the past in pop culture

Category: Movies

The Birds Are Angry

The Birds

The Birds (Photo credit: edu_fon)

With the NSA around, who needs fiction any more? Using Angry Birds to spy on people? Priceless! It’s the perfect mash-up of time wasting app with full on 1950s paranoia. Rovio married to Hitchcock. In The Birds, we never do find out why those birds are so angry at Tippie Hedren nor is it clear in the game what the swine have done to merit such hatred. All we know is that the threat is constant.

Some see a neo-Cold War conspiracy in Angry Birds. The game’s designers say they were inspired by the threat of a swine flu epidemic back in ’09. As it turns out, the birds are now the bigger problem. Even just this week avian flu has returned to the headlines with new quarantines of bird markets in China and the first human death from the virus recorded in North America. Are the pigs going to get angry, too? (This is not a facetious question if you live in Texas, by the way. After a dramatic rise in the feral hog population, the ravaging swine have invaded suburban areas causing fears of an aporkalypse.)

Pigs just don’t seem to have the same existential charge as birds though. Pigs, after all, are mammals like ourselves. Birds might be warm blooded but they’re still reptiles descended from the dinosaurs. It’s hard enough to know what your cat thinks of you—good luck with the birds.

We all like watching the sea gulls at the seashore but just try eating a hotdog there. Crows can also be creepy. Why else would a group of them be termed a murder? Just a few days ago a sea gull and a crow got together to attack some peace doves released by the Pope. Birds have a pecking order, too. Just ask Amazon. Its delivery drones are getting taken down by hawks who aren’t accustomed to sharing the skies.

The drones are fighting back though. Or rather, the U.S. Army is. Now it’s making its drones look less like drones and more like birds. Soon it will be equipping its troops with flocks of them. What’s that at your bird feeder, you ask? The beady-eyed character with a sharp beak and no interest in seeds? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s just the latest technology coming soon to a location very near you. Promise.




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Into the Ordinary

English: Portrait of Charlie Chaplin

English: Portrait of Charlie Chaplin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty is a man who goes to work and pays the bills—until he gets fired when Life Magazine goes digital. Life, it turns out, was so twentieth century. As Mitty and his colleagues act out the downsizing drama, he is finally pushed to make real the adventure dramas of his daydreams. Why? To get the girl, to get a life, and to get the job done. Mitty completes his final assignment at the magazine even if his new bosses belittle him and can him anyways.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an everyman story with a populist flair. It harks back to Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s, to Jimmy Stuart and Henry Fonda who revealed common decency and everyday principles to be heroic attributes. Except, of course, that in the 2013 version Mitty actually becomes precisely the kind of movie hero “the rest of us can only dream of becoming.”

Going to work day after day rarely looks like heroism. Running off to climb Mount Everest is something Americans totally understand. Office drones never find their true selves; the oxygen deprived on the other hand always have a good story to tell at the dinner party. Never mind those cautionary tales Jon Krakauer is so good at writing. You know, the one about how climbing Everest is mostly a matter of paying a guide and some sherpas to risk their lives for you. Or that other one about the over confident young man who had read one too many books about the wilderness and ended up starving to death in the Alaskan woods.

Funny that it’s been a century now since Charlie Chaplin made his movie debut in December, 1913. Once the biggest star in the world, Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp persona was the ultimate little guy. In hard times he often couldn’t hold down a job but made comic magic out of being reduced to eating shoe leather. His repetitive stress injury—a mental breakdown—from working on an ever faster moving assembly line led to the best critique of modern times the screen has ever seen.

Stiller seems to throw a nod to Chaplin with a short scene in which his Mitty performs a series of neat tricks on a skateboard that his love interest just misses seeing every time. It’s the kind of small gesture that the Tramp won you over with—the bittersweet display of how an ordinary man might be special, but is rarely recognized. We like our underdogs successful, our Davids always taking down Goliaths. So here’s a New Year’s toast to the shepherds who do nothing more than mind their sheep, even if they daydream of heroism while doing it.

