It’s the pitch, not the message: No

Part Wag The Dog, part The Candidate, No shows how advertising how smiles and positivist drivel can force a military junta out of power. After nearly fifteen years of rule, the government of General Augusto Pinochet announced in 1988 that a plebiscite would determine whether he remain in power as president (a “yes” vote) or allow parliamentary and presidential elections in a year (“no,” the film’s title). Over twenty-seven nights leading up to the October vote, each side had fifteen minutes per night in which to present its point of view. The opposition hires René Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), who’d specialized in soft drink and clothing advertising. Quickly he decides that airing Pinochet’s sins — the tortured, the imprisoned, the disappeared — would be powerful but ineffective. Chile, he reasons, wants to think of the future. A happy ad campaign, populated with dancers, performers, and artists singing merry songs would work best. The battered recidivist left recoils. “I don’t like to think of democracy as a ‘product,'” an earnest leftist says, while another counters, “I’ve always seen democracy as a fun thing.”

Interweaving clips from the rather ghastly campaign with fresh scenes shot in crappy magnetic reels to duplicate the look of eighties television, Pablo Larrain keeps the action hopping but it’s not clear if his film endorses Saavedra’s means as much as he does his ends. The No Campaign videos incorporate the rictus-grin communalism of “We Are The World” and “Hands Across America,” as if to suggest that Chileans can “combat” Pinochet as easily as USA For Africa did famine and Dionne and Friends did HIV, that choruses can replace picket lines. What is clear is the intellectual bankruptcy of the Pinochet gerontocracy; asking el general to wear civilian clothes while kissing babies is the best it can do. Intimidation is the next step. Attempts to “humanize” Saavedra with electric trains and concern about his tow-headed blond son just pad this modest film, whose intelligence is to document the absorption of social protest in a battered country into the capitalism that the rightist junta set in motion; the texture of No itself underscores its acceptance of “Mad Men” tactics. The parallels to The Candidate reify in the conclusion: when the shellshocked junta realizes it has lost by a wide margin and agrees to the democratic transfer of power, a dazed Saavedra wanders home, “What do we do now?” etched on his face.

The state with the prettiest name

Florida was swampland. Our elected officials have never stopped treating it as property, to be sold to the highest bidder. Rick Scott, at it again:

The nation’s largest outsourcing of prison medical care is finally underway in Florida with the state turning to a private company with a history of problems in other states

Corizon Inc. of Brentwood, Tenn., plans to start work Aug. 1 after Florida won a two-year legal fight with a public employee union that accused the Legislature of illegally seeking to privatize health care in most prisons by steering the decision to a 14-member Legislative Budget Commission.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and a second union representing physicians and dentists won the first round in circuit court. The state prevailed in the First District Court of Appeal, where a three-judge panel upheld the right of the commission to approve a budget transfer for the project and ruled that the prison system has “broad authority” under law to contract for services.

The decision rescued Corizon’s $230 million contract and gives Gov. Rick Scott another opportunity to show how the state workforce continues to shrink on his watch.

Corrections Secretary Mike Crews has sent letters to 1,756 employees, notifying them that Corizon will take over all health care in prisons in north and central Florida.

“The position you currently occupy with the Department will no longer be available,” Crews wrote.

He added that all displaced workers have a right to job interviews with Corizon and said: “It is anticipated that Corizon will ultimately employ a majority of health services employees.”

Some will earn less money than before and they will no longer accrue pension benefits with the Florida Retirement System. A spokesman for Corizon, Brian Fulton, declined to discuss the compensation package being offered to Florida workers.

