Books | Art | Critical Theory | Music | New York

In a recent issue of Granta Magazine, which is published in the UK, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, a New York playwright, writes about growing up with two parents who were members of the Socialist Workers Party. These are the people you see handing out The Militant in front of grocery stores in poorer neighborhoods.

It's a great story, very well written and sensitive. The guy has a right be be angry at his upbringing, but he approaches the subject with admirable restraint and care, perhaps in itself as a larger act of rebellion against his otherwise without-restraint parents.

One passage struck me as profoundly interesting, where he expounds on how his father approaches and understands the ideology beneath his socialism.

‘Have you read The History of the Russian Revolution?’ my father asks me.

‘I haven’t read that, Pop.’

‘Trotsky write about how the revolution began with the seamstresses. Do you have a copy? Next time I’ll bring you a copy. Don’t start with chapter one. Start with chapter six.’ And as if reciting poetry, he says, ‘The struggles of the seamstress are like rising suns for the world to see.’

My father knows nothing about the history of seamstresses, of course. He’s never read a book about them, or seen a film, or gone to the library to look up an article. He just knows implicitly. Lack of knowledge, however, is not a deterrent for him. My father will often hold forth on the largest of subjects: the social evolution of human beings since Homo habilis, the materialist underpinnings of ancient civilization, the French Revolution. The subjects he chooses are so vast, so breathtaking, that you could fail to realize how hollow the information is that he imparts. Try mentioning, for instance, the artificial divisions imposed on the Arab world after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and he will stare at you blankly. But he can speak about imperialist oppression of the Middle East in general terms with great verve and for many hours. It’s his job. He is a socialist missionary among proletariat savages and every discussion presents itself as a possible opportunity for conversion. It doesn’t matter if he himself knows the intimate details of the topics he expounds upon, his concern is with truth. He has heard things said by comrades about the seamstresses who have heard things said by other comrades, and he can understand that they are more than likely correct, that they do now demand a major reordering of the world as he perceives it. Beyond this hearsay, though, he has never ventured independently. Such exploration would be redundant and a waste of time.

My mother’s bookcase did indeed contain a copy of The History of the Russian Revolution. I never read it though. There were also books by Lenin, Marx and Engels, as well as by leading members of the Socialist Workers Party, Farrell Dobbs, James P. Cannon, Jack Barnes. Those I never read either […] I would, however, look at the titles when I played with my toys on the floor and wonder what they meant and what was inside. When I opened them to see if there might be pictures to entertain me, I discovered that the covers, the spines, the pages were still stiff and fresh. The books had never been opened by my mother. The titles were all you needed to know.

I love this idea of breathtaking subjects, astonishing and wide-scoped, full of so much breadth that you don't realize how little depth they posess. I think it's what characterizes fundamentalism in various forms. It's the allure of sweeping generalizations, how comforting they are, the comfort of the quasi-religious pursuit that is so singular in purpose, it need not be concerned with "intimate details" and complex realities that slow it down. This is always reckless. It's a pursuit of Truth that isn't much concerned with truth.

Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody and The Mountain Goats (John Darnielle) talk about the intersection of pop music and literature.

To get things started, we posed a kind of theological question: Does your taste in music mark you as a Dylanist or an Enoid? To translate from music geek into English: a Dylanist (after Bob Dylan) would be a hot-blooded, essentially literary explorer, while an Enoid (after producer and Roxy Music keyboardist Brian Eno) would be more concerned with the sonic challenges of texture, form and space.

Also discussed: the difference between influence and inspiration; why music may be “somehow both further up in the sky and deeper down in our bodies than the other arts”; the burden that surrounds the writing of literature i.e. a writer is bound to be tied to the canon, while music can be irresponsible and free. It's a little unfocused but there are some really interesting ideas.

The L.A. Times’ Oscar Site, The Envelope, has a pitch-perfect assessment.

I do not for one minute question the sincerity and integrity of the people who made "Crash," and I do not question their commitment to wanting a more equal society. But I do question the film they've is, at its core, a standard Hollywood movie, as manipulative and unrealistic as the day is long. And something more. For "Crash's" biggest asset is its ability to give people a carload of those standard Hollywood satisfactions but make them think they are seeing something groundbreaking and daring.

Let’s be honest: it was made by wealthy white people for wealthy white people, and they wanted to feel like they could address racism. When I originally reacted to “Crash," I really, really disliked it. My thought was that it was very manipulative of racial tensions, that it exploited them (though I’m not cynical enough to say it was for entertainment, I’m sure the intentions were noble) into unrealistic dramatic structures, and that felt wrong to me. I argued that we should be looking past these tensions, or even allowing them to exist in our stories, but using them? The movie’s overdramatic thrust was far too clumsy to possess the delicacy needed. In the end it still felt like a Big Hollywood Film, a high-profile star-driven drama that was trying to" think", and this rarely works. No matter the high-minded moral intentions, it still was supposed to be entertaining. And for that reason it actually seemed immoral to me. It just rang hollow.

