sacrifice and the ongoing crusade of figures like Greenwald, the American surveillance state continues apace. The neoliberal Democrats who rule the White House are temperamentally, politically and ideologically disinclined to challenge the national security apparatus and the Republicans who control Congress are consistently chomping at the bit to wield it against their expanding plethora of enemies, real and imagined, internal and foreign. The discourse of projected strength remains the language of power in the United States, and neither faction of the country’s polarized political class nurturs much of a desire to challenge that orthodoxy. The force of Edward Snowden’s disclosures as narrativized in Citizenfour has not catalyzed such a challenge, necessary though it increasingly proves to be. But Snowden’s act may well have pulled back a curtain on mass surveillance and revealed something that cannot be hidden again, and the battle between privacy and security will rage ever on.

Television Review – The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

The Jinx (2015; Directed by Andrew Jarecki)

Illustratingly subtitled The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, The Jinx joined Netflix’s Making a Murderer and the radio podcast Serial in a minor swell of true crime documentary series last year. As the subtitle indicates, it examines the often strange case of Robert Durst, the eldest scion of a wealthy Manhattan real estate dynasty who has been suspected but never convicted in the deaths of his wife, best friend, and next-door neighbour over the space of twenty years.

But The Jinx is not simply a true crime documentary but an often slippery, compromised biography of Durst himself, who emerges as an alternately diabolically brilliant and clumsily imprudent character of baroque weirdness and mental insecurity. Director Andrew Jarecki, who made the wrenching, acclaimed documentary feature Capturing the Friedmans, gained unprecedented access to the paranoid and media-shy Durst, filming twenty hours of conversations with him over several years. Jarecki was not new to the subject of Durst, having directed All Good Things, a fictionalized version of the Durst saga starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst that is almost completely forgotten but hooked Durst with its even-handedness. Durst’s trust in Jarecki is sorely tested as the filmmaker is confronted with a growing body of evidence that his subject may indeed be a murderer, and Jarecki’s comfort level with the sting-like nature of his unfolding documentary is likewise strained.

The Jinx lays out the odd circumstances of those titular “deaths” revolving around Durst in a deconstructed manner. First is Durst’s wife, Kathie, a medical student who vanished in the winter of 1982 somewhere between their country home in South Salem, New York and Manhattan, possibly after Durst dropped her off to catch a train, probably (but unprovably) prior to that. No body was ever found and police didn’t look seriously into Durst until 1999, though a later New York DA and many of Kathie’s friends were convinced that he killed her. Jarecki is less clear and open with this particular part of the saga, but it seems clear that the Dursts’ early happy union in Vermont became permanently poisoned when he was pushed back into the family business by his father. They argued frequently, and many friends and acquaintances testified that he physically abused her. But without a body, not much could be pinned to Durst or anyone else.

The subsequent two deaths occured a year apart in 2000 and 2001, and both brought charges against Durst. Durst’s close friend, confidant, and media spokesperson Susan Berman was murdered first in an execution-style shooting at her home in Los Angeles. Berman, whom many of those suspicious of Durst believe to be the gatekeeper of his secrets, had told others that she was about to publically reveal something huge. This may not have been about Durst, as her case is complicated by her ties to her mobster father and her revelations of secrets from the mob life, but there are definite reasons to suspect Durst for the crime (and indeed he was charged and arrested for it during the airing of the series).

The third and most bizarre death was Durst’s killing, dismemberment, and disposal of septagenarian Morris Black in Galveston, Texas in 2001. Living in the isolated Texas coastal city to avoid the glare of the public eye, Durst was using a woman’s name as an alias and even dressing as a woman to disguise himself. His cantakerous neighbour Black saw through the ruse, and though Durst claims they were friends, it seems more likely that Black threatened to blackmail him by revealing his whereabouts. At any rate, Black was shot dead, cut into pieces, and dumped into Galveston Bay by Durst, who stood trial for the murder but was found not guilty when his defence team argued that Black was shot accidentally during a struggle, or in self-defence at the worst. Without Black’s head (Durst returned to the dump site the morning after leaving Black’s remains, almost certainly to better hide the head), the theory could not be disproven, and Durst walked.

