Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bill Cronon, Academic Freedom and Freedom of Information Act

William Cronon is one of the premier academic American historians. He helped to usher in the study of American environmental history with his Bancroft-winning Changes in the Land, a book he wrote before he finished his dissertation. His second book, Nature's Metropolis, traced the development of Chicago, and it has become a classic work of urban, economic and environmental history. Just last October, he was elected to be the new President of the American Historical Association.

After he wrote an op-ed piece, that condemned the attempts of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker to strip unions of collective-bargaining rights. As retaliation for this piece, two well-funded conservative think tanks have pressed the University of Wisconsin to make public all the emails Cronon has written and received on his university e-mail address under a state freedom of information act.

The rationale behind this goes as follows: Cronon is a public employee who should submit to transparency on his publicly-funded email, allowing everyone to see what else he has said. But does this logic hold water? The answer is a resounding no.

For conservatives, who have continually celebrated "limited government," this act is far more reminiscent of the authoritarian regimes of East Germany, Stalinist Russia or Mussolini's Italy. How do these conservatives who want taxes for America's largest corporations lowered to nothing and the government's (federal, state and municipal) ability to pay for social services rendered null and void justify an act that takes away the very individual freedoms they extol at all times.

Freedom of Information Acts are wonderful things. They make records public to historians and journalists, hopefully avoiding major redactions and highly classified documents from being hidden from the public. Academics have been some of the most vocal supporters of these acts; however, this act is now being twisted to intimidate historians from using their cultural capital to discuss and sometimes even condemn policies. How is it not a violation of free speech?

The state freedom of information act also stresses that the people subject to the law are "elected officials." Dr. Cronon was not elected to any public office in the state. This is quite an overreach to search his email because he teaches at a public institution.

The other issue that will come into play is that the vast majority of Cronon's emails involve his students. Emails involving student grades, health issues, familial problems, etc must remain confidential under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Cronon's emails will probably find little of incendiary value. There may be some snide remarks about colleagues, some patronizing emails sent to graduate students or angry letters to the chair of the department or to the dean about the budget, but most likely nothing that will result in any headlines. The act of going through emails, which he believed were private, when written is such a gross violation of privacy and even the artificial expansion of a law meant to do good work.

The final thought emerges from this: why are the conservatives so afraid of one lonely historian. Although he is well known within the academy, he is by no means a bestselling author or pundit. Are Scott Walker's policies in such dire straits that one historian can make them topple? If so, we historians are greater than we believe ourselves to be.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Legacy of Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor died today at the age of 79 from congestive heart failure. Her famous eyes, that sometimes turned a shade of violet, her tiny cinched waist, those tiny hips that fluttered from side to side as she argued with her main co-stars from Kate Hepburn to Paul Newman, were the symbols that came to define a woman cursed and blessed with undeniable beauty.

She is best remembered for her eight marriages and her cyclical weight losses and gains, but in the 1950's and 1960's she was one of the premier actresses of the cinema. Her performances in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958) and "Suddenly Last Summer" (1959) marked her as one of the great interpreters of Tennessee Williams, combining the paradoxical strength and fragility of his heroines with her consummate beauty. Finally reaching her apex in 1966 with her performance of the firebrand Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

She began as an MGM contract player in roles in "Lassie Come Home" and "One's Born Every Minute." She became a star with "National Velvet" (1944), a story of a girl in lover with her horse. She was propelled into the limelight. Even the notoriously acrid critic, James Agee, wrote that he had been "choked with a peculiar sort of adoration I might have felt if we were in the same grade of primary school."

With the beautiful and tremulous performances of the late 1950's, she blossomed into one of the great actresses of Hollywood. She displayed her inner talents in George Stevens' "A Place in the Sun" (1952). She played the object of Monty Clift's affections, the sybaritic rich girl who entrances Clift and drives him towards tragedy. This powerful film became a hit and pushed her to her greatest triumphs by decades end, becoming the only woman in Oscar history to receive four consecutive nominations for Best Actress.

Her status as a camp icon comes from the talent married to the extravagance and absurdity of her private life. After her husband Mike Todd died in 1958, while she was filming "Cat," she found solace in the arms of Eddie Fisher, a mutual friend of the couple; however, Fisher was married to Debbie Reynolds, in a union celebrated by Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper for its storybook qualities. Suddenly, Fisher was divorcing Reynolds, much to the blonde dancer's surprise and chagrin. (Her bitterness about Fisher would become one of the highlights of her cabaret shows in the 1970's. At an AIDS benefit in 1990, Reynolds came on stage and said: "And now another thing Liz and I share." ba da boom!).