Ships of State

Climbing Ship Breaker

Climbing Ship Breaker (Photo credit: AdamCohn)

Plato once likened leading a nation to commanding a ship. In the new Tom Hanks movie, Captain Phillips, the ship he helms as the title character is a cargo freighter. As an actor, Hanks took up where Jimmy Stewart left off in the role of most decent man in America years ago. Recently he polled ahead of the President as the most trusted. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that in his turn as Phillips, Hanks manages to sound more like John F. Kennedy than the real Captain Phillips who, though born and bred in Boston, has an accent nowhere near as thick as Hanks’ impersonation.

In the Hollywood version of the true story of the Maersk Alabama, Hanks is captaining not just a ship, but a ship of state. The large and prosperous freighter loaded down with consumer goods lumbers through the waterways just off the coast of some of the world’s most impoverished countries. The small skiffs the Somali pirates use to beset the behemoth appear out of the nowhere of a deep blue sea as suddenly as the planes that approached the twin towers out of a clear September sky.

Director Paul Greengrass previously made United 93 based on the events inside the third plane of the 9/11 attacks in which the everyday heroism of its passengers forced the hijacked plane out of the sky. Here Phillips has to be heroic but doesn’t pay with his life. Instead, he finds himself freed from the all-too-human Somalis who literally have nothing to lose by an impersonal force of Navy SEALs in an outcome as inevitable as the American firepower is overwhelming. While grateful, Phillips is too decent not to see that the story is tragic and that the solution solves nothing. In the end, Hanks might not be channeling JFK but rather his predecessor Ike who made his farewell speech into a warning about the rise of the military-industrial complex that is now bigger and badder than ever.

Ships loom large in the popular imagination as microcosms of the social condition. The Costa Concordia that ran afoul of rocks off the Italian coast as its captain allegedly was distracted by his lover, a dancer from Moldova, struck a chord in a country that saw its Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi brought down by a scandal in which he paid for sex with an underage Moroccan dancer. And in a metaphor made to order for Italy where heartbreaking beauty no longer compensates for economic stagnation, the ugly remains of the cruise ship that blight one of world’s loveliest settings now represent an engineering nightmare as salvage companies work to right it so it can be stripped for scrap. Ultimately, the Costa Concordia may well end up off the coast of India or Bangladesh where barefoot ship breakers tear apart beached hulls of scrapped ships by hand, at great risk to themselves and to the ocean which will absorb the toxic residues of the engines and internal linings.

Like the enormous container ships that span as much as four football fields in length, some cruise ships are now so large that critics wonder whether like banks deemed “too big to fail” these liners are “too big to sail.” The high seas, like high finance, require running risks in our age but ships sometimes founder, their captains can’t always be counted on, and the pirates are real.

The Manchurian Email

The Queen of Hearts

The Queen of Hearts (Photo credit: RobHannay)

In these days of the NSA, and its policy of no email left behind, some propose resistance via nonsense. An Ohio man recently designed a program called ScareMail that will add a string of computer-generated sentences containing significant NSA keywords to every email you write. In his view, if every email has something deemed “collectible” in it, then the results will become meaningless.

The sample ScareMail sentences read like nonsense: “Captain Beatty failed on his Al-Shabaab, hacking relentlessly about the fact to phish this far.” They read a lot like the train scene from The Manchurian Candidate. When Marco (Frank Sinatra) meets Rosie (Janet Leigh) on a train from Washington to New York, he’s so paranoid he can barely light a cigarette. The conversation that ensues when she hits on him hardly helps his mental state:

Rosie: Maryland’s a beautiful state.
Marco: This is Delaware.
Rosie: I know. I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this stretch. But nonetheless, Maryland is a beautiful state. So is Ohio, for that matter.
Marco: I guess so. Columbus is a tremendous football town.

Things don’t improve much from there and, really, no one has ever agreed on whether Rosie’s words were attempts to trigger Marco into a brainwashed state (as the Queen of Hearts did for Raymond Shaw), or if she was just a pretty blonde for Sinatra to hang out with.

Either way, the non sequitur banter is precisely the kind of thing that some now urge all of us to consider when engaging in private conversations by electronic means. A literary scholar suggests we re-learn the language of beggars, thieves, and bandits who long confounded authority by making one word stand in for another. A Brazilian commentator has described her country’s “Mad Cow Protection Plan”—an effort to include nonsense language in addition to directly addressing NSA workers with holiday greetings—after Brazilians learned about data mining there.

