Tuesday, February 28, 2017

On Rousso's Detainment

Western intellectuals pay more attention to the plight of their peers. Most of the people who died in the Ukrainian famine were likely illiterate. Most of the people killed in Stalin's gulags did not write long novels that attempted to resurrect the nineteenth-century Russian novel. The media is paying more attention to Henry Rousso, whose book The Vichy Syndrome is still read by undergraduates, than to Central American or Syrian refugees suffering severe PTSD, fleeing all but certain death at home. Rousso acknowledges this fact when he mentions others at the gate who were treated like slaves.

The oppression of intellectuals is usually the first step towards oppressing a lot of other people, and it's also a means for the state to cement power. He's Jewish and his work focuses on the memory of the Holocaust in Europe. It's not stupid to think that, with an anti-Semite serving as the intellectual force in the White House, we will see more Jewish Holocaust historians turned away at our airports. Still, it's more likely that Rousso was detained in spite of his credentials. He was born in Egypt. I don't think the Customs people have gotten a "Keep the rat-faced Jews and the subversive foreign intellectuals out" memo yet. 

I read The Vichy Syndrome six years ago, during my second year of graduate school. I was writing a not-very-good seminar paper on how the development of Holocaust memorialization in France can be seen in various films made by New Wave directors after the central period of the New Wave had ended. The book is an examination of the guilt of intellectuals, the frustration with getting the populace to acknowledge or think about the Holocaust. In one of the more interesting passages, Rousso talks about the elite class who hated the gross, sentimental Holocaust mini-series which showed on French television in 1979, but who had to concede that the show marked the first time a large percentage of the French population was willing to talk about the subject. 

In another 50 years, a historian will write a book about the Trump Syndrome. He may pass over the story of Rousso, a footnote of a footnote of a footnote of Trumpism, and he will read maybe a few different historians who will try to explain the story, explanations which will likely be affected by Trump's future actions against Muslims, Jews, intellectuals, and immigrants. We may learn the full story about Rousso's detainment. We probably won't, and that's what makes it so terrifying.

Monday, February 27, 2017

On the Oscars 2016

The Oscars started at 2:30 am here in Zagreb, so I was asleep through what sounds like an interesting live show. I saw a clip of the major gaffe at the end. I thought Warren Beatty turned in his most genuine and interesting performance since McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971). He was mortified, humiliated, stripped of his youthful, sexed-up charm that he fought to hold onto well into his 60s. It wasn't his fault, but he did look more than ever like his Clyde Barrow, the impotent rebel grown old, now revealing his impotence and none of his rebellion. This was painful. Live television, everybody!

I'm in the minority of people who didn't love the entirety of Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016), but I thought the first third gave us a few things we rarely see outside of long-form cable dramas: a portrait of the abject misery that is childhood; truly ambiguous relationships that veer between the erotic, the platonic, the paternal, the fraternal, the pragmatic, and the romantic; black people behaving on their own terms, both hurting and loving each other; beautiful black bodies photographed on their own terms. A film-theorist friend was fascinated by the movie's use of silence, and I can see that, but I prefer the rock-and-roll-head Martin Scorsese's use of silence in Silence (2016), an intellectual portrait of Catholicisim, a study of how even the most noble among us are made terrible by institutions, larger forces of commerce and politics, the vain hope that physical suffering has some meaning, the inability to conquer god's earth or to conquer oneself. If I have a chance, I'll teach it. I think it's the most important long-form narrative movie of the last few years. It should have been nominated for everything. I hope you see it.

I haven't seen The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi, 2016), but I will. Farhadi's acceptance speech in absentia touched on a truth I sometimes think film studies scholars are too cool to acknowledge. There is something extraordinary about hearing a moving story in a language you can't understand. Fellini hated subtitles, but an English-dubbed La Strada (1954) -- which itself was dubbed into Italian -- wouldn't make me cry. Real life doesn't come with subtitles, the Middlebury College's language program advertises, but movies do and movies are wonderful for just that reason. In an era in which Americans, and pretty much everyone in the world has grown to hate children who speak languages different from their own and whose pigmentation is a little darker, a good foreign-language film may be the best service "culture" can give us.