In 1960, Taylor's life resembled her performance in "The Last Time I Saw Paris," where her heroine dies of pneumonia tragically. Taylor was rushed to the hospital for an emergency tracheotomy while she was unconscious from a bout of pneumonia and too much booze. She had just finished filming "Butterfield 8" an adaptation of John O'Hara's torrid melodrama about a call girl. Taylor reportedly hated the finished movie so much that she threw her shoes at the screen when she first saw it on the MGM studio lot. However, the sympathy of Hollywood parlayed itself into her first Oscar for the film. Although she received nominations for 'Raintree County," 'Suddenly," and "Cat," her first Oscar came for her weakest performance of the period.

Then while making "Cleopatra," Taylor ditched Fisher for the bad boy of the British stage, Richard Burton. Burton and Taylor slowed production down on the Egyptian-set drama with their drunken antics. Taylor was somehow able to match the famously alcoholic Burton drink for drink. "Cleopatra" was a major disappointment. The film cost a record-breaking $40 million dollars, which almost bankrupted 20th-Century Fox.

Her greatest triumph on the screen was undoubtedly Mike Nichols' adaptation of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966). She eschewed her tiny waist and immaculate hair styles to gain weight and age herself twenty years to play the bitter wife of an academic whose marriage comes to the brink of disaster during a night-long dinner party with a junior faculty member and his wife. Rather than the brittle woman she cultivated to play Maggie in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Taylor created a Martha whose tough exterior covered up an insecure and bitter woman, unhappy with the banality of her life. Her fierceness shined next to her then husband, Richard Burton, whose calm docility in the film allowed Taylor to run wild as her ravings were a cry of desperation to make him pay attention to her. Although Taylor was not the first actress to deglamorize herself in order to gain critical respect and an Academy Award (Susan Hayward was the master of this in the 1950's), but for a woman like Taylor who was celebrated around the world for her face and body, it was a brave act. The performance brought her a second Oscar, and far more deserved than her previous one for "Butterfield 8" (1960). Burton, however, lost to Paul Scofield. Burton famously and bitterly said, "Elizabeth won, and I didn't."

She never had a triumph on the level of "Virginia Woolf" again. Her life devolved into a circus of drunkenness, fights with Burton and divorce after divorce. There were minor hits, such as Zeffirelli's version of "Taming of the Shrew," and there was glamor in the period. Burton gave her two famously large diamonds, worth millions of dollars. The couple fought in public in both restaurants and the yacht that was moored on the Thames near central London.

Her subsequent marriages to John Warner, which helped propel him to the Senate to represent Virginia, and Larry Fortensky, the construction worker she met while in the Betty Ford Clinic, were famously ludicrous. She turned to philanthropy in her later years, raising over $100 million for AIDS research. She was honored by the Academy with a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1992.

Hopefully, her charity and those luminous performances will triumph over the drunken brawls and years of bloated indulgence in the collective memory of Liz Taylor. Those scenes in "Cat" or "Suddenly, Last Summer" when she turns towards the camera in frustration shows her face lighted with her grace and supreme intelligence. Those eyes will continue to bewitch all of those who watch.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Libya and the issues of Intervention

Muammar Qaddafi has always been an erratic, violent and unpredictable head of state since he came to power in a military coup in 1969. He refers to himself as the "King of Kings of Africa" and his assumed sense of omnipotence has led to his role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988. As his power has eroded in the last weeks he has accused dissidents in his country as dupes of al-Qaeda who have been slipped hallucinogenic drugs in their Nescafe. How should the international community deal with such a man who is now on a murderous rampage against his own subjects.

This week, the United States and NATO entered into military tactics that would hopefully keep Muammar Qaddafi from attacking rebel groups and civilians in the eastern provinces of the nation. However, this military action raises more problems than solutions.

The Libyan rebels, unfortunately, do not have the power and unity of the rebels whom Hosni Mubarak faced in Egypt. Some of the rebels are even proffering views that Qaddafi must fall because he is a Jew, a view certain to be dismissed but indicative of the pervasive anti-Semitism of much of the Middle East.

Of course, NATO, the UN and Obama have averred that this war will last only a matter of days. This statement, however, was said at the start of the American Civil War and the First World War, both of which lasted over four years. George W. Bush also told us that an incursion into Iraq would be quick and effective. Prognostications about how  long wars last are often wrong.

What exactly are the goals of this tactic?  This is the most disheartening questions because there does not seem to be a clear answer. Is Qaddafi's removal from power the goal? If so, there seems to be no one or group ready to fill the position. Do these rebels have the power and unity to find an interim government before elections take place. The UN resolution stated that NATO powers were to protect civilian lives from Qaddafi's brutal thugs.

Obama correctly argued that the United States should step back and Britain, France and other NATO powers must take control of the situation. It appears that Libya is becoming a hot potato. Even though Nicolas Sarkozy took an early lead in this affair by refusing to recognize Qaddafi as the head of Libya's state, Sarko now seems unwilling to follow through with any commitments to aid the rebels. David Cameron, the conservative PM of the UK, has cut his budget so drastically in the last year that the cost of this incursion would negatively effect his grand budgetary schemes.