A Dutch-Iranian filmmaker decided instead to take the cow, or rather bull, by the horns. He politely called the NSA on a number of occasions to ask for assistance in retrieving some lost emails. This was, needless to say, a reassuring exercise:

NSA: “What you’re speaking of we’re not involved in. You have no reason to be afraid.”

Caller: “I can tell everyone, my girlfriend especially, that I have nothing to worry about?”

NSA: “Have a good day.”

The filmmakers and writers of Eastern Europe used to do a marvelous job of slipping messages past the censors of their countries back in the bad old days of the Iron Curtain. Sometimes they’d deliberately place an obviously objectionable phrase or image next to one that was a sly jab at authority. The garbage got cut; the important part stayed in. It worked like a charm and meant that movies like Closely Watched Trains or Man of Marble made it to the screen.

The odd twist now is that no one seems to be worrying much about what gets said publicly. It’s our private remarks that have us going all retro-Red Scare. But then, this is a story in which one of the key figures–the director of the NSA–publicly stated that he gave “the least untruthful answer possible” in response to questions about privacy concerns. So speak up, speak out, but for safety’s sake, at least consider speaking in tongues.

Envying Amish

Amish country near Arthur, Illinois

Amish country near Arthur, Illinois (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Minneapolis, a group of neighbors started what they dubbed the “Amish Envy Club” to help them tackle tiresome house projects. Inspired by the idea of a barn raising or a quilting party, they get together to rip out carpets or till a garden. A large group works, a smaller group takes care of the kids, and dinner is potluck. They have since inspired others to form A.E. clubs. And elsewhere in America, somebody somewhere is picking up a new Amish romance novel to read since in 2013, one is being released about every four days.

Everybody loves the Amish. They love them so much, in fact, that well-known Amish areas in Pennsylvania and Ohio receive millions of visitors a year and generate hundreds of millions in tourist revenues. Their Amish populations each number about 30,000. On a per-Amish person basis, that’s an amazingly high productivity rate.

Not many things say “pastpersistent” louder than does Amish envy. Scholars tell us that we’re casting a nostalgic gaze back to the past when we take a weekend trip to Amish country, read a “bonnet ripper” as Amish-themed chick-lit is known, or buy a handcrafted piece of furniture or shoe-fly pie. Why? Because the Amish are living in the past, right now. Yes, they are so much realer than those Civil War re-enactor guys who are always a little too old and a little too chubby to make the illusion convincing. And unlike living history interpreters (that is, those people who pretend to be Ben Franklin or some anonymous colonial-era milkmaid), the Amish don’t speechify about the Revolution or give you overly long explanations about how cheese is made. No, the Amish actually live like people used to do in the American past of covered wagons and homesteading. They churn butter by hand, go to one-room school houses, wear clothes without zippers, and—best of all—travel by horse and buggy not just from 9 to 5 or on odd weekends, but every single day, year after year.

We look beyond the fact that we’re just day trippers in Amish land and focus on all the uplifting reminders of the values of how things used to be. It’s the simple life versus the complicated life. No movie got it better than Peter Weir’s Witness in which Harrison Ford’s cynical cop has to flee the corrupt Philadelphia police force for Lancaster County Amish country. The beautifully lyrical barn raising scene is enough to give anyone Amish envy. The plot toys with the idea that he might stay or that his Amish love interest might leave, but go back he must. And she has to stay or the rural fantasy of a superior past would be tarnished. Since Hollywood loves a happy ending, that just wouldn’t do.

It’s easy to forget that envy was traditionally counted among the seven deadly sins (for which you would not burn, but rather freeze in hell). Perhaps this explains the rather darker undertone of Witness when the “present” intrudes on the “past” and Ford punches out a local thug who was getting his kicks taunting the Amish. Even more does it explain the current reality shows such as Breaking Amish and Amish Mafia (reality television motto: leave no sub-culture unturned!). The relentless commodification of the Amish as a wholesome source of traditional values makes the thought of seeing an Amish kid walk through Times Square fiendishly attractive and visits to night clubs and strip joints aren’t far behind. That the moral superiority attributed to the Amish way of life (regardless of whether they claim it) can be turned on its head by a short trip to the temptations of the Big Apple surely has something to do with a kind of sour grapes. Envy isn’t admiration for the achievements of others, it’s resentment of them. It pays to remember that the line between them is thin.

