31 August 2008

Reconsider Baby

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I had never thought of Lowell Fulson’s 1954 hit single as being particularly political, but the events of the last week or so might be changing my mind. Fulson’s slow-driving guitar, and his oddly precise enunciation of certain syllables, give this song a life, even 50+ years later. But it’s the chorus, of course, and the song’s message, that are most inescapable. Thus some reconsidered thoughts, and thoughts on reconsideration:

First, there is Senator John McCain’s selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. Senator McCain, are you sure you don’t want to reconsider a decision that looks (at best) like pandering to women, as if “women” constitute a uniform and unified block of voters. At worst, McCain’s decision reverses one of the main arguments behind his candidacy—his long experience—while embracing what has been one of the most malicious and malignant forces in American politics for the last three decades, the Evangelical Christian voters from which the Senator had previously shied away. Now, Senator McCain proposes leaving the nation in the hands of an inexperienced Evangelical should anything happen to him on his next bravery tour through Iraq? Thanks, but no thanks.

I’ll do some reconsidering of my own: last week I wrote that Senator Joe Biden was a terrible choice for Senator Barack Obama's running-mate. I cannot completely let go of the idea that he might not have been Obama's strongest pick—but after the speech Biden made at the Democratic National Convention, I can say that I am more optimistic. It was not a great speech; Biden will never be an Obama or a Clinton in the speech-making department. But it was a very good speech, and it accomplished what it needed to in terms of putting an aggressive face forward against the McCain campaign, and articulating a strong rationale for his candidacy.

Indeed, the Biden and Palin selections are but a small element of a broader reevaluation needed by American voters: we should be reconsidering our choices across the board, from president and vice president to our local congressional representative, state elected officials, and city or county leaders. One can argue the merits of legislated term-limits, but I prefer the voter-run type, when after a certain number of years, we just vote people out of office. The stories abound of comfortable politicians getting too chummy with those around them, or using their powers in small and possibly abusive ways (indeed, even Ms. Palin may not be immune to this). There is a reason we hold elections every few years: precisely to allow for the important and necessary reconsideration of the politicians we choose to manage our governments. They work for us – and we and they should never forget that.

Lastly, there’s the current administration, for which reconsideration has never been a high priority; certainly not for President George W. Bush, who finds no mistakes worth acknowledging. I suspect, however, that the American people may be suffering from a bit of buyer’s remorse about two terms of this Bush presidency—which may support the voters’ appetite for reconsidering their options come this November. And well they should.

None of the candidates are perfect, but there are also very clear choices to be made. Or at least I hope so.

23 August 2008

Bidin' My Time

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Whatever other news there is to write about this week, it’s important (well, “important”) to note that Senator Barack Obama today selected Senator Joe Biden to be his vice presidential running mate.

This is possibly the dumbest of the smart choices he could have made. That is not really saying very much. To be blunt about it, Biden seems like a terrible, terrible choice.

For one thing, Biden has screwed up every one of his own presidential campaigns. Whether it’s an issue of plagiarism, or of talking about someone being a nice, clean, articulate black guy, the biggest range of Biden’s presidential-type experiences consist of him not getting very far trying to run for president.

As for some notion of a rationale: picking a running mate with more experience, and picking a running mate with more Senate experience are not – in case there is any ambiguity about this – the same thing. Biden’s resume advantage over Obama consists of many more years of being in the Senate. Again, this is not saying much; Biden also, by virtue of being older, has more years of experience eating, pooping, and putting his pants on in the morning, but none of these are really qualifications for being president or vice president either. Biden does not even have the distinction of being a Congressional inquisitor, like some of his colleagues; his performance during the George W. Bush administration is no more distinguished than his previous decades in the Senate, and is not marked by any kind of vigorous opposition to Bush administration policies, either foreign or domestic.

The smartest thing about selecting Biden is that he has been around the block so many times it’s hard to imagine there are a lot of skeletons left in his closet. On the other hand, that’s hardly reassuring.

Oh, sure: I’m ready and willing to be surprised by the performance of the Obama-Biden team. I’m also ready and willing for McCain to continue reassuring the American people that he knows nothing about the issues that most concern them, like the economy. Alas, Obama-Biden’s path to victory may very well rest more solidly on the McCain team’s commitment to defeat.

17 August 2008

If Norman Finkelstein...

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

If Norman G. Finkelstein, the author of the groundbreaking book The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, had written a novel instead of his well-researched historical analysis ... then Tova Reich’s My Holocaust: A Novel might well have been the result. It was with the clarity of Finkelstein kicking around in the back of my head that I made my way through Reich’s strangely compelling and highly entertaining novel. That said, although I have never met Finkelstein, I doubt he would have been able to nail the absurdity of holocaust worship with Reich’s comic timing.

At the center of Reich’s story are the Messers, père et fils: Maurice, the holocaust survivor and founder of the consulting firm Holocaust Connections, Inc., and his son Norman, the company’s president and a leader in the so-called Second Generation movement. Over the course of a couple of years, Reich moves us through Maurice and Norman’s striver approach to tapping the power of the holocaust (“Make Your Cause a Holocaust” is Norman’s branding line for their business), to their rise to the pinnacle of the American Jewish Suffering establishment through their involvement with the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, to their slight fall from grace as the Third Generation of “survivors” takes over, literally. Reich’s book once again reveals that there’s no business like Shoah business, if any reader managed to escape such knowledge previously.