The last days of Orson Welles

Chief among the charms of This is Orson Welles are the star’s lapidary insights into contemporaries: Bunuel (“the most supremely religious director” in cinema), Sternberg (“a perfect, really an immense visual command over what is finally kitsch”), the pacing of a Capra film. Peter Biskind’s My Lunches with Orson promises similar delights. Richard Brody quotes Welles at the peak of his perfect, really immense command over what is finally self-pity:

Houseman has had twenty commercials on camera. I’ve had one. I’m in terrible financial trouble…. If Wesson Oil would let me say that Wesson Oil is good, instead of Houseman, I’d be delighted, but nobody will take me for a commercial…. A real mystery: why they prefer Houseman, with his petulant, arrogant, unpleasant manner…. It’s a very weird and terrible situation. I don’t know where to turn… If I got just one commercial, it would change my life!… There is no “meantime.” It’s the grocery bill. I haven’t got the money. It’s that urgent…. Get me on that fuckin’ screen and my life is changed.

Houseman is John, whom he loathed for most of his post-Citizen Kane life. Wesson oil is a commercial, shown often when I was in elementary school. Welles shouldn’t have sulked. Had he lived long enough he’d have seen his ancient rival in this scene, as oily as usual.

“In this modern civilization women have agency”

I’ve read it before but rarely in such plainspoken prose. Digby:

Biology makes pregnancy very easy for most women. Nature very strongly wants us to procreate and it has no care for the circumstances under which we do it. Women get pregnant in times of war and famine and regardless of their ability to raise the child. Left up to nature women die frequently in this process and many, many babies die in infancy. If we use the appeal of nature, that’s what we are really talking about.

But in this modern civilization in which women have agency, free will and lives that are not dictated by these “natural” events, that is pretty damned barbaric. Because of their role in human procreation, choices women make about reproduction are fundamental if they are to be able to function freely as equal citizens with the ability to fulfill their potential — and do the right thing by their families present and future.

New moms like Natasha, in good circumstances although tired and hurting, thrilled with her new baby are what we want for every family. And yet some women will give birth into bad circumstances and make the best of it. Others will endure the physical and emotional pain and give their child up for adoption. And many others will decide that doing either of those things is wrong for them and they will have an abortion. Also too, most of those women will have other children and have happy and fulfilling lives as mothers.

Singles 6/28

Several years and millions of dollars later, Ryan Tedder assembles the oddest track of his career; imagine Rob Thomas studying the Killers. Kelly Clarkson goes Shania, Action Bronson goes stupid, Ciara goes blank (with help), and Todd Terje goes sublime (as usual).

Click on links for full reviews.

Todd Terje – Strandbar (Disko) (7)
Angel Haze – No Bueno (7)
M.I.A. – Bring the Noize (6)
Kelly Clarkson – Tie It Up (6)
Sistar – Give it to Me (6)
Webbie – What I Do (6)
OneRepublic – Counting Stars (5)
CSS – Hangover (5)
Thomas Rhett – It Goes Like This (5)
Ciara ft. Nicki Minaj – I’m Out (4)
Action Bronson – Strictly 4 My Jeeps (4)
Eliza Doolittle – Big When I Was Little (4)

Glad you’re alive: Jason Isbell

41z19TONudL._SX300_Jason Isbell isn’t in the Drive-By Truckers anymore because he drinks. A recent New York Times Magazine profile reveals secrets and torments enough for a lifetime of songs. Southeastern, Isbell’s best solo album, boasts one exquisitely wrought tune after another, muffled by the staid arrangements of singer-songwriterdom. Tropes like doppelgangers (“Live Oak”) and the wages of sin on the highway (“Different Days”) would signify if Isbell showed a willingness to share them, which in this context means giving them the arena-ready Drive-By treatment. The beloved who’s buried below the water line in “Live Oak” requires a livelier sendoff, or, rather, a band around which Isbell’s finely wrought guitar solo can express its quiet despair. “The one thing that’s clear to me/no one dies with dignity” to which “Elephant” builds would pack the resonance of an insight if a full band had fleshed out its caustic couplets; in its current form it’s complacent, a miscellany of mordant putdowns like the worst of Elvis Costello. To his credit, he does rock — tentatively, as if afraid to awaken the corpses — on “Super 8,” and on “Relatively Easy,” as poignant as peak John Prine, the rue is inseparable from the wisdom; the guy who overdosed on Klonopin might get judged someday, but Isbell is no position to. Examining a catalog of wasted lives, he realizes that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.