Time of the Roma

Group photograph captioned 'Hungarian Gypsies ...

Group photograph captioned ‘Hungarian Gypsies all of whom were deported’ in The New York Times, Sunday Feb. 12, 1905 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Twenty-five years ago this month, the judges at the Cannes Film Festival named Emir Kusturica as Best Director for his Time of the Gypsies (1988). The audience at Cannes gave the film a five-minute standing ovation. It starred Romani people speaking the Romani language and incorporated symbolism based on their cultural beliefs into its plot. A beautifully constructed and moving film, it also played to nearly every cultural stereotype of “Gypsies” imaginable: psychics, thieves, and beggars abound. Inspired by a real (and sadly common) case of Romani children kidnapped for illegal adoptions, the movie emphasized not victimization but Romani criminality. The term “poverty porn” hadn’t been coined yet (a London critic first used it to describe the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire), but it trafficked in a similar kind of appeal. Ever wonder about the backstory behind the gangs of pickpockets or crews of beggars found in any tourist center in Europe? Well, this film has something for you.

In 1988, Yugoslavia, Kusturica’s country, still existed. Much has changed in the world since the fall of the wall and the end of the Iron Curtain. Not much has improved for the European Roma, and in many ways their situation has worsened. Widespread discrimination and harassment (both official—see France—and unofficial—see skinheads) continue to keep them often impoverished, poorly educated and socially marginalized. Recently, the New York Times reported that a school principal in Slovakia was looking to the American experience for models of how to desegregate schools (FYI: still a work in progress around here). In this principal’s school, Romani children study in separate classrooms for slow learners, play on a separate playground, are not served in the cafeteria, and their parents are forbidden to enter the building. These are just some features of the grave and systematic violations of human rights faced by Roma peoples in Europe.

And then we have My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding. The tremendously successful show on TLC is in its second season and about to spawn a spinoff: Gypsy Sisters. Based on a similarly titled British series, the Big Fat franchise gets its kicks by letting viewers into the “secretive, extravagant and surprising world of the gypsies.” The voiceover narration used by the show is a mash-up of old school voice of God omniscience (“explaining” customs such as child marriage) and TMZ style snark. An earlier attempt by an American network to cash in on the newfound popularity of this subgroup titled American Gypsies featured a New York clan that runs psychic shops didn’t manage to get the mix quite right. National Geographic canned it after one season not, apparently, because it was threatened by a potential class action law suit on the grounds of racist discrimination, but rather because viewers found the characters “obnoxious” and the situations “contrived.” Big Fat has avoided an emphasis on criminality by instead taking viewers inside the blinged out wedding rituals and family dramas that accompany them and that the show relentlessly insists are typical in this community. Slate’s reviewer found the show “compulsively watchable,” and had no problem blaming the Roma for being backwards.

The Romanichal (the largest subgroup of Roma people in the United States, Britain, and Ireland) don’t, of course, face the kind of persecution in the U.S. that is more common in Europe. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, some Romanichal fled Europe for just this reason. Generally speaking, they are often lighter skinned than Romani groups in southern and eastern Europe. This fact places the recent reality shows about “gypsies” squarely in the category of a slew of shows that pander to stereotypes about the white working class. From the “hixploitation” of Buckwild to Honey Boo Boo and Breaking Amish to the many iterations of Italian bashing in Jersey Shore, Mob Wives, and Mama’s Boys, white is the new black for entertainment networks skittish about engaging in actual race baiting. As Eric Daggans of the Tampa Bay Times points out about this trend, the African American and Latino communities are far better prepared to bring pressure on producers to avoid creating shows around the most blatant stereotypes of these groups. It’s a good reminder though that it hasn’t been that long in the United States since the boundaries of the word “white” didn’t always include groups such as Italian or Irish Americans.