I'm glad Moonlight beat La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016). I like movies which rely on the audience's willingness to accept imperfection; I don't like movies that rely on the audience's willingness to accept mediocrity. I feel less cynical than I did last year.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

On Uber Drivers in Zagreb

I'll play Thomas Friedman for a little bit, and mention three of the Uber drivers I've met:

1. A mechanic who works for the Chinese Embassy. His employers aren't great about paying him on time. The ambassadress behaves like a queen. Everyone lives in fear of her. 

2. An old man who worked at a summer camp in Virginia back in the 1970s. He believes that the entire world is run by the Illumnatti. 

3. A 40-something man who looks 20-something. He worked for the UNHCR during the war. He describes his countrymen as a little too arrogant and a little too unwilling to learn from successful business methods developed in the west. He admires start-ups in the States. He lives in a country of waiters and hairdressers.

I've also met people who fear the rise of nationalism in the country, and others who complain about the Serbs. I've met young students with little to no job prospects. No one thinks Uber pays them enough. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

On Trieste

I was in Trieste over the weekend. My Croatian friends who are my age speak of Trieste with great affection. They all went there when they were kids. It's where Istrians did their grocery shopping. Everyone has a story of knowing someobody who bought three pairs of jeans at the market next to the train and bus station, and then went home wearing all three at the same time.

There was a market in Trieste, but it wasn't by the station. It was near the city center, on a street with a statue of Italo Svevo. I didn't like the market very much. You could eat interesting beef dishes and gnocchi at buffet restaurants. At night, everyone hung out on the street in front of bars. There may have been a big dance club somewhere, but I wasn't looking for one. I saw a significant number of non-white people for the first time in over a month, because it was Italy. There were some feminist signs printed out and taped up throughout the city in sets of threes, a slogan written in Italian, then Slovenian, then English. "Contro ogni fonfine tra generi e territori." "Proti vsakršni meji med spoli in med ozemlji." "Against all borders between lands and genders." I only heard Italian. The architecture was Austro-Hungarian. The sound and the image were jarring because, as a tourist and a movie-lover, I only know Italy as Rome, Florence, Venice, and Naples.

The best museum was the Revoltella. One half was the house of a baron, who was involved in the construction of the Suez Canal. He had no children, because he was probably gay. And he left his house and money to the city of Trieste. An adjacent building holds an amazing art collection.

I never saw such a lovely group of paintings put on display with so little pretension, and such odd touches of cleverness. The light isn't good. I'm not a great photographer. And I only have my iPhone. But here you are:

I highly suggest a weekend trip to Trieste, and a visit to the Revoltella.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

On Milo Yiannopoulos

Milo Yiannopoulos has indirectly made life miserable for my department at the University of Washington. The safety of my colleagues remains under threat. You can read some if not all of the story here. I only know what I know from what colleagues have posted on Facebook, an email sent by my department, and what has made the press.

I have my own thoughts about how hate speech should be handled on campus, about the difficulty of navigating an environment in which older professors are uneasy about using gender-neutral pronouns in classrooms while any student can hear faggotcunt on frat row on a Friday night. I have my own thoughts on how Yiannopoulos should have been confronted, and whether or not his invitation from the College Republicans to the University of Washington campus on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration should have been permitted by the administration. But I don’t want to discuss all that in detail, largely out of respect for my colleagues. Their strategy was different than mine would have been. But they were also braver than me.

I just want to talk about Yiannopoulos for a minute, and the kind of person he is. Although the idea of an openly gay man spreading hatred for black people, women, Muslims, Mexican immigrants, as well as gay and transgender people would be strange for many people, it’s not for me. The Yiannopoulos I just watched on Real Time is a man I’ve met a few times before.

When I was in college, I spent a great deal of time in gay bars where I met many people, among them bigots. Some didn’t like the “gaysians” and a few asked me about the thugs in Harlem, next to Columbia. A late night date told me he didn’t like niggers. People were open about their sexual preferences in regards to race. A favorite line, one which I repeated a couple of times before I grew up: “I’m not racist but my dick should join the KKK.” Follow-up line, “Unfortunately, it no longer has a hood.”   

