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Proud to Be (Un)American

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Proud to Be (Un)American

We’ve entered the final stretch of the presidential election and the drowning McCain campaign has resorted to the oldest playground tactic in the book: name-calling. Last week it was “anti-American,” a tack recommended to Hillary Clinton by a top advisor last year but which the senator wisely declined to exercise. This is nothing new, of course: False accusations that Barack Obama doesn’t wear a flag pin, that he refuses to pledge allegiance to the American flag, and that he’s a Muslim have circulated throughout the Internet and by the mainstream media for over a year. But the candidate managed to escape those scurrilous claims—at least enough to win his party’s nomination and take a lead in the latest polls. And so, desperately, deliberately and recklessly, surrogates for John McCain have decided to go whole-hog, with Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann summoning the worst in our country’s political history by suggesting Obama is anti-American and calling for a McCarthyite witch hunt in Congress.

At a rally in Waukesha, Wisconsin earlier this month, a McCain supporter took the microphone and declared his uncontainable anger: “I’m mad. I’m really mad, and what may surprise you is it’s not the economy,” he spat to a roar of cheers. “We’ve got to have our heads examined,” he continued, referring to the prospect of electing Obama as our next president. “It’s time to have you two [McCain and Vice Presidential lightning rod Sarah Palin] represent us. So go get ’em.” It was a call for the McCain campaign to get tougher—and presumably dirtier—on Obama, and when I first saw a clip of the man’s rant on television, I wondered what could possibly have filled him with such anger, hatred and resentment. After all, his party has held the presidency for 20 out of the last 28 years and has had control of Congress for 12 out of the last 14. I thought, “He’s angry?”

So what is Joe Angry really peeved about? “It’s the socialists taking over our country!” he declared to another round of hearty cheers and chants of “U.S.A.!,” as if every election is the fucking Super Bowl and only one side has the country at heart, like each nation in a war believes it has God on its side. Bachmann was repudiated by many in her own party, but Palin has gone one step further with no complaint, implying that not only is the Democratic party’s presidential nominee anti-American, that certain geographical regions of America itself are anti-American, that the “real” America and real “patriots” can be found in “small towns,” but that Obama is a socialist, a tag that has been repeated ad nauseam by those in and outside the campaign. No longer content to call their Democratic opponents “tax-and-spend liberals,” they’ve reduced a policy criticism to a fear-mongering smear.

Using fear, of course, is the neoconservative movement’s modus operandi. On Hannity & Colmes last night, Sean Hannity and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich postulated that the Obama-Biden ticket is lying about their tax policy, which proposes to lower taxes for Americans making less than $200K and raising taxes for those making over $250K. With absolutely no evidence for such a claim, the pair volleyed the idea back and forth, with Hannity proudly showing a montage of dubiously edited clips alleging that the threshold for people who will enjoy a tax cut under Obama has been lowered from $250K to $200K and now $150K. What he and Gingrich are intentionally ignoring is something a six-year-old could understand. Obama has never claimed that those who make $249,999 will get a tax cut. His policy is clear: Those making less than $200K will get a tax break; those making between $200K and $250K won’t see a change; those making more than $250K will see a tax increase. It’s first-grade math and they’re distorting the plan by conflating two different statements to make it seem like Obama is lying when the fact is that they’re the liars.

As for that $150K figure: In an interview with a local television station in his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Biden defended the Obama plan by saying that an “$87 billion tax break doesn’t need to go to people making an average of $1.4 million. It should go, like it used to, to middle-class people—people making under $150,000 a year.” It’s unclear whether the discrepancy between $200K and $150K was simply an error on Biden’s part or if, as an aide told MSNBC, he was using the figure to arbitrarily represent what he considers the “middle class” (after all, he randomly chose the figure $1.4 million and no one is suggesting that they’re only going to increase taxes for those making over that amount), but there’s no evidence to suggest that their tax plan has changed at all. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the right wing is slicing and dicing these figures and quotes. In his misleading piece “Obama, Biden Shift ’Tax Break’ Threshold,” Rick Pedraza stripped Biden’s statement of a key phrase, “like it used to”—four little words that couldn’t have possibly affected his word count very much but which conveniently ignores a key component to the Democrats’ policy: returning tax rates to what they were under Bill Clinton.

