Blog Archive

Blog Archive – February, 2016

When Canadians Become Alarmed, It’s Serious.

February 29, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

My sister phoned me from Canada this morning. I can’t remember her being so upset. It’s not about the grandchildren; it’s not anything I said, not a recurrence of her cancer, not winter’s icy roads or frozen pipes.

“What are you going to do if he becomes president? Can your Congress vote him out?” she asked determinedly. “What are you going to do?”—you being ‘you out-of-control Americans’. My sister is talking about Donald Trump’s ascendancy (if not his ascension).

This concern uttered by a woman who rarely talks politics, not even Canadian politics, from the same sister who routinely dismisses my political outrages, conspiratorial analyses, and opposition to Zionist occupation. I could never draw this lifelong sibling into a debate, especially about American politics. (She’s more of a royalist—they still exist in Ontario, I suppose in British Columbia too-- than a party member, left or right.)

Canadians habitually view their giant neighbor as excessive and unpredictable, not simply a source of new market delights which they travel south to buy, but also a target for Canadian satire. Preferring to avoid acknowledging their own military coalition with the Pentagon, their diplomatic alliances for US imperialist polices, their membership in ‘The Five Eyes’ global intelligence spy program, and their acquiescence to US anti-terror strategies, Canadians try to ignore the race-based dramas and costly principled struggles that beset USA. ‘It will pass like any teenage tantrum’, they snicker.

So, if my sister is alarmed about the emergence of the flashy Manhattan billionaire as the frontrunner in the US election campaign, this is serious. Despite themselves Canadians, impatient with the drawn out 10-week election cycle that overthrew their Harper administration last year, are now following America’s 15-month election drama with growing distress. Like many of us here, the personalities and volatility of the presidential campaign is no longer a laughing matter. Trump could actually win the Republican nomination, and the White House.

Unlike in Canada where parliament can simply force a vote-of-no-confidence if their leadership is off-track, ridding ourselves of an unmanageable leader is more problematic. 

Stateside, confronting this specter, we ourselves are desperately seeking options. Friends who favored Bernie Sanders announce they’re shifting to Clinton because she would seem to have a better chance against ‘The Donald’, allied as she is with the Democratic Party machine and Corporate America. Others assert they’ll sit out this election altogether. On the conservative side of the political arena, voters and the Republican Party itself (the GOP), admitting that ‘The Donald’ has become an embarrassment, appear to be mobilizing around young Mark Rubio.

Then there’s the gorilla in the room, the unparalleled American political force underlying everything in our lives—our media. US media is a formidable power which my sister and others watching from a safe distance may not appreciate. Network leaders now acknowledge that their romance with Trump and their initial delight in his celebrity skills helped create the monster he’s become. (Their profits have soared with his rise .)

This brash contender would not be the first rising star to become the target of a vicious media assault. I expect the new game in town will be between ‘The Donald’ and our media. Journalists have a toolbox of weapons to politically assassinate brash and bombastic contenders. They can create scandals, saturating the public with misinformation, poisoning any name and cause; they can uncover buried facts, blowing them out of portion to intimidate and embarrass. They can summon any comedic talent to ridicule their target. They can suggest alliances with the most extreme elements. (They’ve begun with a suggestion Trump is allied with the discredited Ku Klux Klan.)

And of course citizens can reject the TV process that drugs them into passivity and rouse themselves to really participate in the election process. They might organize to reshape the two houses of congress. Just as the GOP has hobbled Obama by taking control of Congress in the 2012 mid-terms, Democrats can do the same if a Trump or any Republican wins the presidency.  

[ When Canadians Become Alarmed, It’s Serious. ]

Why Am I Watching These Phony Campaign Debates?

February 17, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Some friends have given up watching televised news programs altogether. They’re disgusted by what our election has become: a spectacle. “I’ll check the highlights of this charade tomorrow”; “It insults our democracy”; “It’s all rigged”, they claim. “It’s only about money.”

I confess, I’m still watching. If it’s a choice between the Grammy awards and these debates, both viewed by millions of Americans, I’ll choose the latter. I’m more engaged by the insults, the claims and these personalities on the US political stage than by any other kind of entertainment.

