Jim Kunstler on what Detroit was, is and will be

In light of Detroit’s maybe, maybe not bankruptcy, urban sprawl critic Jim Kunstler  beautifully composes a woeful goodbye to the Motor City in his Clusterfuck Nation Blog:

Detroit’s decline and fall was long and gruesome. Back then, just outside the downtown of 1920s skyscrapers, there were whole neighborhoods of formerly magnificent old mansions in the most amazing states of dilapidation, with sagging porches, chimneys tilting at impossible angles, and whole exterior walls missing to reveal eerie dollhouse-like vignettes of rooms painted different colors, formerly lived in. These were built by the wealthy magnates of the Great Lakes frontier — the timber and copper kings, manufacturers of paint, coal stoves,  etc — before the car industry was even a gleam in  Henry Ford’s flinty eye. Over the 1990s they were all torched in the annual Halloween ritual called Devil’s Night. The next time I came back to Detroit, there were wildflower meadows where those ruined mansions had been. In a mere century, all that grandeur had arisen and been erased.

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The Tintamarresque Theatre

Why do I hate euphemisms? I could spend all day digging at “political correctness” and the unprincipled abstraction of “spirituality,” as concepts and phrases. What I really hate is the malleability of language. I hate the moral latitude. The lack of authority and control–not to the ends of stifling creativity, analogy, metaphor…, but the winnowing of reality from things (words) that aren’t really real in any sense to begin with. See, the problem is a very old one. It starts at the relationship of subject to object, goes on to become Adamic, includes every sort of contention, violent and intellectual, but we finally get to the point where, if we’re not separated by language or dialect, a thing (as a word) becomes more or less fixed, “standardized.” An attitude, not just a vocable, becomes part of its surface. There’s a certain moral sureness in this. It is imposed on a thing’s reality. Fascism, which is always our intention, is not only realized but at last eutopian. However, when an attitude points to our reality, explains this reality in fragment, it is not altogether separate from the concrete. Now, reality does not necessarily change. It does not change–and yet moralities change. Or, if not change, become less public or more public. There are rivalries for the morality of words as there are rivalries for resources, including authority, culture and public trust. And many times words are not fought over but covered up or made into an enemy flag, new phrases substituted. If a political or moral or social body is too weak to add to or subtract from the size of a definiens, they can still add to the size of the dictionary. Nothing against creativity, as I’ve said. But with this expansion, and therefore attenuation of force, they contribute to the dementia of the language. Instead of competition–and the healthy destruction of the loser, his will along with his genetics, figuratively speaking–a parallel to reality is opened up. Coexistence, the lack of a fundamental universality, these introduce doubt and obsolesce science. And if there is one thing science is good for, it is supporting–while not supporting–the moral and ethical superiority of those good at reality. See how crosspurposed I’ve become? And all because of the possibility of a parallel to reality. Not because a status quo has been challenged, but because it has not been challenged. Infinity, desertion–inherent in words since the beginning–have come to trouble words. Ultimately, all things, including words, had learned to settle down under the force of gravity. Euphemism does not obey this, though. Sure, new attitudes may sink into the soil of words, yet, at the same time, the noses of such attitudes are shooting up away from any sense of reality. Proper words at least had the innocent hope of uncovering reality.

What’s so funny about dogma?

She texted me from her cubicle. She was tucked in some corner of a government office. I can only imagine that its one of many in some suburban office park, next to the highway. She’d have easy access to the on ramp. She’d take it out to her second ring suburban apartment that she invited fellow New York Giants fans into each Sunday afternoon. She helped people with welfare benefits.

If we knew Matt and Ben movies would affect my love life we wouldn’t have let it happen.

She wrote, “I only show my picture to guys I like.”

She told me social media and online profiles were frowned upon in her office. They feared reprisals from rejected welfare applicants.

I suppose I should have been relieved. I was a bit unnerved. Her picture, a slightly blurry profile shot of a jet black-haired alabaster woman in heels, tight jeans, a t-shirt with a logo I couldn’t quite make out and purse the size of a dog was somewhat alluring and simultaneously asinine. I hadn’t seen her yet. Instead of questioning her gait, accent, breath, laughs, or random moles and the like I now am left with this curious potentially abstract expression of her. Doesn’t she have a digital camera? Or hang out with friends with smartphones? Or have Facebook? It’s 2011. Who doesn’t have Facebook at 29 in 2011? Is she a Luddite? I can’t date a Luddite. It’s strange enough that she’s separated. Somehow the picture bugged me more.

