Monthly Archives: May 2011

“2030: The Real Story Of What Happens To America” by Albert Brooks – A Review

(Originally published in May 16th issue of Cincinatti’s City Beat weekly newspaper.)

Albert Brooks, one of the most creative and influential comedians and filmmakers of the last 40 years, has turned his attention to writing fiction with his suddenly serious yet wholly entertaining first novel, 2030: The Real Story of What Happens To America. In his futuristic tale, Brooks envisions a dystopian America in which we’re living longer but not necessarily happier lives. The novel conjures a crippled United States brought to its knees by fiscal insolvency and a killer earthquake in Los Angeles. Ably avoiding the clichés of most apocalyptic fiction, Brooks’ 2030 is a thoughtful forecast of the not-too-distant future that raises key questions and offers promising possibilities.

Brooks is at his best in 2030 when describing lifelike robots, wristwatches with video screens and fast electric cars. A cure is finally found for cancer and people are living much longer lives. But dissension grows among younger people left to foot the bill, in the form of violence and efforts to eliminate “the olds.” When an earthquake levels Los Angeles, America, already deep in debt, is forced to let China rebuild, in exchange for (gasp) shared ownership of L.A.

Although Brooks fails to create many truly three-dimensional characters, he compensates with a slow-building tension in 2030 that reaches a climax when hijackers threaten to blow up a ship carrying 2,500 seniors. Fortunately, disaster is averted at sea and, back at home, L.A. is transformed into a majestic city; a model for all others in need of repair. At last, America begins to mend.

Brooks ties up all of his loose ends and wraps up his novel with an ending that is certain to surprise readers. In 2030, Brooks leaves us on a note of optimism and hope, something we can all desperately use. Grade: B

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When Human Lives Collide

“Half my life ago, I killed a girl.”

That’s how author Darin Strauss begins his confessional autobiography, Half A Life. In this magnificent book, Strauss, who was already a best-selling, award-winning author of three novels, including Chang and Eng about the famous conjoined twins, decides to tell his own story. It’s a tragic, yet redemptive tale in which Strauss finds a way to see the past in a different light and in doing so sheds much of the guilt and self-doubt that he’s been carrying around for more than two decades.

Half A Life is a profoundly personal story of an accident in which a teen-aged cyclist veers into traffic and is struck by the car Strauss was driving, causing a collision which takes the young woman’s life and leaves Strauss with nothing but questions, guilt and self-doubt. But what makes this book so evocative is the author’s ability to remember and recall the “tic-by-tic second” sequence of events that happened one fateful day long ago and followed Strauss for the next two decades. Strauss is not afraid to detail every horrifying, guilty-ridden, grieving moment and the myriad ways the accident continued to haunt him. Half A Life is a courageous recollection of a tragic accident, rendered in an intimate and fearless fashion by the man behind the wheel.

Half A Life begins where it must begin — at the scene of the collision, with a detailed description of every move, thought and emotion. Strauss recounts the tentative moment in which he emerged from the windshield-cracked car, walked over to the side of the road and peered into the “lifeless” eyes of Celine Zilke’s, her body twisted like a ragdoll on the street:

“The eyes were open, but her gaze seemed to extend only an inch or so. The openness that does not project out is the image I have of death: everything present, nothing there. She lay on the warm macadam in oblique angles-arms bent out and up, foot settled under the knee. In the skin between her eyebrows there was a small, imprinted purple horseshoe of blood.”

Strauss takes the reader along with him on a seemingly never ending string of events; the distraught visit to the police station, the author’s unsteady attendance at Celine’s funeral and Strauss’ awkward return to classes. Darin Strauss recalls the wildly insensitive and inappropriate comments made to him by classmates and family members in the wake of the accident. He remembers with vivid recall his interaction with the victims family and how he was told that he would now have to live not one, but two lives, in Celine’s absence. Throughout “Half A Life” Strauss’ inner voice resonates and with each mile marker he passes he remembers new doubts, questions and uncertainties.