Liz Phair and important rock artistry

Was Liz Phair this awkward on stage?

Another missing element: despite her preternatural in-person poise, it was hard for Phair to play live. She wasn’t comfortable in front of an audience. Beyond that, the atmospherics that marked her début album were hard to create onstage. She never had a band that jelled enough to play live versions of her songs cleanly and alluringly. Her earliest shows—solo in tiny rooms, sometimes without even a stage—intriguingly displayed the bones of the songs. But those charming moments when Phair strained to make a chord change—she’s a tiny person, often dwarfed by her guitar—didn’t work in bigger venues. The goodwill from fans she elicited was immense, but audiences tended to leave somewhat unfulfilled. I saw her many times early on, and then occasionally over the years, and, while the shows were not unenjoyable, I don’t think I ever saw one in which a disinterested viewer would come away thinking she was an important rock artist.

I dunno if the quality of live work is enough to make one an Important Rock Artist. Does it matter if you aren’t an Important Rock Artist?

“We lose DOMA and the Voting Rights Act in the same week.”

So the Supreme Court did it. Antonin Scalia, defender of the will of the people, averred that the “democratically adopted legislation” once known as the Defense of Marriage Act and forever as a destructive historical footnote, deserved less scrutiny than the Voting Rights Act when it passed with overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress in 2006. In twenty-four hours Scalia transformed from Cardinal Richelieu to Andrew Jackson. His dissent in United States v. Windsor incited “what the shit?” every time I read a paragraph. My favorite:

To be sure (as the majority points out), the legislation is called the Defense of Marriage Act. But to defend traditional marriage is not to condemn, demean, or humiliate those who would prefer other arrangements, any more than to defend the Constitution of the United States is to condemn, demean, or humiliate other constitutions. To hurl such accusations so casually demeans this institution.

In other words: “If you think I’m insulting you, that’s your problem.” Or:

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.

Sound familiar? Thank Henry Brown, author of the majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson. But Samuel Alito’s, which got little attention, breathes from the same air of frustration:

To the extent that the Court takes the position that the question of same-sex marriage should be resolved primarily at the state level, I wholeheartedly agree. I hope that the Court will ultimately permit the people of each State to decide this question for themselves. Unless the Court is willing to allow this to occur, the whiffs of federalism in the today’s opinion of the Court will soon be scattered to the wind.

Unwilling to question the sapience of a hunk of federal legislation like DOMA but blind to what elected officials did in 2006 with VRA, Alito buries any notion that he cares not a whit about “judicial activism.”

When the Court struck down Bowers v, Hardwick in 2003, the idea of homosexual equality under the law was so exotic that I spent the summer reading Hannah Arendt for legal justification, particularly “Reflections on Little Rock,” an intelligent, finely wrought essay whose substance as predictive rhetoric was dead wrong but which also boasted a quiet bomb: “The right to marry whoever one wishes is an elementary human right compared to which ‘the right to attend an integrated school, the right to sit where one pleases on a bus, the right to go into any hotel or recreation area or place of amusement, regardless of one’s skin or color or race’ are minor indeed.” A letter posted by Andrew Sulivan alludes to our inviolate rights to privacy:

I am so glad to be alive to appreciate this moment. And to carry the memory of people who didn’t survive, whose deaths and whose battles for acceptance and love, whether private and within their families, or public, whether gentle or fierce, helped bring this to be. As you note, timing mattered so much in determining who lived and who died. But the survivors, like you, carried on the fight. My best friend’s older brother died of AIDS in 1994. He had come out as a teenager, in the late 1970s. He was never able to have a spouse, but his little brother – also gay, but much younger – was spared from the plague, and can now marry his sweetheart of 25+ years.

But I recoil from these sentiments too. It implicitly acknowledges that marriage — for gays and straights — is, to quote Wallace Stevens, the intensest rendezvous. I suppose the first step towards full equality is the chance to commit the same sins as the privileged class.

Moreover, don’t forget: Chief Justice John Roberts’ New Federalism project continues and deepens; and it sucks to be poor, gay, and black in the South. Charles Pierce: “We lose DOMA and the Voting Rights Act in the same week. To me, that’s not even a tie. Forgive me if I can muster only two cheers for it.”