Robert Durst may indeed be a serial murderer (he has been faintly connected to at least two other mysterious deaths), but the portrait that Jarecki paints of him in The Jinx is of a very strange and unfortunate man with deep emotional and mental problems that his wealth and privilege have intermittently insulated him from (this would be the titular jinx). His mother  committed suicide when he was a boy (one of Jarecki’s re-enactments paints this as a particularly haunting moment), his father neglected him, his younger brother pushed him out of the family business. He’s private and anti-social but weirdly chatty with Jarecki, and oddly incautious for a man evading suspicion for multiple killings: while on the lam after the death of Morris Black, Durst was notoriously caught in a Wegman’s in Pennsylvania for shoplifting a chicken salad sandwich with $500 cash in his pocket. This anecdote, amusing though it might be, betrays a streak of guilt and perhaps an unconscious desire to face the consequences for his crimes that would serve to explain Durst’s startlingly uncareful hot-mic mutterings of a self-incriminating nature, to say nothing of a note mailed to the Beverly Hills Police informing them of a “cadaver” at Susan Berman’s address that may be the smoking gun for his recent arrest for that murder.

As The Jinx moves along, Jarecki himself becomes more and more of an active onscreen character, especially as a new discovery among Durst’s documents (which he willingly gave Jarecki’s team access to) sheds new light on the cadaver note. In its closing hour, The Jinx becomes more than just an absorbing baroque non-fiction crime saga with an elusive, enigmatic Asperger-esque lizard-person as its protagonist. It becomes that post-modern documentary feature mainstay, an examination of the nature, reach, and limitations of the documentary form itself. What responsibilities do filmmakers have to their subjects in a documentary film, especially as that subject is increasingly exposed (perhaps even employs the film itself to expose himself) as a cold-blooded killer? The Jinx suggests that the truth is paramount, even when that truth is highly obscured and the effort to uncover it leads a filmmaker to betray his subject.

Black Lives Matter’s Toronto Pride Protest and the Other Side of Inclusiveness

Toronto’s generally quiescent political scene, engaged in low-level rambling skirmishes over transit plans and minor public policies for much of the term of establishment-friendly Mayor John Tory, erupted this past weekend over a high-profile protest launched by the political action group Black Lives Matter Toronto during this year’s Pride parade through the city’s downtown. Halting the parade’s progress with a half-hour sit-in on its route, the invited activist group extracted a set of concessions from the parade authorities for future Pride events (although statements after the event from the organizers who signed the agreement indicate that they consider it non-binding). Black Lives Matter demanded greater representation, funding, and opportunities for black LGBTQ persons in future Pride activities, but also more controversially took aim at the police, whose discriminatory targetting of black persons is the core problem that the wider BLM organization aims to address.

BLM Toronto asked that police floats and booths be barred from future Pride events, at least those “accompanied by uniformed, armed” officers, which they referred to as a “stark reminder of the history of brutality faced by the LGBT community and visible minorities”. It goes without saying that this was a controversial demand, and discussion of the “no police” concession as well as BLM’s protestation tactics in general burned up media of all sorts through the city and across Canada and the world in the wake of the long weekend. Mainstream Canadian media, one of the most whitewashed institutions in the country, harumphed at the rudeness of these uppity rabble-rousers, and conveniently-placed gay Toronto Police officers made the media rounds criticizing the proposed exclusion of an official police participation in the parade. Even conservative media outlets like the Sun, hardly beacons of tolerance and acceptance of gay rights at any other times, became pride_logoovernight converts to their protection when it meant using them as a cudgel against more despised minorities (similar rhetoric buttresses the right-wing media’s frequent eruptions of Islamophobia).

Much of the foofaraw swirling around BLM Toronto’s protest can be traced down to the changed and changing nature of the Pride event, and most especially its public perception and socio-political role. One obvious riposte to those criticizing the protest is that the Pride parade’s origins lie in political activism, so engaging in further activism in its midst is hardly inappropriate but indeed appropriate. This argument, however, disregards how far Pride has come from its beginnings as a strident protest against the stigmatizing and criminalization of homosexuality. The raids on Toronto bathhouses conducted by Toronto Police over 30 years ago, for which chief Mark Saunders tentatively apologized for in the lead-up to Pride Week, were among the catalysts for the early Pride marches in the city and an open expression of desired rights by a then-radical and socially-marginalized alternative subculture.