I responded with a “:)” followed by “You look great.”

She told me she was “not a girly girl but was all woman.” I still have no idea what that phrase means. I knew that this stage was delicate. Two weeks of emails and text messages and she wouldn’t share her last name. At this moment there’s no slack for fights.

“Are we still on for Friday?” she asked. I invited her to a grill near my house for drinks and if things went well dinner. The grill was an adult sports bar in the kindest of terms. Classy enough for a nice dinner date yet relaxed enough to watch March Madness.

“Yes.” I answered. I volunteered directions. She said there was no need and she’ll find her way.

About forty-eight hours later, I sprayed myself with cologne. I rarely wear cologne. I’m still unsure why people like it. I finished my last assignment at my work desktop on my kitchen table. The house was an empty carcass. A too good to be true rental that’ was too much for one man. I headed up to the shower. I showered. Sprayed myself with the same cologne and walked into my bedroom. I threw the towel on my air mattress and dressed from the clothing stacked in a duffel bag.

The first shirt was too wrinkled.

The second too tight, the third too flashy, the fourth was ok, the fifth had lint balls, and the sixth was itchy.

I threw the forth in the dryer.

I sprayed myself with more cologne.

I put on my dress overcoat and well-worn wingtips and headed out the door.

Around the corner, down the road and another corner was the grill. Its red neon logo popped in the crisp November sky.

It was happy hour on a Friday night, quite busy.

I stood outside chatting with the door guy and the parking attendant. They were years younger than me. I was Hulk Hogan, dispensing pop psychology and a few sage tidbits like “internships are important” to the college age whippersnappers. On their advice I grabbed a booth by the window. I faced the door. Come what may.

Her propulsive click clack of high heels approached me. Brand new jeans, slicked back raven hair in a bun. She was a tiny little thing.

I stood. We hugged. We both laughed. Relieved. We were both nervous.

Things were natural. Comfortable. We talked about football and had two beers each. We hated the same TV hosts and liked audiobooks. She listened to them on her smart phone. She worked out but didn’t care that I didn’t. She like every sane person adored Jerry Maguire.

“Can I bring you your bill?” The waitress said.

“I think we’re ok.” I said. “I turned to her.”

“Yeah. We’ll have another round.” She said.

The waitress walked away.

“Weird.” She said. I agreed. Before we knew it the manager brought our check over. He said we have a lot of customers. He walked away. I was stunned. Before I could pull out my debit card she took out a twenty, and paid for our $19.67. “Lets go.”

The winds picked up. I held her tight as we went up the street to the next bar.

“Do you think that was because we’re…” she trailed off. “…mixed.”

“We’re mixed?” I laughed.

“I don’t know. What do you call it?” She said.

“I don’t call it mixed.” I said amused. She took it well.

“We’re a mixed race couple.” She said.

“Maybe.” I said.

“Maybe?” She said.

“Maybe.” I said.

“Don’t make excuses for assholes.” She said. Sipped her beer. I smiled. She questioned. “What? Its true.” I couldn’t stop smiling.

We held hands.

An hour and two more beers later, we laughed about our favorite movies. We had a mutual love Nick Hornby adaptations. We threw back and forth About a Boy and High Fidelity references for a half hour. I said they were in my top five favorite comedy films. She asked for the other three. I said Knocked UpAs Good As it Gets and Dogma.

Dogma?” she said, “What’s so funny about Dogma?”

I always had this vision of the end of the world. I always thought it would be an accident. That people would be pulling weeds, painting pictures, picking up dog shit and in an instant, without anticipation all your hopes and dreams fall into a fiery heap, even if they’re two weeks old.

I told her I liked how Dogma twisted catholic dogma. That it was ironic. It was pro-catholic. And that “the imaginary god won in the end.”

She didn’t look me in the eye. She stared at her hand in mine.

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“You think god is imaginary? God is not imaginary. He is very real. He loves us all.” She paused. It was a long one. She slowly made eye contact. Her eyes were different. Glassy. “The catholic god. The pope. They’re imaginary. You should try my church. Have you heard of The Father’s House?” I shook my head no. “You might like it. It’s different. It’s fun“ Yet another long pause. She pulled her hand away. “Come to The Father’s House. When was the last time you went to church?”

“Willingly?”

We argued.

Screw you Ben!

Within 30 minutes I kissed her goodnight. An hour later I texted her, I got no reply.

Optimism will be the death of me.