As if his own shame and irresolution isn’t enough, Strauss also relates the endless litigation brought by the victim’s family, including mortifying court appearances in which he is asked questions like, “Were you drunk?,” or “With five other cars around, why did she swerve into your car?”, and perhaps the most incredulous, “How far did her body fly?”

Strauss writes:

“Through all this, there was the courthouse threat of financial devastation — a thief taking up ominous position outside every job, every apartment, rubbing his hands together. Everything could at any moment be taken away…to keep Celine with me forever.”

When the author goes to college he remembers not knowing who to trust or whether to tell new friends and lovers about the accident. Years later, Strauss writes of the absurd tension and embarrassment of attending his 10-year high school reunion, all of it a haze of embarrassed baldness and pot bellies. The author enters therapy (doesn’t help), gets married (helps tremendously), and has some kids (helps some more). In the end, Strauss finally takes an emotional journey during which he experiences an essential epiphany of self-knowledge.

“Half A Life” is a somber reflection by Darin Strauss into how we are all connected to one another, yet at the same time, still seperate and apart. It is a redemptive realization rendered in a series of almost poetic pondering and exquisite beauty. Half A Life demonstrates this great writer’s ability to finally make sense of an event which for so long made no sense.

But more than anything, Half A Life, is a heartfelt confession in which the author allows himself a healthy dose of long-deprived self-forgiveness.


Director Tom Shadyak

Meanwhile, in the fascinating new documentary, “I Am,” Director Tom Shadyak came himself to understand how all living things are intrinsically connected to one another, after he was involved in a near fatal cycling accident.

Shadyak, is best known for being behind the camera for nearly a half-dozen wildly successful, albeit lightweight slapstick comedies. Films like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar, and The Nutty Professor. Not necessarily highbrow material. But every thing’s different in I Am. Shadyak narrates this hopeful documentary that he says he conceived while recovering from the cycling accident that almost killed him. He says that during this period he began asking himself more serious questions like, “What’s wrong with the world” and “What can I do to make it better?”

Shadyak says he realized during his convalescence that problems like poverty, hunger, and war (to name just a few) needed to be addressed soon or else our species would be doomed. So he set out to ask experts around the world, people like Desmond Tutu, the late historian and sociologist Howard Zinn and linguist, philosopher and political theorist Noam Chomsky, as well as many other scientists, physicists and big thinkers the big question: How do we leave our quest for greed and excess behind and replace them with lives spent improving the planet Earth and its inhabitants?

Shadyak quickly found, as expected, that there are no easy answers, but in I Am he takes us around the world to ponder things like, maybe there are limits to how much we need, perhaps less actually is more and perchance the whole quest for more, more, more is a giant lie. Shadyak portrays isolated, indigenous people sharing and helping each other (oh, what a concept,) as do just about every species of living things. The now enlightened Shadyak illustrates that most breeds of animals behave on a model of what is called “consensus thinking”: in other words, the majority decides. For example, if the majority of a flock of birds decide to fly in one direction, then they all fly in that direction.

Perhaps most critically I Am reveals to viewers how problems like war, hunger, and poverty are merely symptoms of a much larger endemic problem, whose solution is not competition and capatalism but cooperation. Shadyak uses his own sense of fun and humor, his curiosity, and his masterful storytelling abilities to portray the simple mystery and magic of our universe – a universe which we can either learn to work in concert with or be seperated from through extinction?

The message for all who see this remarkable film is that the answers to all of these complex questions which will define our future are within us all and it is up to us to recognize our basic connection to all living things. Shadyac shows how his own journey has transformed him into a new and better man, who has given up his expensive, wasteful and ultimately destructive lifestyle.

The films shows, in the end, that the real answer to the question is:

(For more information visit the films web site: http://www.IAMTheDoc.com.)

(Special thanks to the beautiful Janet Graham for her assistance and inspiration with this blog.)

