Monday, September 24, 2007

Earliest Political Memory

That despicable Tory, Caroline Hunt, has apparently tagged me in a blog meme. Being relatively new to the blogosphere, I have not heard of this practice before, but it seems quite straightforward - a bit like a chain letter. So, assuming that if I don't do this I will die a prompt and horrible death, I will now describe my Earliest Political Memory.

Such a task allows for a certain amount of self-mythologisation, a projection onto one's tiny past self of a formative instance that describes who one is today, or a version of what one would like to be. I could re-imagine my responses to the Gulf War, or the fall of the Berlin Wall which were, in truth, half-hearted and, well, childlike. I could invent a serious-minded five-year-old me who followed the catastrophes of the Sudanese Civil War with insight and mature world-weariness. All I really knew though, was that there was a War. What I will do, unsurprisingly, is bring it all back to Reagan.

Unfortunately, even here I have no clear memory of a single incident which set me on the course to where I am today, no recollection of any pithy insight or revelation. I do remember Reagan being The President, and that simple conflation could perhaps be the root of the fascination with which I regard him now. Scratching my head, the earliest memory of any specific reaction to Reagan involves a cartoon in Mad magazine from, I guess, 1987 or '88. I read this issue several times on that summer trip to the States, and it included comical take-offs of the movies Splash, and Big, I think. The cartoon in question was part of a series with the theme "It's cute when../It's not cute when..", and in this case went "It's cute when your children play at Cowboys. It's not cute when the President of the USA plays at cowboys." The images showed a delightful scamp in hat and bandana running around with a toy gun, juxtaposed with a caricature of the Gipper himself dressed in buckskins, grinning goofily and saddling up on a nuclear missile, to the alarm of some worried looking aides. I remember being informed enough at the time to understand why this was funny, and quite enjoying the idea of a happy man riding around on the back of a missile.

So that's it, I'll now pass on the burden and demand that dcat recount for us his memory of Strom Thurmond entering the Senate, or whatever.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Best Western

Hollywood treats us this season with proof that the Western is an irrepressible genre. The next film I go see will either be 3:10 to Yuma, or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and the one after that will probably be the other. I have no doubt, however, that both these movies were produced, if not conceived as well, in light of the success of HBO's Deadwood
, the third season of which I finished belatedly last night. I watched the last episode in the mistaken belief that a fourth season in a reduced form was definitely forthcoming, and have now learned that this in fact quite unlikely. I am quite distraught, but I can't bring myself to hate HBO, without whom there would be no Deadwood, and nothing like it, not to mention no Sopranos or Rome. At least there will be a fifth season of The Wire.

It is difficult to construct a thought about Deadwood without spinning off into hyperbole, but its magnificence can't be overstated. It is loyal to its genre in many ways, employing the historicity of location, character and costume in combination with the old west myths of violence and freedom, honour and villainy. The cast of characters is immediately familiar, a range of types that echo John Ford: Seth Bullock, the reticent lawman; Trixie, the whore with the heart of Gold; Cochran, the wise, drunken doctor; Wu, the comedy Chinese sidekick; Merrick, the rumpled Eastern journalist; Alma Garret, the stranded, out-of-place noblewoman; Cy Tolliver, the suave and ruthless gambler. This is not to mention the inclusion of legendary figures such as Wild Bill Hickock, the Earp Brothers and, best of all, Calamity Jane. Each of these, however, thanks to the script, the acting and the depth of presence that a extended series allows, carries an overwhelming weight of character. Going against convention, however, the central character is the saloon-keeper, Al Swearengen - a pimp, gangster, drug-dealer, murderer and philosopher played with absolutely outstanding nuance and charm by Lovejoy. While the Western iconography is there, it is unpredictable, fresh and extraordinary.