But as the principal of that Slovak elementary school realized, the African American experience remains relevant for understanding the dynamic of how Romanis (and other white ethnics) are perceived in contemporary popular culture. Reality shows about otherwise marginalized groups offer up the same deal with the devil that characterized how black characters and culture have long appeared in “mainstream” entertainment. From the minstrel shows of the nineteenth-century, to the mammies and Sambos of the early twentieth, to the homeboys and Sapphires of today, playing to a broad audience has meant playing to type. This has often been the only way in for black performers. As Hattie McDaniels famously put it about her mammy role in Gone with the Wind, given the choices available to her, it was better to play a maid than to be one.

It’s remarkable that reality shows are almost the only venues on American television where one is likely to hear regional (especially Southern) accents. It’s also remarkable to see the great diversity of peoples and lifestyles that make up this nation. Only on shows such as Bridezilla does one routinely see mixed race couples and a genuinely broad representation of ethnic and racial backgrounds. Yet they usually come with a kick. Exploiting masquerades as explaining and blaming is never far behind. Theories about “cultures of poverty” often lurk in the background where “traditional” and “backwards” are nearly always synonyms.

Abercrombie Zombies and Other Monstrosities

Inside Cover Page from 1909 Abercrombie & Fitc...

Inside Cover Page from 1909 Abercrombie & Fitch Catalog, their first catalog (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a stunning piece of news-that-isn’t-new (or even news), it was recently revealed that Mike Jeffries, the CEO of clothing and lifestyle line Abercrombie & Fitch, confessed to working hard to associate his brand only with the cool kids at school. Although he seems to have gotten away with it for over seven years now, no story is ever fully dead on the internet. Last week, a recent publication quoted a comment Jeffries had made in a 2006 Salon piece by Benoit Denizet-Lewis. This time people paid attention to the fact that Jeffries had gone on record as saying that A&F does not want larger sized girls and women, or the un-cool, un-attractive and friendless to ever buy their clothes or shop in their stores. In fact, just to make sure, they don’t even make women’s sizes larger than 10.

Denizet-Lewis found this pretty appalling the first time around. Forbes speculates that it pushed more people’s buttons this time because things have changed. Citing the tremendous popularity of the recent soap ads that let average women know they’re not nearly as unattractive as they think, Davia Temin argues that Dove’s feel good collectivism is winning out over the mean girls and bully boys. These latter groups are sometimes referred to in middle school speak as Abercrombie zombies. Contributors to Urban Dictionary don’t all agree on what this means, but it’s definitely not a compliment. The most popular definition describes this variety of the undead as the “clones and mindless copies of one another who can’t think for themselves, so they shop at Abercrombie & Fitch in order to try and give meaning to their empty lives.” Critiques of mindless conformity among status-conscious kids aren’t really unique to this generation of course. And Jeffries’ biggest mistake wasn’t dissing the nerds, freaks, weirdos, geeks, dorks, losers, dweebs or any others who might qualify themselves with the word “alternative.” No, it was admitting openly that A&F is playing the game.

If you’ve ever attended an American high school, or more importantly, ever watched a movie set in an American high school, you know the score. The cool kids never cop to anything and certainly not to making an effort at it. At least since the 1980s, the high school movie—from Revenge of the Nerds to Heathers to Juno to Superbad—always takes the point of view of the outcast and misunderstood. Always. In the genre’s finest film, John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club, the ensemble cast that includes a brain, a princess, a criminal, an athlete, and a basket case, only has time for the cool kids once they ‘fess up to their own insecurities. Andrew the athlete (Emilio Estevez) admits to tormenting the weak to impress others; Claire the princess (Molly Ringwald) hates herself for going along with her friends all the time. And let’s not forget that Ringwald’s real star turn was in Pretty in Pink, where outcast girl is mistreated by cool guy until she and her outcast friends show him that he’s the real loser. And then they get together.

One might detect a contradiction here. After all, the uncool kids do want to be cool. Who doesn’t, really? Insecurities are the advertising industry’s stock in trade. This is why some think that Jeffries’ remarks may have revealed his business genius yet more fully. Surely he was channeling his inner-Don Draper when he told Salon that when you don’t alienate anybody, you don’t excite anyone either. In advertising, edgy is the new…edgy. As Denizet-Lewis wrote, “it’s not a normal day in America if someone isn’t suing (or boycotting, or “girlcotting”) Abercrombie & Fitch.” The only way advertisers have ever been able to find out what constitutes going “too far” is by going too far. Just this past week, major corporations have had to do the take-it-back two-step over ad campaigns that made light of race, rape, and suicide. Cool comes at a price, but it’s not much of a leap to think that it’s just another cost of doing business.