Today, Pride is much altered from its more agit-prop early years, or even the comparatively adults-only display of open sexuality that followed. It has become an officially-sanctioned, corporate-sponsored, family-friendly, thoroughly mainstreamed public festival of celebration and inclusiveness. Even if conservative and bigoted elements of society remain quietly uncomfortable with it – as displayed by the firm, repeated refusal of Toronto’s previous mayor, the late Rob Ford, to attend to parade, a clear dog-whistle to the prejudiced portion of his Ford Nation voting base – Pride has achieved a level of cultural acceptance that was hoped for but only barely imagined by those who birthed it. This growth of popular tolerance and acceptance mirrors that of LGBTQ lifestyles and civil rights in general, but also reflects the altered form of political activism in favour of LGBTQ rights.

Pride was once about (and partly still is about) fighting for a right to be allowed to exist, to live as you are and not as the straight bourgeois order insisted you must be. With that ground won and much more, the LGBTQ rights movement takes aim at the stubborn vestiges of discrimination in the law. Legal actions and government lobbying, the practical paths to civil liberties, have taken precedence. If Pride events still have a political dimension and have not been reduced to a simple excuse for a party, they have moved towards a role of shaping the public image of gay life as fundamentally positive, as “normalized”. They are about raising “awareness”, that vital social justic buzzword that can sound like a call to self-satisfied inaction when uttered in the wrong way.

But Pride’s gospel of inclusion has meant that it has allowed many parties and forces to claim a share of it, to use it for ends that often differ from and sometimes even contradict that which the event is understood to mean. For LGBTQ persons, Pride is supposed to be a celebration and legitimation of their identity, an idealized if ephemeral safe space of not merely tolerance or acceptance of that identity but a much-needed glorification of it. For friends, allies, and loved ones of the LGBTQ community, it’s a way to openly express support for that community, still so often besieged by prejudice. But for a great mass of the public and for society’s institutions in particular, Pride is an opportunity to safely and enjoyably establish their bona fides as an open-minded and accepting wider community, no matter their views on and conduct towards the LGBTQ world every other day of the year.

This patina of positive image-branding for politicians, corporations, small businesses, and other insitutions is not universally rewarded; publically displaying acceptance of homosexuality is more expected in Canada or Western Europe than in much of the United States or Russia or certainly than the Middle East or Africa. But the key point to grasp is that as much as Pride has always belonged and still does belong to the LGBTQ community, the drive towards inclusiveness has meant that it belongs, to some extent, to everyone. And when everyone owns a piece of something, they will all have expectations of what it ought to be. And many of those who feel Pride belongs, at least in part, to them did not approve of BLM protesting in its midst as they did. They have bought into Pride, and this is not what they feel they have paid for.

For Pride, winning the sanction and even the support of government, police, and corporations has meant giving representatives of those bodies a seat at the table, a piece of the rainbow pie. Black Lives Matter Toronto, representatives (self-appointed, perhaps) of another discriminated minority whose image-burnishing possibilities have proven less attractive to the forces flocking to Pride, want a piece of that pie, too, even if they need to resort to radical activist tactics to get it. One unsettling truth exposed by BLM bringing Toronto’s Pride parade to a standstill on Sunday is that despite its embrace of inclusion and its annually unprecedented acceptance in the mainstream of Canadian society (that was sitting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau whooping it up in the middle of the parade, and even the Conservative opposition marched the route), the event and by extension the LGBTQ rights movement still has less space than it ought to for other minorities. In a country frequently smug about its progressive tolerance but afflicted with unsightly racial blind spots, perhaps this weekend’s exposure of the fragmentation of minority interests that would be stronger if united in solidarity will begin to be remedied.