There was a pattern among at least some of us to define ourselves and each other as sick. I would agree that there was a higher rate or mental illness among gay people, largely due to our circumstances. But that wasn’t the theory I heard. A friend who suffered severe emotional neglect throughout his childhood claimed that all gay men have a genetic propensity to be gay AND a life circumstance that makes them ill. Of me: “The thing about your dad dying when you were a kid.” Asshole.

Where does it all come from? Gay people are all too human, and like black people, Muslims, Hispanics, and Jews, are just as capable of bigotry and self-hatred as anyone else. I don’t believe marginalized people are any more responsible for respecting other marginalized people than are non-marginalized people. But I want to hypothesize that there might be a special character to bigotry among gay people.  

It’s true that we are all on a journey to figuring out our sexuality, a journey that can be life-long for some of us; that is as true for non-queer people as it is for queer people, if not to the same extent. On that journey, you find yourself figuring out ways to define yourself and in the process, in order to make sense of yourself, you need to fall back on stereotypes and tropes. And in the process of defining yourself you end up defining others. It’s not that the bigots I knew among the queers were unintelligent. They read hard books. They were more adventuresome than the non-queer people I knew. But there’s only so much mental energy they could expend when they tried to figure out the world around them. And so eventually you just got allgaymenhaveageneticpropensitymarriedtoabadexperience and idon’tlikegaysians. There was also a frustration with those who nursed their victimhood, partly out of a fierce desire not to be a victim, and the desire to be non-politically correct grew out of that frustration. And then there were the people who were happy to call themselves victims who were playing the Oppression Olympics, and who ripped into other marginalized groups in order to cement their victim status.   

We weren’t all Yiannopoulos. After watching the clip, I see an intellectually impoverished man who likes to tell 100-year-old jokes about black dick, coke-addled fags, and those child-molesting trannies. He likes to hurt other people. He’s incurious. Whatever intelligence you think he has comes from his English accent. He’s empty. He’s got nothing. He is nothing.

The College Republicans I knew loved besting their intellectual opponents. They armed themselves with The Federalist Papers and Edmund Burke, and they avoided The Bell Curve. Message to College Republicans: If this is the person you invite to your campus, this is who you are, and just as Larry Wilmore tells Yiannopoulos to go fuck himself, I will say the same to you.

The gay bigots I knew weren’t Yiannopoulos. If anything, they hated pet gays. They were more than that, you see. They were their own people. Yiannopoulos wants to be the Paul Lynde of Neo-Nazis.

But I guess evil and stupidity are often birthed within the hearts and minds of mediocre, if not terrible, and intelligent, if not too intelligent, men.      

Saturday, February 11, 2017

On Batman

I'm no Batman expert, but I've read enough of the canonical comics from the 1940s on to know he's as multi-faceted if not as centered as Spider-Man. Spider-Man has a core around which his various motivations work with and against each other. He starts as the put-upon nice Jewish boy from Queens, far more arrogant than he can ever admit to be being, and from there we see a narcissist, a freak, a guilt-ridden teenager, an infant, an adult, a performer, a humanitarian, a lover, an intellectual, an entrepreneur, and a wannabee comic genius. Throughout his career, Batman doesn't maintain a constant core. Frank Miller's fascist can't be found in Adam West's comedian. But The LEGO Batman Movie (Chris McKay, 2017) tries to correct that problem. Here the self-seriousness of Batman, a constant yearning for some version of the masculine ideal, whose relationships are by turns homoerotic, homosocial, heteroerotic, cut-off, and rarely romantic, becomes a story of a silly person, who despite all his attempts can never be god's loneliest man of Dostoevsky. There may be an element of Dostoevsky-ean humor to Batman, but there's always too much camp. He's always funny, whether he realizes it or not. The depiction of him as the goth teenager who makes himself look "dark" for the chicks in the The LEGO Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014) is damning.