A proposition

I wrote the following almost exactly a year ago. Still applies, with minor revisions.

I’m no lawyer but have always been interested in the Court as an institution: its history, personalities, decisions. I often get impatient with liberals when they decry “judicial activism,” or conservatives when they regard the Constitution as inviolate. If it’s so inviolate how have we accepted the Bill of Rights applying to the states and the full integration of African-Americans into the body politic (to take two) when sixty years of conservative jurisprudence ruled otherwise? Or: it isn’t judicial activism if an act of Congress is unconstitutional on its face. At least William O. Douglas was honest: he first decided what he thought was right and then found the precedents to support those results; none of this nonsense about “original intent.” It led to slipshod opinions but at least he was enough of a realist to accept that the law, like a poem or essay, is subject to dozens of possible interpretations. The only “wrong” interpretation is one which hurts the most people.

Win elections and we’ll get the justices we want.

Bookchat #11: “Bolivar” by Marie Arana

The most famous larger than life figure unknown in the United States, Simon Bolivar gets the large biography he deserves. In novelist Marie Arana’s telling, el liberador lead his polyglot army into a series of wars that drove Spain out of every corner of South American not already owned by France, England, or Portugal. The achievement is staggering when Arana reminds us, repeatedly, of the conquered whom Spain kept deaf, dumb, and ignorant:

Education had been discouraged, in many cases outlawed, and so ignorance was endemic. Colonies were forbidden from communicating with each other, and so – like spokes of a wheel – they were capable only of reporting directly to a king.

The damage wrought by Spanish rule persists into the twentieth century.The rule of Pinochet in Chile and the atrocities committed by the military junta that ruled Argentina you know about. The late Hugo Chavez exhumed Bolivar’s bones and yelled things at them. In 2009 the Peruvian supreme court convicted Alberto Fujimori of human rights violations. Demagogues and sadists get frequent airings all over South America. Lest we blame the victim, Arana documents how the extraordinary violence — by bolivarianos and the Spanish ruling class — chilled any semblance of a body politic. A lieutenant Antonio Zuazola who ordered the sewing of prisoners back to black, the flaying of the skin from their feet, and forcing them to hobble over broken glass. A pregnant women who begged for her husband’s life was beheaded. Moreover, “when the unborn child began to wriggle in her belly, they stopped it with a bayonet.”

Charismatic, inexorable, an autodidact whose promiscuity involved women and volumes of Montesquieu and Plato, Bolivar proved a military strategist as adept as Napoleon but a political thinker as sharp as Louis XVI. Administration didn’t interest him. Arana’s book suffers when she insists that the weary populace in New Granada (now Colombia) and Venezuela shoved leadership on Bolivar; what’s clear is that in the power vacuum he created those embryonic nations had no choice. A lifetime of battle and cruelty darkened his already Manichean cast of mind. His body exhausted, Bolivar died of consumption at forty-seven: the uneventful death for which he pined.

SCOTUS decision: a “poisoned chalice” for Republicans

As the news comes in that the Supreme Court has declared Section IV of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, Joshua Green sees good news, I suppose, in the next five to ten years:

On its face, this looks like a big victory for Republicans. Is it really? I suspect it will turn out to be a poisoned chalice. Many of the GOP’s current problems stem from the fact that it is overly beholden to its white, Southern base at a time when the country is rapidly becoming more racially diverse. In order to expand its base of power beyond the House of Representatives, the GOP needs to expand its appeal to minority voters. As the ongoing battle over immigration reform demonstrates, that process is going poorly and looks like it will be very difficult.

The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a central provision of the Voting Rights Act will make it easier for Republicans to hold and expand their power in those mainly Southern states. That will, in turn, make it easier for them to hold the House. It will also intensify the Southern captivity of the GOP, thereby making it harder for Republicans to broaden their appeal and win back the White House.

But the Democrats should plan on being the minority party in the House of Representatives for a good while.