Gatsby: A Matter of Infinite Hope

English: Cover of a 1922 edition of F. Scott F...

English: Cover of a 1922 edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book Tales of the Jazz Age, painted by John Held, Jr. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Baz Luhrmann has a modest goal for his movie version of The Great Gatsby. He plans to fulfill every high school English teacher’s fantasy: making the book seem relevant to our present moment. In the age of the one percent, this doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. Gatsby’s parties will come alive in lurid 3D decadence to a soundtrack that replaces the jazz of the Jazz Age with the bass and beat of hip hop and the club. Everything will be bigger and better. Judging from the trailer (and that’s all we here at pastpersistent can judge from in the absence of an invitation to the premiere at Cannes), Gatsby won’t just toss a dazzling array of custom made shirts at Daisy and Nick, he’ll rain them down on their heads off of a balcony.

If this isn’t excitement enough, the trailer also highlights the film’s homage to the car chase scene from The French Connection. Although Gatsby usually  doesn’t strike one as an action filled novel, Fitzgerald does make a reference to Gatsby’s car speeding along at more than forty, yes, even fifty or sixty miles per hour. The car might be slow but the movie makers stayed true to the novel’s cold-eyed analysis of nouveau riche desperation. They reportedly plunked down more, possibly much more, than a million each for three 1929 roadsters.

In ways large and small, the rest of us are encouraged to do the same. Brooks Brothers and Tiffany’s are rolling out Gatsby inspired collections. But if a six figure ring is beyond your price point, you might be able to swing some eye shadow. And in a worst case scenario, you could always buy the book. You won’t be alone. Despite the kerfuffle over the new movie tie-in cover, Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic is on its way to the top of the year’s bestseller list.

The merchandising does kind of undercut the novel’s premise: that you can’t buy your way into social acceptance in America. It’s a problem for the film. These days, a guy like Jay Gatsby would have to behave a lot worse to get any pushback. No, for an actual takedown of arriviste tackiness, what you need to watch is The Queen of Versailles, the recent documentary about a wealthy timeshare king and his beauty pageant trophy wife as they undertake to build the largest private home in the United Sates. Getting takeout for ten from McDonald’s in your stretch limo while dropping a few million on outfits worthy of the adult film industry—now that’s tacky. Indeed, it doesn’t take much to imagine that this is how Gatsby’s Myrtle (Tom Buchanan’s middle-class mistress) would have behaved were she actually to have deposed Daisy and run off with the rich guy.

Jay Gatsby, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is, in Daisy’s famous line, much too cool for all that. If the movie works—and we’ll know soon enough even if we don’t have press passes for Cannes—it will surely be due to the boy wonder all grown up. DiCaprio’s got the Fitzgerald feel. In Titanic he gave us the longing of the steerage-class striver who shouts “I’m the king of the world” from the bow of the world’s most famous boat. In Catch Me If You Can, he charmed us as the slippery shape-shifting con man who was everything to everyone despite being nothing at all. In Woody Allen’s Celebrity, he made sly fun of his own image as a badly behaved star and in Aviator, took a turn as troubled genius Howard Hughes whose greatness was undone by paranoia and obsession.

These are facets of the American character that Fitzgerald set out to autopsy in Gatsby. At the start of that novel, the eponymous character was already dead and Nick Carraway, the staid everyman who narrates Gatsby’s story, has already returned home to the humdrum Midwest. The lights have done dark in Gatsby’s mansion. And when the lights come up in the movie theater, one wonders what will remain with us: the brightness of the fireworks or the brevity of their sparkle.