The themes of the Western dominate as well. The free, lawless pioneers are outrunning the confines of eastern civilisation, prospering through their wits and their skill, and with a savage familiarity to violence. Again though, while the traditional narrative is recognisable, it has a deliberate and subtle originality. We are shown a frontier goldrush town that both fears and needs the legitimacy of the US Government, and that is connected in every way to the vast economic and cultural networks of North America and beyond. The camp, as it forever known, throngs with Chinese, Cornish and Norwegian migrant workers who must contend with the ruthless capitalism of George Hearst. Larger forces forever weigh in on Deadwood, whether in the insidious infiltration of the Pinkerton Agency, or on one occasion, the encampment of a regiment of US Calvary - its veterans made desperate and broken by the horrors of the Indian Wars. The still recent Civil War, too, hangs heavy and silent on those who it involved.

Violence, so integral to the Western, is also prevalent in the show. The bodies pile up and are fed to Mr. Wu's pigs with a frequent and graphic regularity. But it, again, has a strange quality. It has none of the catharsis or resolution of so many Western shootouts - the slow-building confrontations that drive the narrative are always concluded or put aside with compromise, evasion and bathos. When violence occurs, it is through accident, mad irrationality or cold necessity. It is often met and meted out with a strange, sad tenderness and ritual.

Though detailed in plot and historical context, and rich in character observation, the show is by no means an attempt at realism. It is a Western, it is fantasy and myth. It has incredible dramatic grace, a preposterously elegant and profane script, and is imbued with madness, hilarity and tragedy. These last three are no better represented by the hotel-owner and later Mayor of Deadwood, E.B. Farnum, a poetic and loathsome creep. I leave you with one of his self-lamenting monologues, as he scrubs a bloodstain from the floorboards - an act oft-repeated through the story.

ps. The Cosby Show has been voted the sitcom that best represents the cultural yadayada and whatnot of the 1980s. I refuse to comment on this, or show a clip.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Fidel Castro: American Hero

To be honest, I'm struggling to find an angle on this story, but I feel it deserves a mention. This week, marking the sixth anniversary of 9/11, Fidel Castro devoted a column in his newspaper Granma to a reflection on Cuban-American relations during the 1980s, in regard to Cuban responses to attempts on Ronald Reagan's life. First up is a full transcript of a conversation between the Cuban Foreign Minister and a US envoy in Havana about the recent shooting of the president, "written immediately after the meeting." This is a curious snapshot of the aftermath of the assassination, with Smith appearing quite shaken, and Malmierca sounding, at least in transcript, somewhat officious and robotic. There's a strange freshness to the script, in which after the formal exchange of concern and thanks, the two men briefly trade small information and speculation - familiar to any conversation in response to a recent but distant important event.

Castro presents this as a rather weak example of good Cuban intentions toward the USA, but he follows it up with the revelation that in 1984, he saved Reagan's life.

"A highly confidential report submitted in the summer of 1984 to an agent responsible for the security of Cuban representatives in the UN warned of a possible assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan by a far-right group in North Carolina. Upon receiving it, we immediately informed US authorities. Our official suggested that we deliver the information via Robert C. Muller, head of security of the US mission to the United Nations, with whom we maintained contact to ensure the protection of Cuban delegations visiting the international organization."

Apparently this resulted in the FBI rounding up the conspirators (something they seem to have forgotten about), and an informal word of thanks to the Cuban officials involved. The claims have been met with bafflement in the United States, but if Castro is making it up, it is not for the first time. The claim was initially made in a 1989 speech. Cuban-American relations were at a low point in 1984, a year after the invasion of Grenada and while interests clashed in Central America and Africa, where tens of thousands of Cuban troops fought wars of intervention. The significance of this, for Castro, lies in the constant threat of assassination that he himself has faced. Though by 1980, the US had officially rejected the idea of assassination, a high proportion of the 638 plots to kill the Cuban dictator were hatched during Reagan's administration. Castro seeks the high moral ground, showing that he will save the life of his enemy, even while his enemy seeks to kill him. One can understand why Cuba would likely see no benefit in allowing the murder of a US president, and the broader context of his regime, I am not quite convinced yet of Castro's benevolence. If it is true, I would certainly like to hear more details about who these right wing extremists were and why exactly they wanted to kill Reagan. I somehow doubt, however, that Castro will be forthcoming.