Hug me Alanis

Bronze and Steel

Summer. The time of year we mock up godlike beings and watch them slug the daylight out of each other to the beat of our ancestors’ ritual bonfires and flaming wheels. Here we are.

Superman, “son of El” whose power draws support from the Sun, seems the most natural fit for our attention.

Furthermore, he is the first, and some may argue the best, superhero–that creature ornamenting the nation’s consciousness since the early-mid Twentieth Century, breaking the mold of the folk hero and renewing the demigod along pop-culture lines. (One may argue, however, that demigods have always belonged more or less to pop culture, and had became the stuff of academics and classicists and serious modern poets long after the public imagination had moved on and they were retired.)

I’ve not said anything new. Much like Warner Bros.’ Man of Steel, should we believe the accusations. Don’t. It has brought with it more than a few reinventions, and these their own trajectories. In any event, the film is worth discussing. And nearly everyone, whatever their opinion, is. But this isn’t a movie review. Nor is it a drawing of battle lines between comic books and screen. Or Reeve and Cavill. Or “our” Superman, and “yours”… Ceci n’est pas une gripe. I take instead the one thing that really surprised me. No, not that.

Ex-captives, under the command of a military leader, who after many years in exodus are, for the survival not only of their people but their way of life, bent on violently settling a new homeland. You hear the audience chat about Space Nazis. A lot of it tongue-in-cheek. But it’s consistently what one hears when it comes to describing General Zod’s Kryptonians. Because that’s what we’re comfortable with. Truth be told, if it hadn’t been for the monotone raised by these remarks, I may not have given the allusiveness of the film much thought. However, Man of Steel seems to have more uncomfortable ideas embedded in it.

A second look at the top of the last paragraph maybe isn’t necessary. Less necessary is that an analogy a storyteller uses is a good analogy, or a factually historical one. This is partly why, on the other hand, Godwin’s Law can exist; and why oftentimes people consciously put the Holocaust inside the ancient Hebrew conquests as though it is a double image they are trying to bring into focus. If an analogy can be understood, that is everything. So what is disconcerting about Man of Steel is that such a line has materialized between Space Nazi (at least two of the Kryptonians in the film have distinguishing Germanic accents) and a characterization by far closer to the blurb version of the biblical defeat of Canaan than to the predations of Nazi Germany. It doesn’t matter if the analogy’s not instantly recognizable. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

Let’s get real, though. Screenwriter David Goyer is himself a Jew. One who, by his own admission, had brushes with anti-Semitism growing up. And while franchise co-creators Siegel and Shuster famously patterned the Superman of 1938 onward after concealment and assimilation in Diaspora–roughly a decade before the declaration of a Jewish state, I might add–they did so by grounding him in a myth meaningful to them, a rocket ship a good futurist transliteration for the basket among the reeds. The emergent angst that runs the film through is nothing new either. Trying to discover or get in touch with one’s heritage in an alien world, and the question of preserving it, defining it–writers have gone back, redeveloped, branched off, and blown this up over the years. There’s a pretty even continuum.

Let’s take a further look. Clark Kent, as much as his home is Earth, is a Kryptonian, named Kal-El. A Kryptonian the same, and not the same, as Zod and Zod’s followers. Depending on which meaning of the word one turns to, a Hebrew is quite different from a Jew. “Jew” is historically younger. A Jew is a descendant of the kingdom of Judah, nominally the last surviving of the twelve tribes of Israel; Israel the collection of Hebrews once united under Moses and then Joshua ben Nun. In Man of Steel, Krypton has its own tribes, its different castes. Kal-El’s father Jor is of the science caste, from which Kal himself is only “loosely” descended. The militarist Kryptonians–its fierce protectors–are obviously from the warrior caste: they are the battling Hebrews of old, and Zod–as I’ve alluded before, but hadn’t explicitly connected them–is the Joshua-ben-Nun figure. The existential and moral differences between Kal and Zod, and Kal’s refusal to transplant and restart Krypton’s outlived, rigid and violent history, bring to mind a soft, even ambivalent, Jewish apologetics. A Jew of course is different from a Hebrew–and yet–and yet–. In one way, what we have is a choice as to the “kind of man you want to grow up to be,” as Jonathan Kent, Kal’s adopted father, puts it; the kind of successor to Moses one should be. And in another, there is a distancing oneself from the unflattering aspects no longer, or which one feels should no longer be, relevant, or widely a part of one’s culture. The film is caught in a reflex of defending one’s culture from history while still allowing it a sense of history. (This sense of history is made tangible in Kal’s “Superman” suit. It is the only old-Kryptonian thing to make it to the end, and, cleverly, bears the family crest meaning “hope”: hope is the one remainder from the past, and the sole thing left around to enter the future.) At times the film pushes even further. I had said “loosely” descended when describing Kal earlier. The description is ironic. Kal, as we learn, is “Krypton’s first natural birth in centuries.” He had not been biologically engineered. In other words, he is free bodily from the traditions of his people, too. If ever there was an analog questioning circumcision, this is it.