Mainstream and fringe pundits alike have pounced on Obama’s use of the phrase “spread the wealth” during his conversation with Joe the Plumber, seizing the opportunity to liken the Senator to a communist, even quoting Karl Marx. After the Drudge Report unearthed an audio interview in which Obama discussed the courts’ involvement (or lack thereof) in economic redistribution in the wake of the civil rights movement, the right cried that it was proof of Obama’s frightening plan to socialize the United States. Rush Limbaugh—who is so afraid of Obama that he attempted to upset his nomination by encouraging listeners to vote for Clinton during the primary and called for bloodshed in the streets at the Democratic convention—laughably parsed Obama’s words, claiming the senator “flatly rejected” the Constitution and thinks it’s “flawed.” (Limbaugh even recycled the “he doesn’t wear a flag pin” myth to hammer his point home.) What Obama was, in fact, referring to was the failure of the Constitution to outlaw slavery and its distinction of African-Americans as three-fifths of a person.

An essential component to realizing Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of racial equality is economic equality. King himself recognized economic parity as not just a product of the civil rights movement but a requirement for it. Last summer, the House of Representatives passed a resolution apologizing for slavery and acknowledged that “the vestiges of Jim Crow continue to this day.” Though the resolution did not address reparations, some have called on the U.S. government to provide financial benefits to descendants of slavery, a proposal I personally take issue with but which can and should be addressed within the current progressive tax system—specifically, tax legislation that more broadly helps the middle class and the poor, of which many oppressed groups are largely a part.

The utter absurdity of calling Obama’s views on tax policy “socialism” is astounding. The Wall Street bailout is the epitome of socialized government, which is why this latest stream of attacks doesn’t seem to be working for Republicans. Most of the country is now in favor of socializing health care—at least to a degree. And Democratic socialism has, for the most part, succeeded in Europe, while much of our country has already been socialized: Medicare, the U.S. Postal Service, Social Security—hell, the patron saint of the Republican party, Ronald Reagan, even increased taxes to save the Social Security system with a $165 bailout back in the early 1980s.

Calling Obama a socialist is, of course, code for—you guessed it—“un-American,” which is code for, you know, Muslim…or black…or anything scary to the average white Middle American. So, to Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann and Joe Angry, I ask this: What is “un-American”? Is it un-American to declare a war on a sovereign nation that hasn’t attacked you? To defy the Geneva Conventions? To fire U.S. attorneys because they refuse to carry out partisan investigations? To attempt to use the Constitution to limit the rights of U.S. citizens? To suspend habeas corpus? To eavesdrop on U.S. citizens without court approval? To protect big corporations ahead of protecting the people? To neglect U.S. veterans when they’ve returned maimed or emotionally traumatized? To out a C.I.A. operative as political payback? To encourage war profiteering by offering no-bid contracts to mercenaries and private companies with no oversight or accountability? To let people perish in a hurricane? To neglect the environment, deny global warming and alter scientific data in the interest of big business? To wage war without asking the American people to support it by paying for it? To attempt to bolster one branch of the U.S. government in the name of attaining more power? To ignore over 1,000 provisions of U.S. law in an unprecedented use of “signing statements”? To abuse executive privilege to hide criminal activity and incompetence within an administration?

Lack of self-awareness isn’t a monopoly held by politicians, let alone Republicans, but Sarah Palin should hang a plaque alongside her myriad moose heads. She is the latest holy hypocrite to be propped up and exalted by the Republican party: Her husband was, or still is, a secessionist (anti-American—check!) and she runs a state where, to quote her in The New Yorker last month, “Alaskans collectively own the resources, so we share in the wealth when the development of those resources occurs” (socialist—check!). The lady better grab herself a dictionary, a copy of the Constitution and probably a newspaper before she even considers a 2012 run for the White House.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.

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Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer

Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.

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A24
Photo: A24

British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:

A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.

And below is the film’s first trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9Al2nC0vzY

A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing

For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.

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20th Century Fox
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.

Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: A Star Is Born

Should Win: First Man

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Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth

By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.

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That Was Something

Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcoming dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.

For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.

Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.

Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.

Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.

Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:

In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.

In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.

Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:

I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?

The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.

Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.

Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.

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