To me Batman, at his best, was a straight man to his villains. My favorite version of him is not Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), but Batman Beyond (1999-2001), in which an old Bruce Wayne of a science-fictional Gotham City mentors a teenage hero, mature well beyond his years. Terry, the new Batman, is handsome. He never had any insecurities regarding his looks, his grace, and very few about his athletic prowess, but he's angry angry angry angry at crime and all the miserable, insecure people who commit it. The geeky teenager who develops powers of electricity and attacks the bully who humiliates him and the dad who calls him a wimp. The prison guard with a bizarre fetish for a gooey-female villainess, who undergoes a process that will give him a body that will make intercourse with her possible. The rat-teenager who lives in the sewer with his pets who tries to kidnap Terry's girlfriend. The old Bruce Wayne is always suppressing a cackle as he watches his student destroy lonely men, all of whom have a far greater claim to Dostoevsky-ean pretensions than Wayne.  

Batman's villains are artists. They have more wit in their self-creation than Wayne has in his. They would. They suffer more. I only remember one episode of Batman: The Animated Series that made me sorta like Batman. The Mad Hatter places Batman in a coma where he gets to live a fantasy alternative life in which his parents never died and he is freed from having to be Batman. Even then, the Mad Hatter's tearful response, once he's lost the game, leaves me with more sympathy with the villain than the hero. If he could give Batman everything he wanted, he says, maybe Batman would leave him alone, and he could have everything he wanted too. 

The LEGO Batman Movie isn't great. As has been noted in the reviews, after a spectacular opening 20 minutes, filled with in-jokes and better action than most superhero films, the whole thing dissolves into easy jokes set on repeat. Still, it was the first time I ever related to Bruce Wayne. There he sits, in a giant mansion, with a wonderful world outside, watching Jerry Maguire (Cameron Crowe, 1996), laughing at a so-bad-it's-good scene, munching on lobster. Nothing is sadder. All of the sudden, the various strands of Batman come together and he finally makes sense. Nothing is more me...I mean, us.

On the Museum of Broken Relationships

I'm writing from the coffeeshop of the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb. It's the second time I've been here. Zagreb is a museum-heavy city, and many of the museums are housed in lovely yellow buildings. The museums reflect the city's reputation as a little sister of the other sizable towns once ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The art museums just aren't going to meet the standards of what you get in Vienna, and the archaeological museum, which is worth visiting, isn't going to match what you get in Athens or Rome. I'm a big fan of the Museum of Contemporary Art, partly because its collection of Yugoslav abstract art is relevant to my research, and I'm also a fan of the Museum of Broken Relationships, which a local friend described to me as the only Zagreb museum she really loves.

The museum collects artifacts from various break-ups, the mementoes that ex-lovers leave behind. The objects are accompanied by mini-memoirs. Some of the stories are bittersweet, some funny, many of them consumed by carnage. Everyone has their favorite object/story. Mine is the stilletto boot. The story: woman meets a childhood sweetheart thirty years after their break-up. She has retired from prostitution, but has made a brief return as a dominatrix. He is a customer. They recognize each other. And after a few hours they part, never to see each other again. There's also a creepy, formal suicide note left by a mother to her child, and a complete edition of Proust with the final 200 pages ripped out. A couple had read the book aloud to each other, but despite the length of their relationship, they didn't finish the book before they broke up.

If any comic-book artists are reading this blog, I highly suggest you consider a trip to Zagreb to adapt these stories into a book. My friend Justin Hall has self-published a series of mini-comics called True Sex Stories. I think this museum would provide him with excellent material.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

On the New Conversations in Europe, Accompanied by a Description of the Ugliest of Ugly Americans

From 2005 to 2008, when I was living in Central and Eastern Europe, I found most political discussions irritating. I rarely started them. Usually, they would involve an Australian, Canadian, or Western European, whose justified hatred for the Bush administration would serve as the basis for a worldview which defined his or her own moral superiority. They would talk about obnoxious American tourists, while conveniently ignoring the p***y-grabbing British and Scandanavian budget-air weekenders who made life miserable for locals from Tallinn to Prague. The Germans were the worst. They loved asking me how it felt to live under a fascist dictatorship, let me know that 9/11 was an inside job, and warned me about Dick Cheney's plans to suspend the 2008 presidential election. The subtext was usually something along the lines of "We may have a history gassing Jewish babies, but you're not much better. YYYYaaayyyy!!!!" I have no defense for the 2006 bombing of Lebanon, but their condemnation of Israel's behavior had a tinge of "You see, the Jews do it too." My unspoken reply was always "well, congratu-fucking-lations. Enjoy your slightly cooler place in hell."