Last year the New York Times published a cynical and insightful article called “The Trouble With Films That Try To Think":

The studios (and their artier specialty divisions) back these films for the same reason celebrities double as political pundits: producers and studio heads like to be taken seriously, too. What's whispered, yet rarely said out loud, is that Hollywood producers know that most of what they churn out is junk, and they are happy to seize an opportunity - especially if it's cost-efficient and Oscar-ready - to prove they are people who think. Because these movies are Hollywood products, though, they need to navigate between inoffensively pleasing a mainstream audience and actually saying something. What results is a genre of timid films with portentous-sounding themes, works that offer prepackaged schoolroom lessons or canned debates. Hollywood may be drawn to Big Ideas, but it is always more comfortable with sound-bite-size thoughts.

I never saw Brokeback Mountain, so I can’t blame that for not being good enough. But somehow I don’t think that’s really why Crash won.

Against the tyranny of the montage!

Malcolm Gladwell's perspective wasn't always in criticism of universal health care; in the year 2000 he and Adam Gopnik (who has lived in Canada) had a public debate where he argued, as a Canadian let down by his country's health care system, against it. The transcript for that debate can be read here, and it is very intelligent. Gopnik makes the point, for example, that when he was living in France and his son was extremely ill with food poisoning, "The overriding fact was that when we arrived--and I have arrived in emergency wards in America with sick children, and you spend half an hour figuring out who is going to pay and how this sick child will be paid for--when we arrived at the emergency ward in Paris with a sick child, who would pay for this sick child's illness was simply not a question that anyone raised.. In other words, money is secondary to the simple idea that somebody needs medical attention." This idea seems less true in our system.

After excitedly exiting my apartment on the way to hear James Murphy DJ at the Hiro Ballroom last night, I slipped down the stairs and really jammed my ankle badly. Determined as I was to shrug it off, we made it two blocks before turning back, which was much more excruciating, hopping back, than the two blocks out. I iced it and figured the morning would reveal it to be a minor or serious injury. I woke up and, after cursing the fact that my bed is at the top of a ladder, realized it was serious. I called in sick to work and set about trying to figure out if I needed to get treated.

I haven't studied much in regard to how and why universal health care can work (to the contrary, my father who lives in Canada often makes a point of saying it is a bad system resulting in long waits and inferior care). But I was really angry this morning when I had to spend two hours sorting out this insurance company from that, this plan from that, this doctor is not in the plan, this doctor is but the insurance won't cover it unless i have a written referal from a general practicioner doctor, this expense is covered but only if x is true, this situation isn't covered if you go into the emergency room because x and y need to be present for z to be true, which deems it an actual "emergency." The result of all this crap is I'm afraid and reluctant to do anything about an injury because I may end up with a big hospital bill on some loophole technicality in the insurance coverage. I had a friend at my old job who went into an emergency room because her retina had become detached. Inside that hospital, they referred her to an eye specialist who immediatly performed surgery. Afterwards, the insurance company wouldn't pay it because her eye thing "wasn't an emerency" and, even if she did go into the emergency room, she should have checked if the eye specialist was "in the plan." Since he wasn't, they washed their hands and said "sorry."

When I came to New York I worked without insurance for awhile, and I kept worrying and waiting for when I got to the promised land of benefits and salary, thinking all health problems would be solved. I don't feel that way, at all. Malcolm Gladwell, who started a blog recently, made this analogy about the strange situation we are in, that you are insured once you have a job:

...the idea of employer-based health care is just plain stupid--and only our familiarity with it and sheer inertia prevent us from rising up in rebellion. I always try to think of a suitable analogy and fail. The closest I can come is to imagine if we had employer-based subways in New York. You could ride the subway if you had a job. But if you lost your job, you would either have to walk or pay a prohibitively expensive subway surcharge. Of course, if you lost your job you would need the subway more than ever, because you couldn't afford taxis and you would need to travel around looking for work. Right? In any case, what logical connection is there between employment and transporation? If you can answer that question, you can solve the riddle of the U.S. health care system.

Interesting to consider. Gladwell also wrote an article for the New Yorker on this topic. For today, I spent (well, my roomate Max spent, though I promise to pay him back soon) $70 on an air cast and crutches. Why is it again that $50 of my paycheck every month goes toward my health insurance?

About me

  • Blake
  • Chicago, IL, United States

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