Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sunday Reading

Blowback — William Greider at The Nation offers some post-election advice to the president.

Bluntly put, Obama needs to learn hardball. People saw this in him when he fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and many of us yearn to see more. If he absorbs the lesson of power, he will accept that sometimes in politics you can’t split the difference or round off sharp edges. He has to push back aggressively and stand his ground, more like those ruthless opponents trying to bury him. If Congress won’t act, the president will. But first he has to switch from cheerleading to honest talk. Tell people what the nation really needs, what Republicans intend to sabotage. In a political street fight, you’ve got to hit back.

Only Obama can decide this about himself, but others can influence the outcome by surrounding him with tough love and new circumstances created by their own direct actions. It does not help Obama to keep telling him he did great but the people misunderstood him. He did lousy, not great, and in many governing dimensions people understood his failures clearly enough. They knew he gave tons of money to bankers and demanded nothing in return. They knew he thought the economy was in recovery. They couldn’t believe this intelligent man was that clueless.

Popular forces can blow away the fuzziness. They can mobilize to demonstrate visible support for the president’s loftier goals and to warn him off the temptation to pursue a Clintonesque appeasement of the right. Given the fragile status of his presidency, Obama needs to know that caving in is sure to encourage enemies and drive off disheartened supporters. People should, likewise, call out the president’s enemies and attack them with the harshness that’s out of character for him. The racial McCarthyism of the GOP establishment is a good place to start.

People who still have great hope for Obama can help revive his presidency, but only if they toughen up themselves. Stop holding his hand (he’s an adult) and start building a people’s agenda that compels the president to change his. Obama won’t like this at first—his own supporters talking back—but he can learn to draw strength from their courage. If people fail to step up with their own message, the president will likely fail with his.

More below the fold.

Leonard Pitts, Jr. teaches Cuba about the virtual reality of freedom.

Dear Cuba:

Maybe you’ve got a point.

I refer to your outrage over a new video game, the object of which is to assassinate Fidel Castro. In Call of Duty: Black Ops, the latest in the popular series from Activision Blizzard, Inc., the player is transported to Havana during the Cold War with a mission to kill the young Communist revolutionary.

As an article on your state-run news website put it, “What the United States couldn’t accomplish in more than 50 years, they are now trying to do virtually.” It says the game will turn American kids into sociopaths. That’s a dubious claim, at least according to Christopher J. Ferguson, a psychology professor at Texas A&M International University and expert in video-game violence, who was quoted in an Associated Press account. “At this point,” he said, “there is no evidence that video games, violent or otherwise, cause harm to minors.”

Youth violence in this country, said Ferguson, is at its lowest ebb in 40 years, even though research indicates that virtually all young men — up to 95 percent — have at some point in their lives played violent video games. So, Cuba, your suggestion that Call of Duty will produce kill-crazy psychos seems naïve, at best. Hysterical at worst.

All that said, it’s not hard to empathize with your feeling of pique. How would we like it if you produced a game where players had to shoot their way through Washington with a goal of killing President Obama? The U.S. government would likely have a thing or two to say about that.

Not to equate our duly elected president with your former dictator for life, but only to say, I understand where you’re coming from. Castro is a murderous thug, but he’s your murderous thug and it really knots your knickers when people try to video-game assassinate him. Message received.

But the question is, what do you think we can do about it?

We have this thing in this country, maybe you’ve heard about it, called the First Amendment. Among the things it guarantees is freedom of expression. That’s a right enjoyed by everybody — even video-game makers. Every American is free to say pretty much anything she or he pleases, and the government is legally proscribed from stopping them.

That sounds crazy to you, right? How can the government be proscribed from doing anything it wants?

In your country it’s different. Say something the government doesn’t like and they whisk you off to the ol’ gulag. You throw journalists in jail. You throw dissidents in jail. You throw poets in jail. Don’t do the rhyme if you can’t do the time, right?

And we’re not talking some country club jail with conjugal visits and a TV room, are we? No, we’re talking jails with moldy, maggoty food, roaches, rats, reek, rampant physical, mental and sexual abuse, and cells so narrow you barely have room to sit. Nor is it just those dangerous poets who get sent to such places. I hear you even lock up private restaurateurs who sell the lobsters that are reserved for tourist hotels and government-owned eateries.

Wow. Sell a lobster, go to jail. Now that’s tough.

Angels on the Verge — John Lahr on the revival of Angels in America, the groundbreaking plays by Tony Kushner.

The first time that the two parts of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” were performed together, in 1992, I was with Kushner backstage at the Mark Taper Forum, in Los Angeles, after the curtain went down. He stood dazed and rumpled among well-wishers. On a nearby bulletin board he had pinned a letter to the cast. “And how else should an angel land on earth but with utmost difficulty?” it read. “If we are to be visited by angels we will have to call them down with sweat and strain . . . and the efforts we expend to draw the heavens to an earthly place may well leave us too exhausted to appreciate the fruits of our labors: an angel, even with torn robes, and ruffled feathers, is in our midst.”

“Angels in America”—which is composed of two three-hour plays, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika”—proved to be a watershed drama, the most lyrical and ambitious augury of an era since Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie.” Where Williams’s 1945 play caught and defined the postwar mood of release, with the imminence of new life, Kushner’s saga, which revolves around a victim of the AIDS epidemic, caught and defined the mood of ruthless Reaganite self-interest, with the imminence of new death. Eighteen years later, “Angels in America” (in a Signature Theatre Company revival at the Peter Norton Space, under the splendid direction of Michael Greif) is as majestic and luminous as ever—a kind of brainstorm; with the passage of time, however, its music strikes different dominant chords. Now the play’s most visionary element is not what it has to say about the homosexual struggle but what it has to say about the grinding undertow of reactionary and progressive historical forces. “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come,” Prior Walter (Christian Borle), the AIDS survivor, says, looking ahead to the new millennium. But the millennium has come and the rights of gay citizens are still a work in progress. As our own fractious moment shows, the world spins, but not always in the same direction.

Doonesbury — pulling an all-nighter.