I was looking forward to this trip, but I was worried that my conversations would involve a sequel to those old pseudo-debates. No. In the time I've been here, the name Trump is accompanied with dread and despair. The Croats have their own ascendent neo-nationalist movement. Its leaders are taking their cue from our neo-Nazi fuckers, and a few see Franjo Tuđman as a wishy-washy centrist. People here are complaining about the Serbs and the Jews more loudly than they used to and they're telling more and uglier jokes about black and Asian people, even though the country has very few black and Asian people. Just about everyone I know here is a liberal and all of them are terrified about where their country, which was involved in two genocidal wars within living memory, is headed. The well-educated, Murakami-reading, arthouse-film loving liberals here share the same bubble with their counterparts in the States. Many of them have sweet Titoist, Yugonostalgic grandparents. They tend not to hang out with "those people." Now that a real, brandy-distilled fascist has become president of the United States, there's no safe quarter.  

The conversations are more intelligent, but I miss the mid-2000s.


Of all the Americans who travel abroad, there's one type that I hate the most. I call him the Steven Seagal American, named for the C-list actor who admires Vladimir Putin. This is the American who shows up in X Country. He meets some locals and they're awesome, friendly guys. And he goes drinking with them and he's having more fun drinking with these guys than he's ever had drinking back home in the States. And these guys take him out to the country and they show him some awesome parts of their culture and things he's never seen or heard of before. They play great music for him. Cook him good food. And they talk politics. And all of the sudden this American, who has never bothered to open a history book, now knows the REAL story of X Country. He knows that X Country has for hundreds of years lived under the domination of Y Country. He knows that X Country has done some not great things in its past, and maybe made mistakes when it went to war with tiny, neighboring Z Country, but you know, the media back in the States doesn't know the whole story. It definitely doesn't know about certain important aspects of international law, let alone the important battle of [year he can't really remember] that explains all territorial rights in Z Country. Often this American can't get a job back in the States, because of the usual suspects (cough cough black people coug cough Mexicans cough cough) and, you know it's amazing that they have the same problems here in X Country except with other usual suspects (cough cough Gypsies cough cough Jews cough cough citizens of Z Country cough cough). Oh, and all the racism he hears in X Country isn't really racism. I mean, you have to understand the culture.

I've learned to smell these particular Americans from a mile away and when they approach me I walk away.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

On Teachers as Craftspeople

I just wrote the following on Facebook:

All students in elementary school, most students in middle school, and many students in high school have no idea that their teachers work harder than them. Why? Because the best teachers, like many great actors, journalists, and outfielders, are so good you don't see them for what they are: artists who have perfected their craft over a period of decades. Teachers are not machines.

I would like to add something. I sometimes think that the real divide in America exists not between those who believe the fetus is a living being and those who don't, those who believe in god and those who don't, those who are black and those who are white, those who like Nascar and those who like soccer, but really between those who think teachers are artists and those who think teachers are machines.

This division complicates some of our political assumptions. Many people I don't hang out with would consider their priests, ministers, imams, and rabbis to be their primary teachers. They would consider the best of them great performers, intellectuals, and artists. In other words, I would say that there are quite a few people who don't share many of my other political views who would agree that teachers are craftspeople. On the other side, my friends who are cool with the transgender and really care about saving black kids in Harlem, might be inclined to a more technocratic view of education, one based on charts and spreadsheets, faulty tests, and narrow definitions of intelligence. Such people see teachers as machines.

I wonder if at least a few of the Trumpies who are either ignoring the Betsy DeVos controversy or are shrugging their shoulders at her existence might have more in common with me than they realize. I may have more in common with them than some of the David Brooks/Malcolm Gladwell-loving folks in my world.

(I had a major fight with some racist jackasses on my high school alumni page this morning. So I'm reaching.)