The Guantanamo Games


English: NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba (Aug. 25, 2011) The American flag flies over Naval Station Guantanamo Bay. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kilho Park/Released) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alice Paul told a journalist in 1917 that “I’ve been forcibly fed, and I feel that every atom of American self-respect within me has been outraged.” Last week, in a piece titled “Gitmo is Killing Me,” Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel wrote in the New York Times of his own experience of force feeding that he “would not wish this cruel punishment on anyone.” Moqbel and other prisoners at the American base in Guantanamo, Cuba started a hunger strike earlier in April that now involves nearly half the men. Sixteen are presently being force fed.

The HBO movie about Alice Paul’s leadership of the American suffrage movement, Iron Jawed Angels, graphically depicted what force feeding looks like. Paul, played by Hilary Swank, is forcibly restrained and has a tube shoved down her throat to allow the guards to pour a mix of milk and raw eggs into her as she wretches and struggles. It’s difficult to watch. No doubt this explains why almost every other movie that incorporates force feeding into its plot is a horror film. Doctor Irene Martinez, herself a victim of imprisonment and torture in Argentina, wrote in an essay on Iron Jawed Angels in the book The Picture of Health: Medical Ethics and the Movies that the force feeding of prisoners meets the definition of torture according to many international protocols governing medical ethics. In Angels, this act of suffering makes Paul’s heroism transcend the narrow mindedness of those who oppose her cause. When the press reveals the abuse that Paul and her fellows received, the public outcry shames the administration of President Woodrow Wilson into freeing the women and eventually supporting the 19th Amendment.

Or so the movie would have it. As Olga Khazan of The Atlantic points out in “Why the Guantanamo Bay Hunger Strikes Probably Won’t Work,” the success of women’s suffrage movements in the United States and Britain did not result primarily from the use of hunger striking by a small group of activists. Suffrage came about because of mass mobilizations of women and men for decades. It’s also worth noting here that Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and the other suffragists sent to the Occoquan workhouse to serve sixty-day sentences for trespassing (by picketing in front of the White House during war time) didn’t go on a hunger strike to directly advocate for women getting the vote. They did so to make clear that they believed themselves to be political prisoners and to protest the ill treatment to which they were subjected.

Hunger strikes are exceptionally useful for making the jailers look bad. Khazan finds that in recent times, such strikes in prisons have been highly effective—at least in cases where the public found the strikers sympathetic. She concludes however that the Guantanamo prisoners won’t succeed because Americans just don’t care and notes, in an update to her piece, that polls showing precisely such attitudes influenced the Obama administration’s decision to renege on the campaign promise to close the prison at Guantanamo. Indeed, the very reason that many of the prisoners at Guantanamo have gone on a hunger strike is that the United States cleared eighty-six of them for release and yet continues to imprison them. Moqbel, after eleven years in prison, was cleared in January but since the U.S. does not want to send any former prisoners back to Yemen, his country of origin, he remains a prisoner. In his New York Times op-ed he writes of this situation, “I am a human being, not a passport, and I deserve to be treated like one.”

In Salon, Falguni Sheth questions Khazan’s conclusion that the Guantanamo hunger strikers are unsympathetic. The suggestion that they cannot gain sympathy through their actions rests on the assumption that they can only be unsympathetic. Sheth argues that those who would keep them there without charges, a trial, or any evidence of guilt are not likely to be moved by their hunger strike, but those who believe in the rule of law are likely to be troubled indeed. She continues that even where prisoners are not, in themselves, sympathetic figures, their action as hunger strikers often is. They attempt to harm only themselves. When force fed, their dehumanized condition is more fully revealed. The question, finally, is whether as Paul put it, Americans’ atoms of self-respect will be outraged.

UPDATE (April 30, 2013): The hunger strike at Guantanamo has continued to expand and has now pushed President Obama to renew his commitment to resolving the situation. He stated, “The idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried,” he said, “that is contrary to who we are, contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop.”

Sowing Wheat, Reaping Thorns

Grain Elevator

Grain Elevator (Photo credit: nouspique)

In a country that finds beauty in its heartland’s amber waves of grain, investigative reporting by NPR and other publications on a series of deadly accidents at grain silos hits the solar plexus hard. In the most recent incident, two teenage workers—one fourteen, one nineteen—suffocated to death after they fell through a crust of dried corn and were buried in a sinkhole of grain. A third worker, a close friend of the other two, survived six hours in the bin because a co-worker threw him a bucket as he went down. He put it over his head and was able to breathe while he waited to be dug out. Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. As NPR shows, too often safety regulations such as requiring workers to wear harnesses while they walk on top of the grain are ignored by companies due to lax enforcement, low penalties, and few criminal prosecutions. This has made such accidents a depressingly regular occurrence—179 deaths since 1984. One in four victims has been under eighteen years old. In addition, explosions at grain elevators caused by the combustion of grain dust have claimed more lives making employment at such places the most dangerous occupation in Kansas.