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Happy Mother’s Day

My mother delivered me into this world sometime on December 7th, 1960 (yes, I am a Pearl Harbor Day baby) and, Nancy, or Mabel as I like to call her, has been with me…if not physically then spiritually, ever since, teaching me when to laugh and when to cry and how to be a better man. She is lovely in every possibly way and I miss her very much — all the time.

My mother loves, among other things, watching football and golf, strolling on the beach, going out to dinner, playing bridge with friends, and she’s a champion when it comes to laughing. I love to hear my mother laugh; it assures me that she is happy. My mother hates yelling, argueing, vanity, false conceit, the New England Patriots and Tiger Woods when they lose and rainy days.

My mother recently lost the love of her life, her “longtime companion” Al Lottero, and her strength and fortitude in the wake of that has been and will always be a source of inspiration and courage for me.

I could never in ten lifetimes repay her for what she has suffered through and taught me along the way. Her knowledge and wisdom is as indespensible as the sun and her eyes shine just as brightly.

I love my mother with all my heart and I always will, so I dedicate this song to you, Mom, because I know you enjoy it. I want to publicly wish you a happy Mother’s Day along with all the joy that you deserve.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

Love you,

John

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Chris Hedges On The Death Of Osama bin Laden

This is the transcript taken from a speech made by Christopher Hedges last night, upon hearing of the death of Osama bin Laden at a Truthdig fundraising event in Los Angeles.

I know that because of this announcement, that reportedly Osama bin Laden was killed, Bob wanted me to say a few words about it … about al-Qaida. I spent a year of my life covering al-Qaida for The New York Times. It was the work in which I, and other investigative reporters, won the Pulitzer Prize. And I spent seven years of my life in the Middle East. I was the Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times. I’m an Arabic speaker. And when someone came over and told Jean and me the news, my stomach sank. I’m not in any way naïve about what al-Qaida is. It’s an organization that terrifies me. I know it intimately.

But I’m also intimately familiar with the collective humiliation that we have imposed on the Muslim world. The expansion of military occupation that took place throughout, in particular the Arab world, following 9/11—and that this presence of American imperial bases, dotted, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Doha—is one that has done more to engender hatred and acts of terror than anything ever orchestrated by Osama bin Laden.

And the killing of bin Laden, who has absolutely no operational role in al-Qaida—that’s clear—he’s kind of a spiritual mentor, a kind of guide … he functions in many of the ways that Hitler functioned for the Nazi Party. We were just talking with Warren about Kershaw’s great biography of Hitler, which I read a few months ago, where you hold up a particular ideological ideal and strive for it. That was bin Laden’s role. But all actual acts of terror, which he may have signed off on, he no way planned.

I think that one of the most interesting aspects of the whole rise of al-Qaida is that when Saddam Hussein … I covered the first Gulf War, went into Kuwait with the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, was in Basra during the Shiite uprising until I was captured and taken prisoner by the Iraqi Republican Guard. I like to say I was embedded with the Iraqi Republican Guard. Within that initial assault and occupation of Kuwait, bin Laden appealed to the Saudi government to come back and help organize the defense of his country. And he was turned down. And American troops came in and implanted themselves on Muslim soil.

When I was in New York, as some of you were, on 9/11, I was in Times Square when the second plane hit. I walked into The New York Times, I stuffed notebooks in my pocket and walked down the West Side Highway and was at Ground Zero four hours later. I was there when Building 7 collapsed. And I watched as a nation drank deep from that very dark elixir of American nationalism … the flip side of nationalism is always racism, it’s about self-exaltation and the denigration of the other.

And it’s about forgetting that terrorism is a tactic. You can’t make war on terror. Terrorism has been with us since Sallust wrote about it in the Jugurthine wars. And the only way to successfully fight terrorist groups is to isolate [them], isolate those groups, within their own societies. And I was in the immediate days after 9/11 assigned to go out to Jersey City and the places where the hijackers had lived and begin to piece together their lives. I was then very soon transferred to Paris, where I covered all of al-Qaida’s operations in the Middle East and Europe.