I'm still not sure, however, how this all segues in with the second revelation of Castro's column, that the US government has lied about its involvement in 9/11. Fidel's journalism leaves me confused, but definitely wanting more. Best line? "Blood donations have long constituted a tradition of the Revolution." No kidding.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Birthday Post

I thought everybody should know it's my birthday now. As a special treat, and because he hasn't been posting any of his pictures on his own blog lately, I thought I'd share the card that Jack Brougham, Draughtsman sent me via the internet this morning:

It is also Ben Folds' birthday today, so here is him doing a marvelous Dr. Dre song:

It is also now four years to the day that Johnny Cash ascended, so here's to him and have a rotten day!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

R.I.P. Jane Wyman, 1917-2007

It is perhaps unfair that the obituaries of Jane Wyman, who died yesterday, focus so centrally on her marriage to Ronald Reagan, considering that the President had little contact with her in the near 60 years of his life which followed their 1948 divorce. Particularly since she had so little to do with his political career - his obsession with politics following his 1947 election to the presidency of the Screen Actors Guild was, it was suggested at the time, one of the reasons for their separation ("I'm so bored with him, I'll either kill him or kill myself," she is reported to have said). This is the fate, however, for America's first ex-wife of a President and mother of two of his children - Maureen, who's death sadly preceded both her parents, and Michael, the well-known conservative commentator. It is fair to say, anyway, that her lengthy and successful acting career would not merit her a mention on this blog were it not for her connection to the amiable dunce himself.

Their marriage was short-lived, and at the end tremendously unhappy, dying with the death of their prematurely born child. In its time, however, it was presented as an idyllic match, the innocent and beautiful love of two of Hollywood's favourite stars. To say it was a sham would go too far, but it was certainly an early example of Reagan's pervasive and fantastic public persona. "Jane and Ronnie have always stood for so much that is right in Hollywood," exclaimed the formidable Hollywood gossipist Louella Parsons, who claimed responsibility for the initial match and frequently presented the handsome couple as evidence of the industry's high moral values and chaste American ideals (the truth of which Parsons knew better than anyone). Such is the way of Hollywood, and you don't have to look to far to see similar games being played nowadays.

Wyman was a serious actress who met with much more acclaim and success than her second husband (another potential reason for their split), who no doubt did not envy the later supporting role of Nancy Davis. She no doubt also held admiration for Reagan's achievements, a respect most apparent in her consistent silence on their marriage and divorce.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Two months in, time for some navel gazing.

Amiable Dunce is now two months old. This is the 22nd post, which brings the average to about one every three days. Only one of those has been about David Cameron being a chump, and I've yet to descend into lengthy descriptions of What I Got up to in the Newsagents, nor even any explanations of Why I Like That TV Show That I Like. I hope you'll agree that it's not been too bad so far.

Anyway, enough about me. What you want to hear about is yourselves, that (very) elite community who can proudly call themselves Dunce readers. Unfortunately, I only signed up to Google Analytics after a few weeks of blogging, so I have no stats whatsoever for July, but since then I have been checking in and checking up daily on who is reading this thing, and why. Or at least the vague indicators of those things that Analytics offers. Up until yesterday, I have had 453 hits, which averages out to 11 a day. These have been from 168 "Absolute Unique Visitors," and I do consider you each absolutely unique, each wonderful in your own special way. You have spent an average of 10 minutes, 18 seconds reading Amiable Dunce, though I think that is collectively, per day. However, 37% of you have only visited once, for shame, and 76% of all visits have spent less than 10 seconds looking at the site! I realise this may have something to do with my irregular posting, but still, for shame!