Questioning–seemingly at odds with the Superman of yesterday–is relentless in Man of Steel. However, by making Zod, the Joshua ben Nun stand-in, the villain–decisively, as an embodiment of complete destructiveness and hopelessness–Goyer does form a clear statement about identity. Not that he doesn’t allow one last gasp. Extending the screenplay’s method of analogy into the tragic–in the most controversial scene–he backtracks, so that what we end up with is the emotional plight of an individual who has helped, with his own hands, by grappling with its heritage, erase his own culture.

How sympathetic this is may just depend on whether the pain and guilt, and trauma of ambivalence, is felt to be genuine, or not.

Man of Steel: A tale of two Joshuas?

Man of Steel: A tale of two Joshuas?

Only it’s not that simple. The real difficulty with analogy, and the ineradicable Jewishness that swims in Superman, comes from Man of Steel’s punched-up Christian imagery and themes. There’re a dozen or so allusions to the accepted Christian narrative of the life of Joshua ben Joseph–“Jesus,” rendered in the Latin–falling somewhere between the heavy-handed shot of Kal as Clark as Kal in the church, framed by the stained glass window, and the subtler one of him atop a mound of skulls. It’s no mystery Jesus was a Jew. Or that the messianic sect of Judaism gathered around him had played with the same analogy at work in Goyer’s screenplay, contrasting a modern Jew against Joshua of the Tanakh. No, but what it amounts to is again the tearing in two of Jesus’ identity; a rip-off starring Superman. And this after Nolan already Christified Batman. It’s getting to be a bit much.

It is far from Jewish apologetics, too. About as far as an apologetics can be pushed is using the Hebrew-Kryptonian analogy to denounce Israeli aggression in Palestine–a kind of doubling back and reevaluating, giving a new ironic lens to assimilation, with Clark Kent in the spotlight. You’re past the limit when you reach for the Gospels.

Here’s where it gets slippery. This second, Christ-Kal analogy may not be anti-Semitic either, but it was nevertheless a questionable decision to commit to it when the villains resemble the forebears of the Jews. In a sense, the Christian-European anti-Semitism that has been going on for centuries is revitalized. I say “in a sense,” because anti-Semitism clings to symbols, whole parts of the subconscious, used in the cultural imagination of the West. Participating in this imagination, namely with the Christ figure–used to crucify Jews endlessly–one risks blindly passing on a string of themes, however powerless or distorted beyond instant recognition, woven through it. Zod and his followers’ refusal to adapt to Earth’s conditions and join Kal in coexistence with its people, comes to mind. Whatever adaptation, or coexistence, would mean–one Kryptonian blending in is more believable than an army–doesn’t matter so much as how this points to and mimics the condemning of those who do not convert to the ways of the “our Lord and Savior.” The dangerous aliens, it says, showing us the World Engine, if they are not made to be like us, will destroy us all. Which returns us to the problem of the third factor in the Hebrew-Kryptonian analogy. If Nazi was just a decoy, there wouldn’t be a problem. It would still be lazy, but not a problem. The issue is that Nazi is an analogic convenience. It attaches itself, through the popular imagination, too easily. Like a target. And like a target it reduces whatever it attaches to to one unmistakable purpose. Nazi lebensraum, military and eugenics engineering, and, above all, acts of genocide, these things snap right into place when thinking about the Kryptonians in Man of Steel. Never mind that Zod’s forces are not interested in genocide. Their goal is to terraform Earth. To colonize it, to rebuild home there. If there is “genocide,” it is a side-effect. Zod’s forces don’t care about ethnic cleansing; they don’t consider humanity at all. This is without even mentioning the summary at the top of paragraph five. Or the bulk of what I have already gone through, that Kal is of their race. I mean, the whole race’s sacred identity (the Codex, the film’s MacGuffin), allegorically is broken down from an object into living tissue and is literally in him! Kal is a zooming, flying, indestructible Ark of the Covenant! (Krypton’s destruction merges that of the First and Second Temple.) Earlier, when I’d said the film is caught in a reflex of defending one’s culture…, it may have seemed strange, or contradictory. But where a single man is the recipient and therefore the bearer of a culture, it makes perfect sense. Alas, this is all ignored, neverminded, and the Hebrews are drawn into analogy with the very people who persecuted them, later, as Jews, persecuted them with the very same underlying logic as all communal-victimism movements parading Christ had, through the centuries. The complexity beneath the film’s surface, beneath the surface of culture, breaks down; the danger of analogy (as a mode of thought) reveals itself. Everything sinks into a cartoon again. And with Christ so foregrounded, and Nazis so irrelevant, we risk swallowing Man of Steel as Christ(ian America) versus foreign colonizers/terrorists. (I can’t help but think how much more emphatic this must read in Islamophobic Europe.)