Endure the Wonder of Survival: A Legacy of Gord Downie

May 24, 2016 1 comment

It feels wrong, ghoulish even, to eulogize a man while he is still alive. Still, the painful news that Gord Downie, the singer and lyricist of venerable Canadian rock veterans the Tragically Hip, has been diagnosed with terminal, incurable brain cancer is already being greeted in the Canadian media and across the country’s internet social platforms in much the same way as the recent deaths of much more famous and internationally successful musical figures such as David Bowie and Prince. Although the band announced a final tour this summer and has a new (perhaps final?) album, the rhythmic, ruminative Kevin Drew-produced Man Machine Poem, due out on June 17, the announcement of Downie’s cancer has struck a defined segment of a generation of Canadians with the heavy blow of a final passing.

For these Canadians, and most definitely for me, Gordon Edgar Downie was our Bowie, our Prince. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to speak to what Downie’s words and the Hip’s music means to its fans, devoted and casual alike, although swellings of emotion at expressions of national sentiment and the poetic language of his lyrics certainly recur (check out The Tragically Hip in Bobcaygeon for the best official documenting of fan sentiment). It’s less difficult, though still far from simple, to summarize what Downie’s words and the Hip’s music means to me. But, to quote Downie, there’s no simple explanation for anything important any of us do.

Like a lot of Canadians coming of age in smaller communities in the 1990s, the Tragically Hip were a notable cultural force where I grew up, an inescapable part of the musical landscape whether or not you liked them. I did like them, though, their muscular but melodically surprising bluesy rock melding with Downie’s enigmatic, sophisticated lyrical imagery woven around national touchstones. The Hip were an important shared interest in my group of friends, and a common reference point for most young people that I grew up with. Albums new and old (the brilliant Phantom Power was and remains a particular favourite), videos and appearances on MuchMusic, and gorddownieconcerts built up a collective mythos around the band, and Downie, as singer, primary songwriter, unpredictable onstage live-wire, and utterer of gnomic observations, was the focal point of that mythos.

The meaning of the art that Downie produced shifted for me over time, taking on different associations at different points in my life. But on balance, Downie’s songs with the Tragically Hip (and to a lesser extent his solo records) are, alongside the golden years of The Simpsons, the single most important artistic influence on my perspective, my writing, and the way I understand the world around me. This is what I mean by saying that he was my David Bowie: just as Bowie represented a unique, offbeat, edgy, or ambiguous ideal for many shaggy outcasts from square society, Downie arose out of and commanded the admiration and fondness of Canada’s earthbound, essentially conservative rural and suburban middle class but also transcends it and sees the best in it, injecting erudition, empathy, and inclusive fellow-feeling into a subculture that could bend towards illiberal tendencies. But he also respects the salt-of-the-earth commitment and care of this class, and does not sneer or talk down to it, even while rubbing elbows with the urban indie elite of the Canadian music scene.

Beyond matters of class and subculture, that interminable shell game of identity formation and position-taking known as “being cool”, Downie was a preternaturally skilled and frequently astounding user of words. It was in this way that he was most inspiring, in his poetic turns of phrase, his indelible imagery, and in the resonant stories he told. The incredible breadth and scope that he could evoke in the space of a 4 or 5-minute rock song could be breathtaking, but he could also move you with intimate snapshots (“You can leave your jewellery in a bowl beside the bed”) and deploy a killer joke with expert timing. He could not only write remarkable words, but sing them, give them to us, with just the right inflection, the tenderly balanced delivery. When his wordcraft combined with his passion for performance, the result could be very special indeed.

Eulogizing Gord Downie now, when he may have years left to leave a mark on the world outside of the rock n’ roll stage, might not feel so incongruous considering how often and how curiously he probed the frightening, tantalizing mysteries of death. Not just in, say, “The Inevitability of Death” (a title chosen, by Downie’s half-ironic admission, to confound the forced cheer of radio DJs) or “Nautical Disaster” (which is more about the haunting spectres of past trauma), but personally, painfully, honestly in ballads like “Fiddler’s Green” (about the death of Downie’s young nephew from a heart ailment) and, a vastly underappreciated favourite of mine, “Toronto #4”. An aching poem written as a tribute to Downie’s dying grandmother set to a drum machine beat, elegiac guitar, and tinkling piano, it’s a song about the sensations and rituals of death, the quiet enormity of our finite lives, and the comfort that the mortal end robs of those left behind. Gord Downie will be with us for some time yet, but he has left us with many stirring epitaphs, none so perfectly poised as this.