Monday, February 6, 2017

On Leaving Academia

I am having a good time, researching and writing my dissertation. I was turned down for a grant about a year ago on the basis that most of my planned research could be conducted by email or Skype. That claim suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the culture of Central and Eastern Europe. Personal relationships are key here. The willingness to walk into someone's home, or meet them in a cafe in their neighborhood will lead them to reveal often seemingly innocuous but important details that would be hard to obtain via the cold mediation of the Internet. I had been trying to figure out forever what the role of the film critic was in socialist Yugoslavia. It was a small cultural world, which involved two degrees of separation at most. So, how could a film critic function in an environment in which he presumably knew everyone? The answer: Pretty much the way he functioned in the U.S.

One film, Neboder / Skyscraper (Joško Marušić, 1981), confused me. It depicts a day-in-the-life of a massive apartment building. Like every apartment building, socialist or non-socialist, excrement pours down a middle section behind walls, via plumbing, always close to every apartment, always out of sight. People have sex. They play with their pets. Their lives are constantly impinging on one another. The building looks socialist, and the film looks like a commentary on the failed attempts to organize life in a socialist state. But, as a Vojvodina-born architecture critic pointed out to me, in the film women stay home, and men go out to work, a cultural situation that did not exist in Yugoslavia, particularly in cities in the more affluent parts of the country. I asked Marušić about that issue. There followed a long soliloquoy about his thoughts on male-female relations, which was interesting and may make it in to my dissertation, but in the end, one of the most important details concerned the fact that he was thinking of the apartment buildings he lived in in Croatia. I'm getting a sense of how the Zagreb School did not depict one city, socialist or non-socialist. It depicted various ideas of "city," taking suggestions of urban life from the rapid changes the country experienced in the post-war period, others from advertisements in Yugoslavia's magazines, and still others from American and Western European sources.   

In other words, I am seeing what is right in front of my nose, which, like many things right in front of your nose, is hard to see. I believe this is the work a good academic performs. A good academic makes the world a little more visible to himself and to others.

I offer this as a lead-in to some news I got this evening.

A good friend of mine who obtained a Ph.D. from Northwestern has just announced that he will be taking a job at a consulting firm in California, following one of his former professors who left a tenure-track position a few years ago. My friend is brilliant. He has published several articles. He's likable. But his adjunct pay is as low as mine and requires twice as much work. Another friend who was a Ph.D. student at Iowa, where I completed my M.A., announced on Facebook several months ago that he was walking away from academia as well, without completing his dissertation. He's brilliant too, and in fact one of the few people I know in academia for whom his mind directly matches his chosen discipline. I don't know his motives in detail, although I can guess them based on what I know, what we all know, about the brutality of my profession. An old Hungarian friend I saw over the weekend told me about his decision to leave academia a few years ago for a job at Ericsson. He had a family to support. But he missed his old life of the mind. I'm happy for all my friends, inasmuch as I think they will or have found greater happiness and certainly greater financial security outside academia than they would inside it. 

Still, I can't imagine myself living a life different from the one I live now, the one in which I am forced to constantly learn things about a wonderful, interesting subject. There's so much fun in what I do. And even on my bad days, I like teaching, mixing it up with 18-22-year-olds, the best of whom are the most curious people on earth. Consulting offers a lot of opportunity for creativity, and I'm sure a lot that isn't so different from what I do, but there's a lot that you don't get in that world: the personal relationships, the emails from former students about new things they've discovered that they wouldn't have if not for your class, the time to cultivate your prose while studying an obscure object, all things that the cold eyes of the true capitalist can't appreciate. I wrote a post awhile back about a couple of young talented actors who went on to very different careers. I hope to stay in my profession as long as possible. I don't see myself having a family to support anytime soon, or manifesting more material desires. I desire a job that allows me to learn that which I want to learn and to express myself on my own terms. So far, academia has satisfied those desires. Until the day that stops happening, or until I stop making enough money for groceries, I don't think I will leave academia.

I will also note that we perform an invaluable service to our world, one whose effects can't be measured. A culture that makes it so hard for my brilliant friends to continue the life of the mind won't last very long. If the modern neoliberal university can't sustain my friends, we need to start building something else.