Which of course, if not shunting the Hebrews off into cardboard villainy, forgets about the Jewish drama completely. So why is this important? Well, to take nothing away from “current events,” the topical is a surface reflection. The real fight is at the level of history. In other words, the past does not exist in any appreciable sense outside of the present. It is, past against present, present against present. Or, a single man is the recipient and therefore the bearer of a culture. In an age with no temple, Jew or Gentile, in a mobile, floating age, this is especially true. Man of Steel’s deeper analogy gets at the resurrection of the dead. Ghosts, if we’re not careful, are what, while still living, we will become, too. Ghosts, if they find themselves alone, purposeless, soulless, may take us to a bitter nihilism. Ghosts, however, must be sought out. We do not and we’ll never even realize how much we’re losing.

On Yellow Journalism and the National Review’s attack on Cornel West

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As usual, activist, former Professor of Black Studies at  Princeton and current professor at Union Theological Seminary,  Dr. Cornel West stirred a hornet’s nest. This it occurred when he commented on US Supreme Court Decision on the Defense of Marriage Act on his public radio talk show Smiley and West. During the Smiley and West news and comment segment called Hot Stuff West said the following:

Again this has something to do of course with what history books will say. The irony of the age of Obama in which black folks found themselves pushed to the back, [and] our gay brothers and lesbian sisters more and more pushed to the center.

The National Review Online published the quote on blog post titled Cornel West: Blacks ‘Being Pushed to the Back of the Bus’ in Favor of Gays and Lesbians. While the quote was correct the context was not.

The full quote revealed West’s intentions on the subject:

An age where we black folk have been pushed to the back of the bus in terms of our visibility and our suffering. In terms of the intensity of our exclusion especially poor black youth especially with the new Jim Crow. Again this has something to do of course with what history books will say. The irony of the age of Obama in which black folks found themselves pushed to the back, [and] our gay brothers and lesbian sisters more and more pushed to the center.For me its not in anyway an either/or I applaud the moves on behalf of our gays and lesbian brothers and sisters and their struggle based on principle I view myself pardon parcel with their struggle for justice.

The National Review conveniently left out West’s full throated statement of support for Gay and Lesbian rights. In fact, West called it a “magnificent triumph.”West was simply juxtaposing the downfall of DOMA with the simultaneously “gutting” the voters rights act on the same day. This move was clearly a cynical move by the Review to gin up juice in the social media sphere. West is an easy target as most prominent American Black activists are.

This is a modern incarnation of Yellow Journalism. Wikipedia uses  Frank Luther Mott‘s 1941 five point definition yellow journalism in terms of five characteristics:

  1. scare headlines in huge print, often of minor news
  2. lavish use of pictures, or imaginary drawings
  3. use of faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudoscience, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts
  4. emphasis on full-color Sunday supplements, usually with comic strips
  5. dramatic sympathy with the “underdog” against the system.

The days of the Sunday supplements are in their last throes but most of these five points are slathered all over The National Review’s stories especially when it involves race on any level. This is not the first time that The National Review has used black culture and high profile black figures as fodder to chase clicks. The National Review Online has taken a long series of jabs, swipes, and ill-informed explanations of black culture including the since deleted post when magazine held a “national symposium” on black unemployment without inviting one black person, or when a National Review writer called President Obama a fake Black, or when they fired a writer who published a piece which called blacks dangerous and unintelligent among others.

In a world driven by click rates and retweets stoking racial and political tensions makes good business sense. It can can drive your numbers and help you meet your profit goals as long as you don’t mind burying your journalistic integrity.