You come from one of 22 countries so far, but not from Africa, which is the only continent I've yet to break into. The greatest amount of visits come from the good old United Kingdom, though there is a fair showing also from the good old United States. Amiable Dunce has spread into 24 of the 50 states, and is most popular in California, Connecticut and Washington. Of 40 google keyword combinations that have lead here, the most common is "Townes Van Zandt," and the oddest has been "was dr. seuss against war or for it" - though they don't seem to have stuck around to find out. The blog that has sent me the most referrals has been koplobpobajob, so thanks Simon!

That's enough of that now, I feel. I'll update in a couple more months probably, or when I hit some important milestone - all fifty states, or a visit from David Cameron or something.

Reconciliation or Recrimination?

In these recent heady days where we jittery world-watchers are on alert yet again for an imminent US invasion of Iran, it is hard not to imagine a broader agenda at work when a federal judge orders Iran to pay $2.6 billion in compensation to the survivors and the bereaved of the devastating attack on the US Marine barracks at the Beirut airport in 1983. Of course, I will not project that Dick Cheney has been pulling the strings behind Judge Lamberth's ruling, but the timing of the decision no doubt emphasises its significance, and will give support to any political depiction of Iran as a current threat and historical enemy to America. It also seems a rather strange move.

The precedent seems to be Libya's agreement in 2002 to compensate the families of the victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, but the differences are clear. Libya's payment, combined with something of an admission of complicity in the atrocity, were part of Gaddaffi's post-9/11 rapprochement with the west - a consensual political gesture, not the result of a unilateral ruling by a foreign domestic court. Iran, of course, refuses to pay, to recognise the authority of the court, or to admit to any responsibility for the attack. One might ask what the point of such a ruling is, when there is no hope of any forthcoming payment.

The Lockerbie bombing was also by anyone's definition a terrorist attack and an act of murder, but can the same be said for the barracks bombing? The barracks, after all, were a military installation in the middle of a warzone. While political expediency in face of the War Powers Act meant that in Washington, the Reagan Administration insisted on defining the Marine deployment as a neutral peacekeeping force, the reality on the ground was that the Multinational Force was aligned on one side of a civil war. Though bound by stringent rules of engagement not to fight, the Marines' vague objective to protect the crumbling Lebanese Government and train its army marked them out as a clear enemy to the various militias vying for control of Beirut, and even, to a lesser and more indirect extent, the IDF. The barracks bombing, while villainous and atrocious, was an act of war - how many acts of war result in demands for compensation?. Can the families of the Marines killed by sniper fire expect a similar court ruling?

Other questions arise, such as why Syria, also considered to be involved in the creation of the early incarnation Hezbollah which is generally credited with the attack, has not received a similar order. Then there is the fact that the extent of Iranian involvement in the attack is simply not known - did Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen order it? plan it? carry it out? or did they just give it blessing? All this is uncertain, which makes the basis for the ruling shaky. Stretching the questions further we might ask how the US government would respond to demands that it pay compensation to the Iranian victims of Saddam's army using US-made conventional or chemical weapons - let alone the civilian victims of the Contras. The court ruling seems to have little real authority, whether in precedent, logic, or in practical result.

At its very worst, this decision is politically designed (even if simply by one man) to escalate American public hostility towards Iran. At its best, it is an attempt to give relief and a sense of justice to over a thousand still-grieving Americans whose boys died on a mission of the best intentions but ultimately with no meaning or consequence. Either way, it is an odd, and entirely symbolic, use of the US justice system.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Like Beckett, but shorter and with animals.

I haven't posted for a while, but until I come up with something substantive, I'm offering about the best distraction I can think of. Road Runner was always my favourite of the Looney Tunes, I think it was something to do with the mad, epic landscape with its impossibly high mesas and endless, directionless roads. Looking back, I am also tickled by its enthusiasm for the inventive potential of 1950s science, however inevitably flawed the final ACME product.

PS. Due to overwhelming lack of interest, I am also extending the current poll. Vote or Die!