Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Sunday Morning Retrospective, as the GOP Fatcats Cling to Their $$$

April 27, 2008:

America’s 21st Century Proletariat Are an Ominous Omen
By James Castagnera
Attorney at Large
The story seemed like an April Fool’s joke when it appeared in the media on April 1st. The America’s Promise Alliance, chaired by founder Colin Powell, reported that fewer than 50 percent of big-city high school students graduate. In Philly the figure is put at 49.6 percent. In Detroit it’s a shocking 24.9 percent. Cleveland’s Municipal City School District issues diplomas to only 34.1 percent of its students. By contrast, 78 percent of Cleveland’s suburbanite students graduate. In Baltimore, the numbers 34.6 percent in the city, 81.5 percent in the ‘burbs. Nationally, more than a million kids drop out annually. I thought, “You’re putting me on.” But, no, the Fox Network carried the story… so it has to be true, right?
If you live in an affluent suburb or a quiet small town, and if your kids (or grandkids) are in college, should you care about these numbers? I wondered about this recently, while visiting old friends who live in a gated community in Tampa, Florida. Arriving there, we drove up to a guardhouse, where we identified ourselves and our destination. Checking us off a list, the gatekeeper waived us through, after providing directions to the next gate. At gate number two we called our friends, who gave us the code. We pressed the numbered buttons and the gate swung open.
For me, the most interesting thing about that gated “community” is that it’s no community at all. Our friends have been there nearly two years. They know none of their neighbors. During a three-day visit, I seldom even saw a neighbor. I saw no kids at all. So far as I could tell, folks drove out to work in the mornings, drove home in the evenings, and stayed home the rest of the time, unless they drove someplace else, such as a restaurant or mall.
This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed or un-remarked. In a book called “Bowling Alone” (2000), Harvard Professor Robert Putnam plotted the sharp decline of membership in civic organizations, and even in bowling leagues. Home entertainment centers, the Internet, video games, and virtual communities (including on-line dating networks, as well as MySpace and Facebook) conspire to keep us in our cribs.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia annually logs about 400 homicides. These appear to be mostly crime and drug related. Many of the shooters apparently are pursuing the only lucrative business opportunity a typical dropout has in North Philly.
Again, I ask, should we care? April, said T.S. Eliot, is the cruelest month. He got that right. April 20th was the ninth anniversary of the Columbine massacre. April 16th was the first anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre. Cruel indeed… and perhaps ominous as well. The alienation and violence of the inner city, like some Medieval plague that worked its way from city slums to royalty’s country palaces a millennium ago, may be spreading. I wonder how long it will be, before inner-city gangs begin marauding outside their own violent ‘hoods. The day that happens, many affluent suburbanites will find themselves isolated and ill prepared to protect themselves.
If I sound like Poe’s raven, a harbinger of doom, well, so be it. While we watch our giant, flat-screen TVs and wonder why our favorite NFL team made the draft picks it did or who will be the next American Idol or what Angelina and Brad are up to this week… or whether Barack or Hilary will be the next one to appear on Leno or host “Saturday Night Live”… statistics such as the inner-city graduation rates are building like the sediment at the mouth of the Mississippi. That mighty American river, by the way, now ends its long continental course at the newest “third world” city.

October 4, 2009:

Capitalism: A Love Story
Reviewed by James Ottavio Castagnera
Special to The History Place
In case one moviegoer in a million is unaware of Director Michael Moore’s politics, the opening titles of “Capitalism: A Love Story” clear that up. Moore uses security-camera footage of bank heists as a metaphor for his chosen subject. But by the end of the film, one wonders if this is more than a metaphor. Midway through this documentary --- one in a long line that began in 1989 with “Roger and Me,” Moore’s dirge to his hometown of Flint, Michigan --- an evicted homeowner suggests that he might resort to robbing a bank. By the film’s end, after applauding a worker sit-in and an evicted family successfully squatting in their former home, Moore is advocating a revolution.
“I can’t live in a country that does this to its people,” he complains. “And I’m not going anywhere.” After that warning, he asks for his audience’s help. In doing what? In replacing capitalism with democracy, he tells us.
Michael Moore, despite the gloomy pictures he has painted about firearms (“Bowling for Columbine,” 2002), health care (“Sicko,” 2007) and other national ills, is at heart an optimist, when it comes to everyday Americans. His hopes are not without foundation in our history, as this newest film demonstrates. Following a brief interview with his ancient father at the bulldozed site of the giant auto plant where the old man had worked, Moore runs some footage of the 1936 UMWA strike against the auto giants that (in his words) helped create the American middle class. Moore got it right. The Americans whom Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation” first won their unions and their worker rights, before going on to win World War II.
Where are the progeny of these workers today, Mr. Moore? In a tragic twist on “It takes two to tango,” Moore’s film explains that average U.S. citizens were tricked into thinking their homes were banks from which they could withdraw hard cash in the form of home equity loans. The loan documents were loaded with fine print that permitted the holders of the paper to escalate the monthly payments, often dramatically. This, so far as I know, was frequently the case. When it was done, it was criminal and its results were often tragic. But what were these homeowners thinking? And, if they weren’t thinking then, are they likely to start thinking now? My point is that Moore’s optimism may be misplaced. Today’s Americans, daughters and sons of “The Greatest Generation,” are not their fathers and mothers.
We saw Moore’s misplaced optimism before… in “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the ‘expose’ of the 2000 presidential election and the Bush presidency that he hoped would help swing the election John Kerry’s way. Republican partisans countered with “Fahrenhype 9/11,” which effectively challenged many of Moore’s contentions and exposed some exaggerations that undermined Moore’s credibility. At best, “Fahrenheit 9/11” was a neutral factor in a race which ended with a second Bush/Cheney win and four more years of Republican rule.
Just as “Fahrenheit 9/11” featured scenes of protesters taking to the streets after the Supreme Court awarded the 2000 election to Bush, “Capitalism: A Love Story” features the sit-in mentioned above, as well as other protests. Moore also points out that five years ago few, if any, pundits imagined that the black state legislator from Illinois, who gave the keynote speech at the Democratic presidential convention, would wind up in the White House. Even two years ago, when Obama was the junior senator from the Land of Lincoln, precious few could see his candidacy going all the way. (I admit I couldn’t.)
Still, in the film’s final moments, Moore engages in a farcical attempt to make citizen’s arrests of the CEOs of AIG, Bank of America, and the other big winners in the Bailout. The Obama administration has indicated that it will not attempt to “claw back” the bonuses that have enriched the very corporate executives and dealmakers who brought the U.S. economy to the edge of the cliff, requiring a $700 billion parachute from us taxpayers. Don’t count on radical reforms from that quarter, Mr. Moore.
Then what of “The People”? In 2008 only 56.8 percent of all eligible voters went to the poles. This figure was only 1.5 percent higher than the comparable turnout in 2004. How can Moore place his trust in democracy, when 100 million of his voting age countrymen don’t even go to the polls?
Furthermore, what would really have to replace capitalism? Democracy is not an economic system. Moore briefly makes fun of people, from Sarah Palin to some of the men and women in the street, who tried to brand Obama a “Socialist.” Chortle all you want, Mr. Moore, but the alternative to capitalism does seem to be socialism. And, while some of the Scandinavian countries seem to have figured out how to make democratic socialism work pretty well, warnings of potential economic stagnation should not be taken lightly.
Moore, I think, is on firmer ground, when he argues that a return to serious regulation of the financial and banking industries, a more-fairly graduated income tax structure, and revival of labor unionism would go a long way toward closing the gap between rich and poor, resuscitating America’s middle class, and realizing some of the job security and employee benefits that (ironically, as Moore shows) our former foes, Germany and Japan, accord their citizens.
That this will come via a grassroots rebellion is wishful thinking. Obama’s approval rating hovers around 50 percent. His healthcare initiative is teetering on shaky ground. Pressure is mounting to put more troops in Afghanistan, which will siphon scarce federal funds. And many ordinary folks I meet are expressing impatience with him… never mind that he has been in office little more than eight months.
No, Mr. Moore, the people will not be rising up any time soon. AIG has distributed its bonuses with impunity. And I had to see your new film in an “art house,” because the big multi-plexes aren’t screening it, at least not in Philadelphia.
{Jim Castagnera is the author of Al Qaeda Goes to College: Impact of the War on Terror on American Higher Education [Praeger 2009] and 16 other books.)

July 5, 2010:

Reviewed by Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place
Sebastian Junger hit the big time 13 years ago with The Perfect Storm, a non-fiction best seller that morphed into a major motion picture starring no less a celestial light than George Clooney. Some reviewers dubbed Junger the new Hemingway. But since then, his output --- at least on the bookshelves --- has been modest. Fire was a collection of magazine articles, notably including a few on America’s Afghan War. A Death in Belmont came next. A combination childhood memoir and murder mystery, the book recounts the Junger family’s proximity to the Boston Strangler killings and speculates on whether Albert DeSalvo was ‘who done it.’
With Restrepo and a new book entitled War Junger raises his Afghan reporting for Vanity Fair from journalism to art. Reviewing War for The Washington Post back in May, Philip Caputo, whose 1977 A Rumor of War captured the grunt’s reality in Vietnam, wrote, “He thus becomes a kind of 21st-century battle singer, narrating the deeds and misdeeds of his heroes while explaining what makes them do what they do. These reflections, drawing on his wide-ranging research into military history, biology and psychology as well as on his personal experiences, overreach once or twice. Otherwise, it's the best writing I've seen on the subject since J. Glenn Gray's 1959 classic, ‘The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle.’" []
Caputo might also have mentioned War Historian John Keegan’s 1976 The Face of Battle, another Yeoman’s effort at putting our imaginations alongside the boots on the ground. But what now distinguishes Junger from all these predecessors is Restrepo. Virtually a companion piece to War, the film was reportedly self-financed by Junger, until National Geographic stepped up to the plate late in the game. Tim Hetherington, Junger’s photographer on the Vanity Fair pieces, shares credit as co-director. The title derives from the outpost in the viciously contested Korengal Valley, where the two journalists/filmmakers were embedded. The base was named after a combat medic, Pfc. Juan Restrepo, who had been killed in action. As Junger told news media enroute to winning an award at the Sundance Film Festival, "It’s a completely apolitical film. We wanted to give viewers the experience of being in combat with soldiers, and so our cameras never leave their side. There are no interviews with generals; there is no moral or political analysis. It is a purely experiential film."
This, in my view, is both the strength and the weakness of the 93-minute film. On one hand, you are indeed there. Restrepo includes some great battle footage. Its directors obviously took some serious chances to take us into the fray. The downtime scenes also are instructive. One gets the sense that these soldiers--- who, after all, did volunteer for this experience --- sometimes missed the action, when the boredom of garrison life took hold.
But, at the same time, these men cannot escape the horrors of war. The interviews with individual soldiers, that intersperse the film, are very revealing. For instance, one enlisted man confides that he’s tried four or five different sleeping pills and he still can’t sleep. He adds that, actually, he no longer wants to sleep, because he relives the bad parts in his dreams.
We also see scenes in which the CO meets with village elders, assuring them that, if the Taliban are subdued, a road will be built. With it will come newfound prosperity. When the elders ask, what about the civilian dead we’ve endured, the CO says that happened on his predecessor’s watch and they need to get past it.
No narration accompanies these powerful words and images. No experts --- no talking heads--- help us make sense of what we are seeing and hearing. This to some degree is also the film’s greatest weakness. Junger in an interview indicated that the soldiers seldom discussed policy. Granting that in a Republic such as ours, this role falls to our elected civilian leaders, still some reflection on the meaning of it all would seem to be healthy.
Of course, this soldierly contemplation can’t be done out loud, risk-free, in a public forum… as General Stanley McChrystal learned the hard way following his disastrous interview with Rolling Stone. All the same, McChrystal’s self-destruction may not have been a useless gesture. His doubts about the war’s prospects are informative, and therefore valuable. Restrepo gives us a look at the adrenalin rush of combat, the occasional flashes of bloodlust that presumably accompany any military campaign, and the intense bonding and camaraderie of camp life.
But do the soldiers care, should they care, about the apparent futility of the 50 lives lost in taking and holding Restrepo? The outpost has since been abandoned. The promised road has never been built. The parallels to Caputo’s Vietnam, as he noted in his review of War, seem more and more compelling. Was Restrepo the Outpost another Hamburger Hill? If so, shouldn’t Restrepo the Film explore that overarching issue, even if, as in McChrystal’s interview, the line between military and civilian roles is crossed?
The Hurt Locker, 2009’s best picture, which I also reviewed for The History Place, presents its director’s point of view. When the protagonist finds it impossible to reintegrate into his former home life and returns instead to the war in Iraq, we get the message. Junger and Hetherington deliberately try to avoid interjecting a point of view. I wonder if they have been a bit too hands-off here, given that their film stands almost alone as a cinematic voice in the crucial national debate about the future of America’s Afghan incursion.
Bottom line, I’d like to make three points.
One: For a taste of what the war in Afghanistan is like for the American combat troops, who experience it everyday of their tours, this film can’t be beaten. We owe the filmmakers a debt of gratitude for risking their necks to take us there.
Two: If you want some help in making sense of what you will see on the screen, you should read War, either before or after you see the film. The book makes up for the deficiencies of the film that I have suggested in this review.
Three: If you want to see Restrepo on a big screen, you had better act quickly. In the whole of my hometown of Philadelphia, I was able to find it playing in only one downtown art house. I doubt it will be around for long. (However Netflix promises that it will be available soon, in case you can’t find it in a theater near you.)


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