Much of what works well about this novel is the way in which Reich characterizes and caricatures the cynical exploitation of the Jewish holocaust for self-aggrandizing purposes – all in the name of the Jewish people, of course. She then folds in the expansion of the holocaust to the devotees of other genocides, from Armenia to Cambodia to Rwanda, to say nothing of the “ferret holocaust, the mad cow holocaust ... the Confederate Flag holocaust, the Falun Gong holocaust ... and so on and so forth across a topography populated by seeming crackpots and cranks – each and every one of these lowercase holocaust [that] without exception had to be shunned in the short run for the sake of the ultimate legitimization and triumph” of the One, True, Holy, Jewish Holocaust®. Reich even includes the folks I termed “The New Survivors” in an essay a few years ago, a group that has not, by comparison, been as successful as their American Jewish counterparts. Just about the only joke not present in this story is the one I just made about trademarking the holocaust itself. The book also includes (briefly) perspectives from Poles, Israelis, Palestinians, and others on the over-promotion of Jewish suffering, as well as the way in which the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp has become a kind of theme park memorial. A series of scenes in which a group of Israeli teenagers make a bit of a hash of the camp is simultaneously shocking, funny, and very much to the point.

I enjoyed My Holocaust, strange as it is, but in the interests of a thorough review, I want to register two specific criticisms. The first concerns the last fifty pages or so: the stream-of-consciousness style and interwoven changes of character perspective, that worked effectively for most of the book, starts to fall apart as the chaotic action climaxes. Like a plane in a nosedive, albeit one with a qualified pilot, Reich manages to pull the story and the reader back into level flight at the very end. I suspect that the concluding sections are supposed to feel like a vigorous race to a dramatic climax, but instead it felt a little more frenetic than controlled, and thus harder to follow.

The second point is more a question than a criticism: will any reader not well-versed in the obsessions of American Jewish culture over the last four or five decades “get” this story, even for the work of fiction it is? I am not concerned that (as with Finkelstein) Reich has opened herself up to attack by the vigorous, intolerant stream of American Judaism that supports holocaust worship; that already happened, even before the book was finished. Nor do I think this book is “bad for the Jews,” to borrow the classic formulation; the American Jewish communities’ twin obsessions with Israel and the holocaust needs as much airing out as they can get. But if one great strength of fiction can be that it takes the narrow interests of an author and makes them more universally appealing, well, I am not sure this is an area in which My Holocaust succeeds.

The only way to know for sure is for you to read it for yourself.

10 August 2008

China, the Olympics, & Me

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

A couple of weeks ago, before the Beijing Olympics began, the New York Times ran an article (one of many appearing in news sources around the world) about China cleaning up before the games. The story reminded me of the late period of Erich Honecker’s East Germany: it used to be said that the houses along Honecker’s journey from home to office would be repainted regularly, so as to remind him of the beautiful socialist state in which he lived. Such was the delusion necessary to overcome what would otherwise have been obvious about the gray and oppressive German Democratic Republic.

The same seems true in Beijing, where oppression remains the name of the game, even as the city hosts the Olympics. China’s excitement and anticipation may be well founded, as is the desire to put the best foot forward – especially in light of the difficulty visitors and athletes alike will have trying to breathe in Beijing. But razing vast swathes of living, breathing neighborhoods, covering up (literally and figuratively) a city’s centuries-long growth, is too much. It is a sharp reminder of how far China has to go before it becomes a nation in which its citizens are well-respected by the state itself, and in which its pride derives from its people and their everyday activities, as much as “prestige” projects like the Olympics.

Of course, repression in China is not new, including oppression in relation to the Olympics. Back in September 2000, I wrote about an unbelievable story on NBC that effectively endorsed China’s abusive approach to training Olympic athletes. Those stories of abuse continue, eight years later. Instead of caring about the way that China (and other nations) train their competitors, however, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is more concerned about the eternal and largely irrelevant problem of “doping.” Apparently the so-called level playing field applies only to performance-enhancing drugs, not performance-enhancing torture and manipulation.

This time around, my approach to the Olympics will be different: more apathy and more distance. The best revenge I can think of – revenge for our cultural, political, and corporate complicity in supporting and sustaining both the authoritarian Chinese regime and the false modesty of the IOC – is to ignore the games entirely.

I wish the American team the best of luck. And I do that with the knowledge that my lack of attention to their competition in Beijing will have no bearing on their potential for gold medal victories.

02 August 2008

New-Old Boss

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

For some reason, in the weeks and months leading up to a presidential election, I often find myself drifting back to give The Who’s 1971 album Who’s Next a listen, and many more listens after that. The nine songs assembled here remain some of the best contemporary music ever made, the maturation of rock music angst into something more focused, angry, self-aware, and political than much of what had come before.

But it is with the last track – “Won’t Get Fooled Again” – that I move past the music and start thinking about the political, because the song demands it. With lyrics like these, how could I not? You can hear, even feel, the failure of everything hopeful about several generation’s worth of politics. And the song’s bruising final words – “Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss” – make the point as powerfully as any treatise of political philosophy.

Here we are, mid-2008, on the eve of what is often billed as an “historic” election. (As if the previous ones were not? Our sense of history is too facile.). In one corner, we have an aging candidate who represents a certain kind of establishment, although he has over the years spent much time and honest energy trying (ever so slightly) to buck that establishment, with mixed results. In the other corner, we have a younger candidate who represents a certain kind of establishment, although he has over the years spent much time and honest energy trying (ever so slightly) to buck that establishment, with mixed results. Both are far from perfect.

Fine: perfection in politics is hard to come by. If a good example is needed, read the recent, four-part “Forum: Politics of Fear” from issue 6 of n+1. Arguments about the way in which fear is used as a political tool raise crucial questions about both the integrity of our government and the response of the citizenry to threats of various kinds.

So to come back around to The Who and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”: the challenge for this election, for citizens as much as politicians, is to try to achieve change in a political environment in which stasis (in the name of stability) tends to be the dominant theme. I’m looking forward to meeting the new boss. And I’m hoping against hope that in policy – to say nothing of personality and intellect – he’s nothing like the soon-to-be old boss.