In the early twentieth-century, pioneering director D.W. Griffith made a short film titled A Corner in Wheat that comes to a dramatic climax with a man drowned by grain. In a spectacular triumph of cross-cutting, Griffith assembled a three part story about poor wheat farmers sowing their crops, impoverished city dwellers unable to afford bread, and Wall Street speculators cornering the market in wheat. The editing implies the moral: that the speculator is profiting from the powerlessness of the farmer and the bread customer. In the film’s signature scene, the wheat king and his friends decide to end their celebratory banquet with a visit to a grain elevator to see the source of their riches. The elevator operator motions the wealthy revelers away from the edge of the grain bin as the chute spills wheat down into it. Just then, the wheat king’s secretary arrives to deliver a telegram informing him that he has gained a monopoly over the world wheat market. As he jumps for joy, he loses his balance and plunges over the edge into the bin of wheat where wheat pours down on him. He is suffocated by the very source of his wealth and power.

The United States is the world’s largest grain producer. In the mid-nineteenth century, Joseph Dart of Buffalo, New York developed the modern grain elevator to take advantage of economies of scale by storing vast quantities of grain in bulk and loading it directly into railroad cars or ship hulls. Such innovations transformed the international trade in grain by tying it to modern systems of transportation and finance. Grain elevators came to dot the plains of the nation’s interior. Nearly every agricultural community had its own. They were the largest buildings on the horizon and came to be part of the region’s visual iconography. In their time, they were symbols of modernity that impressed European architects with their sheer size and functionality. Many have since fallen into disuse as they have been replaced by fewer, larger, and more modern storage facilities. The older buildings now inspire nostalgia for a rural past that seemed simpler.

This is the paradox of American agriculture. It remains one of the nation’s core industries even as the number of Americans directly involved in it has relentlessly shrunk. The inefficiencies of the once extensive system of small-scale family farms have led to their replacement by larger and larger ones. While undoubtedly more productive, an entire way of life has withered away. These days, agricultural workers are more likely to be low paid employees than land owners or operators. And however efficient, the ability to produce and stockpile mountains of corn, wheat and soybeans have long raised questions about the morality of speculating in futures for basic food supplies. On the one hand, the profit motive provides an incentive for storing food when it’s plentiful so that it is available when it becomes scarce. This helps keep people fed. On the other hand, speculating in food also has the potential for corruption.

Griffith’s depiction of the wheat speculator drowned by his own greed was so powerful that later filmmakers employed it to make similar comments on struggles between good and evil. In 1931, Danish director Carl Dreyer had an evil doctor who was in league with the undead Vampyr of the film’s title suffocated by flour at the town mill. In 1985, Peter Weir made Witness a city-versus-country drama starring Harrison Ford as a jaded Philadelphia cop who has to go into hiding in Pennsylvania farm country to protect a young Amish boy who witnessed a murder. When the corrupt city cops show up at the farm to kill Ford, he survives in part by luring one—the original murderer—into the silo and then opening the chute to crush him in grain. In both cases, the goodness and bounty of agricultural production are what balance the moral debt owed to society by the evil doers.

Away from the silver screen, it has been workers who have suffered and died in grain handling accidents. In 1993, Ron Hayes lost his son Patrick when sixty tons of grain fell on him in a Florida silo. In the years since then, he and his wife have founded The F.I.G.H.T. (Families In Grief Hold Together) Project to assist other families who have lost loved ones due to preventable workplace accidents. Too little has changed since then. In the late 1890s, Mary Elizabeth Lease, better known as Mother Jones, a labor activist and Populist, supposedly told farmers who were oppressed by bankers to “raise less corn and more hell.” The United States is not likely to cut back on its corn production, but raising hell is still an option.

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