Never before have I followed political campaigning with such keenness. Others say the same. But then, did US networks sponsor so many debates in the past? And have we had such a colorful lineup?

Yes, our media generate this pizzazz for their own profit and to maintain political clout. We recognize how candidates’ statements and banter are thin on substance. But the process offers wonderful opportunities for post-debate reviews and analyses by battalions of wise (sic) consultants, correspondents and news anchors. Yes, we acknowledge that we’re witnessing what may be a performance staged and managed by party bosses-- Democrat and Republican-- to proffer the semblance of a genuine competition for public consumption, while their nominees are already decided.

Soooo: why am I following these debates? Frankly, I don’t know why. Normally I prefer radio and print over television. Until these debates, I was unaware which networks favor which candidates and slant their commentaries and pick their guests to reinforce their editorial position.

There’s the additional dilemma of where to assign my humble vote. I still believe everyone counts-- at our local level if not the national. I’ve argued that state elections—choosing people who represent my state and congressional district in the US Congress, and my county in New York’s legislature-- are more important than the presidential campaign.

Local campaigns will get underway much later. Meanwhile I’m faced with this noisy presidential lineup. I wouldn’t support Clinton (although I’m her generation) because, while she may seem “experienced”, she didn’t achieve anything noteworthy during her political career. I can’t support a woman just to help the US prove it is as enlightened as the rest of the world.

I was ready to back Elizabeth Warren. But after she decided against entering the race, I moved towards Sanders by default. (I’m still waiting for him to explain exactly how he’s going to win US Congress’ support for the commendable socialist platform he promises to unleash on America. If Republicans continue to dominate the US Senate and House, they will surely thwart Sanders as effectively as they have Obama.)

Back to the media circus of our debates: I admit the process unfolding day by day is packed with suspense. I’m as engrossed with the media maneuverings and mutterings as much as with individual candidates. Besides the money flowing into networks’ bank account, journalists’ careers are being made, among them a new crop of capable young women.

Scanning news coverage by 7 channels, I’ve become an admirer of Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. Maddow uses the campaign to teach us about our American political process; she draws attention to what isn’t discussed; she reviews US election history and explains regional differences.

Then there are the absences: absent from all discussions among candidates are US-Israeli policy, US-Saudi policy, and US-India policy. Not only is Israel a taboo subject for candidates, it’s also absent in discussions of voters’ values. Among all the talk about interest groups, do you hear anything about Jewish voters? Candidates are wooing Asian voters, Latino voters, young voters, elderly voters, the Evangelical vote, the Catholic vote, the Muslim vote, the Mormon vote, the gun owner vote, the farm vote, the urban vote and the unions. They are shamelessly courting the Black vote. But the Jewish vote? Not a whisper.

Our Jewish citizens are unarguably involved. Any serious political candidate must court the Jewish American vote. But it’s not discussed publically along with other ethnic voting patterns. Competing candidates do not mention this constituency, and thus far, media analysts and polls avoid it. Why? I don’t know.

I’m not unhappy with the excessive positions and behavior of Trump, or Cruz, or Carson. We need to witness their frightening opinions and thereby face the reality of American extremism. These men inadvertently expose the ugly but undeniably ugly underbelly of America.

Finally I enjoy watching because, I believe, even if party bosses are manipulating the process, no one-- no senior pundit, no rookie correspondent, no veteran host, no millionaire donor, no political science professor-- knows the final outcome. No one’s sure how this game will end. Which reminds me: I must check when the next debate airs, and which party’s performing.  

[ Why Am I Watching These Phony Campaign Debates? ]

“The Martian”: This Heroism is for Chinese Viewers Too

February 04, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Many claim that books and films-- politicians too—are frequently the result of a deliberate marketing strategy, that they’re designed by a team according to formulae based on earlier successes and applied like an algorithm to the market:--to win. “The Martian” may be one of these made-to-order productions, containing as it does, all essential ingredients-- a star actor, an ethnically diverse cast, a futuristic theme, spectacular cosmic sets, high tech knowhow, and a heroic American plot.