So I was in the Middle East in the days after 9/11. And we had garnered the empathy of not only most of the world, but the Muslim world who were appalled at what had been done in the name of their religion. And we had major religious figures like Sheikh Tantawi, the head of al-Azhar—who died recently—who after the attacks of 9/11 not only denounced them as a crime against humanity, which they were, but denounced Osama bin Laden as a fraud … someone who had no right to issue fatwas or religious edicts, no religious legitimacy, no religious training. And the tragedy was that if we had the courage to be vulnerable, if we had built on that empathy, we would be far safer and more secure today than we are.

We responded exactly as these terrorist organizations wanted us to respond. They wanted us to speak the language of violence. What were the explosions that hit the World Trade Center, huge explosions and death above a city skyline? It was straight out of Hollywood. When Robert McNamara in 1965 began the massive bombing campaign of North Vietnam, he did it because he said he wanted to “send a message” to the North Vietnamese—a message that left hundreds of thousands of civilians dead.

These groups learned to speak the language we taught them. And our response was to speak in kind. The language of violence, the language of occupation—the occupation of the Middle East, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—has been the best recruiting tool al-Qaida has been handed. If it is correct that Osama bin Laden is dead, then it will spiral upwards with acts of suicidal vengeance. And I expect most probably on American soil. The tragedy of the Middle East is one where we proved incapable of communicating in any other language than the brute and brutal force of empire.

And empire finally, as Thucydides understood, is a disease. As Thucydides wrote, the tyranny that the Athenian empire imposed on others it finally imposed on itself. The disease of empire, according to Thucydides, would finally kill Athenian democracy. And the disease of empire, the disease of nationalism … these of course are mirrored in the anarchic violence of these groups, but one that locks us in a kind of frightening death spiral. So while I certainly fear al-Qaida, I know its intentions. I know how it works. I spent months of my life reconstructing every step Mohamed Atta took. While I don’t in any way minimize their danger, I despair. I despair that we as a country, as Nietzsche understood, have become the monster that we are attempting to fight.

For more go to http://www.truthdig.com/chris_hedges

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Another Take On “Carnival Barkers” – Guest Blogger Danny Schechter

Today I am honored to feature a guest blogger and personal hero in the field of journalism, “News Dissector” Danny Schechter from his “Facts and Truth” column.

WHY FACTS NO LONGER MATTER IN THE MEDIA DISCOURSE

How Media Outlets Became The New “Carnival Barkers”

By Danny Schechter
Author of The Crime of Our Time

How should we understand this latest and most troubling insight into the reality of our media ecology?

In the aftermath of the resolution of the Great Birther bash-up, even as President Obama tried to lay the issue at rest by producing the document that showed, proved, verified, documented, and validated his birth in one of the great states of our disunion, it was said that its release would only fuel more debate, and convince no one.

In other words, in the end, this long debated fact didn’t matter.

Facts no longer seem to matter on other issues, too, as articulated in the now infamous memo issued by retiring Senator Jon Kyle whose office, when confronted with evidence that he misspoke on the matter of how much money Planned Parenthood spent on abortions—he claimed 90%, the truth was but 3%, issued an advisory that said, “The statement was not meant to be factual.”

The Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and Stephen Colbert had a lot of fun with that but one thing that’s not funny is that even when media coverage discredits or exposes some canard, public opinion is not necessarily impacted.

It doesn’t change the minds of those whose minds are made up.

Once some people buy into a narrative or worldview they seem to be locked into a way of thinking. For some, efforts to discredit a conspiracy theory offer more evidence that the conspiracy is valid, because why else would THEY want to refute it.

If you don’t trust the President, don’t believe he is an American or do believe he is a socialist, nothing he or his supporters say will change your mind. After all, what would you expect them to say?

So even refutation can turn into reinforcement and trigger more stridency.