Americans will never tire of their need for muscular heroes engaged in the struggle between good and bad, challenging the forces of nature, triumphing in a valiant rescue. But maybe such needs are not limited to American tastes. Who doesn’t seek heroic resolutions and reassurance that a man’s (sic) intelligence and ingenuity will save us from human folly and tame the power of nature?

I can’t help wondering if Crown Publishers, who plucked “The Martians” from a self-published unknown (Andy Weir), and 20th Century Fox-- within months of the book’s release they secured film rights, released the film in under two years, and rapidly snagged an Oscar nomination-- had been searching for this very story. Following the new “Star Wars” and building on the popularity of space science and its spectacular recent discoveries, a human drama on Mars was inevitable.

The movie’s plot is as credible as a person washed up on that desert island in “Castaway”. In “The Martian” we have a cosmonaut botanist Watney (Matt Damon) lost in future space (on Mars), using his wit and science knowhow to survive, and doing so on less than Tom Hanks had available in “Castaway”.

In the end our space hero is rescued by the woman spaceship commander and her multi-ethnic crew, after tense months of negotiations between them and officials at NASA headquarters on earth. This drama equals that of “Apollo 13”, with Damon’s heroism matching that of Hanks (again). Except that “The Martian” tags a new partner: China.

Filmmaking, like any industry, is sensitive to marketing statistics. Examining these, one begins to speculate about what drives films like “The Martian”. In 2014, one research agency announced how film entertainment worldwide was expected to grow from $88.3 billion in 2015 to $104.6 billion in 2019. Another survey notes how the international box office market is expanding rapidly in the Asian-Pacific region, where, we are advised, China is the market to watch. Thus film companies have their sights set on China’s filmgoers.

Overseas auto sales may be declining but entertainment is an expanding revenue source for the USA. From science fiction (“The Terminator” series) to children’s education (“Sesame Street”), hundreds of US produced TV series and films are translated into dozens of languages and franchised for production by other countries. Futuristic spectacles like “The Martian” become big foreign revenue earners. Everyone enjoys drama; when it’s combined with credible science, special effects and a hero like Matt Damon, it’s a box office success.

It’s also a political winner. As poet Amiri Baraka emphasized and filmmaker Spike Lee reinforces in his productions, everything is political. On the surface, unlike a Lee film, “The Martian” lacks any explicit political message. There are no fearless Marine snipers, no gallant lawyers defending minority rights, no environmentalists challenging corporate polluters, no journalists doggedly pursuing truth at any price.

“The Martian”’s subtext lies in its demonstration of the brilliance of the American scientist and how far his team will go to save one American life. This film is also on target with its ethnic diversity. (Although the hero is still a white man.) While some personalities differ slightly from the book’s characters, they nevertheless represent what’s described as an A-1 cast: stranded Mars cosmonaut Watney (Damon); smart women, headed by the space ship’s commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain); Purnell (Donald Glover), a genius African American mathematician; Martinez (Michela Pena), a compassionate Latino pilot; and Ng (Ben Wong), the capable Chinese Jet Propulsion Lab director. Finally, we have Dr. Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), charged with the rescue of Damon, declaring that his mother is from India. (Everyone except a hijab-crowned physicist, an Arab geneticist, and a Native American chemist is present.)

If we look back at the 1995 all-white-all-male “Apollo 13” cast, it’s clear we’ve advanced on some fronts. Of course “Apollo 13” was based on reality while “The Martian”, like “Star Trek”, is futuristic. And for America, true ethnic parity, while not science fiction, is not present-day reality.

The main hidden text of “The Martian” is found in the role of China-- Communist China, not the scientist played by Ben Wong. China enters the story at the moment of NASA’s despair and saves their seemingly doomed rescue plan. From their Beijing headquarters, watching the drama on live TV, Chinese space officials determinedly put aside their own project and offer to rocket supplies to the stricken Americans. A possible American failure is turned into an international victory, and Damon (he’s always Damon on screen) is reunited with his spaceship. Cheers erupt among crowds watching the rescue in Times Square, in London’s Trafalgar and at Tiananmen Square. (A good time was had by all.)  END

Comments welcome


[ “The Martian”: This Heroism is for Chinese Viewers Too ]

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