Dismissing critics as “silly,” as Obama has done, only annoys them and makes them more determined to cling to their ideas, attitudes and anger.

The values (and prejudices) people grew up with often shape their worldviews. Their parochialism limits what they are exposed to. Their schooling and narrow range of experience seem to have had little impact in broadening their views.

Political scientist Thomas Patterson describes this as “The process by which individuals acquire their political opinions is called political socialization. This process begins in childhood, when, through family and school, Americans acquire many of their basic political values and beliefs. Socialization continues into adulthood, when peers, political institutions and leaders, and the news media are major influences.”

Writes Edward Song on Huffington Post, “For example, people who believe in health care reform value helping the poor and needy. For progressives, it is moral to help the poor. ‘

For conservatives, helping the poor is helping people who are irresponsible, and goes against their principle of individual responsibility. The conservative’s solution to poverty is called “Tough Love.” Whether you believe in helping the poor is a matter of values and not a matter of logic. Believing otherwise is the big progressive mistake over the last 40 years.”

Conservative columnists like John Hawkins seem to subscribe to this view too. Writing on Townhall.com, he argues,

“The sad truth of the matter is that most Americans don’t pay much attention to politics and those that do often just parrot doctrine instead of investigating issues with an open mind. This allows lies, myths, and dubious assertions to live on long after they should have shriveled and died in the light of day.”

Surprisingly, he also quotes JFK: “No matter how big the lie; repeat it often enough and the masses will regard it as the truth.”

Media outlets play a role in fashioning a culture of repetition, producing armies of “ditto heads” who are exposed to message-point pseudo journalism that they in turn regurgitate to advance partisan agendas. This approach is built into the design of the new polarizing and politicized media system.

This leads in the words of Vietnam War chronicler Tim O’Brian to how “you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself.” He was writing about military wars abroad but his insight applies to political wars at home as well. We are all becoming casualties of a media war in which democracy is collateral damage.

No surprisingly, the dominance of conservative media produces more people who align themselves as conservatives and will only understand the world that way. The shortage of progressive media outlets limits the mass the circulation of progressive perspectives. No wonder the media marketplace is so devoid of competing ideas.

Beyond that, media outlets legitimize virtually all controversies as valid, however contrived they may be, just to have something to talk about. This legitimates subjects with the noise of continuing blather and contentious discussion featuring superficial analysis by unqualified pundits.

One consequence, according to GOP political consultant Mark McKinnon is that voters cast ballots on attributes not issues. “They want to see the appearance of strength in leaders, and are less persuaded by what they say.”
That means, news programs ultimately trade in fostering impressions, not conveying information. Viewers trust their feelings over facts.

Remember, one of the most profitable formats on cable TV is not news but wrestling driven by cartoonish characters and invented confrontations. Is it any wonder that ratings hungry news programs take a similar approach to political combat. They are in the business of producing numbers for advertisers more than explanations for viewers.

John Cory commented on the media role in legitimating the birther issue and turning it into a form of entertainment, calling it ” a sorry and sad day for America.”

“What does it say about our ‘media’ that they have spent so much time and so much effort promoting crazy over reality? That our ‘media’ relishes circus clowns jumping out of their clown-cars and spraying clown-seltzer everywhere and then giddily covers the wet and stained audience reaction while ignoring the burning of fact?”

So, it is the media system itself, not Donald Trump or some crazy, that is the real “carnival barker” in the President’s words, Their programs program the audience by constantly and continually framing issues in a trivial matter. Manipulating emotion is their modality, doubt their currency and cynicism their methodology, except, of course, on issues like the economy, Israel or US wars.

The shame of it is that they know what they are doing, know what the impact of what passes for “coverage” will be, but do it anyway.

News Dissector Danny Schechter, former WBCN radio news anchor and network producer. Danny edits Mediachannel.org.

He writes the News Dissector blog (www.Newsdissector.com/blog).

Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org

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