Hopefully, Qaddafi will leave peacefully and a coalition of dissidents will come together to form an interim government before a constitution with broad civil liberties and republican institutions can be formed. We can only wait to see.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Los Angeles Opera and the 2010-11 Season

Two decades ago, Los Angeles OPera was a rather provincial affair. Maria Ewing was cast in everything even though her voice was uneven and at times purely ugly. Sitting through her Salome, Carmen or Traviata was painful. But since Placido Domingo was appointed General Director in 2000, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion has experienced a renaissance. Ambitious projects have marked this decade and even this year's season with Rossini's "Turk in Italy" (Il Turco in Italia) and Benjamin Britten's "Turn of the Screw" continues this tradition.

From a Ring cycle which was controversially directed by the German director Achim Freyer (audience members booed his appearance on stage; I, however, found it a fresh and invigorating interpretation) to an acclaimed production of Brecht and Weill's "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny" (a recording of this production won two Grammys), LA Opera has become one of the cutting-edge houses in the United States along with Houston and Santa Fe but with the added prestige and endowment of New York's Metropolitan. It seems to be a formula for perpetual success.

Rossini's "Turk in Italy" has had a troubled performance history. It was booed by the audiences of Milan in 1814, and has not been performed in America since 1978 and LA Opera's prodiction was raved about by the critics, and for good reason. It was a light and airy piece supported by strong direction that maximized the comedic nature of Rossini's music and Felice Romano's libretto. The strong performances of singer-actors, such as soprano Nino Machaidze and baritone Thomas Allen, led this witty and sensual production. The critical and even commercial reception to this piece show that audiences will flock to an opera that is even little known. It points to the ability of creating more varied and interesting works by the Opera.

And now that "Turk in Italy" has closed, we see the immediate opening of their final work of the season, Benjamin Britten's "Turn of the Screw." Britten's works are notoriously difficult to mount, but LA Opera has made it their mission to become the home of some invigorating productions of Britten's opus. Los Angeles has headed some very well respected productions of Britten operas, including Rodney Gilfry as the eponymous character in 2000, and a calm and reflective version of Peter Grimes a few years later. This new production of "Turn of the Screw" is highly anticipated as the final production of this (sadly) truncated season due to budgetary issues.

Next season, LA Opera will mount Verdi's Simon Boccanegra with Domingo taking one of the most revered parts of the baritone repertoire. There will also be a new "Cosi fan tutte," a mounting of Britten's "Albert Herring," but is there a way that we can convince the Opera to build a new set for Bohème? I am ready for a new production of that standard piece that rivals the reinvention of "Madama Butterfly" of Robert Wilson. That would complete the radical transformation of LA Opera, which we have witnessed over the course of this past decade.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Renewed War Against Women

Planned Parenthood faces a budget cut that eliminate all federal funding. Other federal bills would raise taxes in order to keep women from what is legally allowed to them. A proposed law in Georgia would incarcerate women for miscarriages. Laws in Wyoming that would force women to have no recourse to abortions were barely defeated. Mike Huckabee attacks Natalie Portman for "glamorizing" single motherhood, although she is planning on marrying her baby daddy.

And pundits keep assuring us that the culture wars are over.

The backlash against feminism, which Susan Faludi tracked so well, is still going strong. Women who were granted as a fundamental right the right to choose abortion under the right of privacy of the fourteenth amendment now face increased difficulty in some states of finding a doctor who provides such services. Women's right to choose has been under attack since the opinion was made by the Supreme Court in 1973, but the renewed vigor of today is upsetting.

Abortion is a prickly and dangerous topic. We are dealing with matters of life and death, and there is a large portion of our population who believe that any abortion should be considered murder. This sense of stopping murderers justifies in their minds the assassination of "abortion doctors," such as Paul Tiller, who was killed in 2009 while in his church by such an anti-abortion zealot. Nathan Lane's quip in "The Birdcage" (1996): "Oh, I know what you are going to say: 'If you kill the mother, the fetus dies too.' But the fetus is going to be aborted anyway, so why not let it go down with the ship" is not far from the strategy proposed by Republicans.

I would love to see a time when birth control has increased its abilities and reach to the greater population that abortions become less and less necessary. The morning-after pill has become a great way for women to take precautions if accidents occur. And it should be standard in rape kits nationwide. However, that time has not yet arrived, and when our last president stressed abstinence-only sex education, the existence of accessible birth control has decreased as well.

The hypocrisy that is so appalling is that these attacks on a woman's right to choose and gay marriage go against what the Republicans tell us is the basis of their party: small, limited government. Spending cuts must happen, they say time and again, because the federal government is too large and incapable of doing all that it claims. Yet somehow having the federal government invade doctors' offices and bedrooms to legislate morality is perfectly acceptable. Or, when "national security" is at stake, we should sacrifice some of our dearest liberties to give the FBI and CIA broad powers over American citizens and any foreigners who may appear suspicious.

 The libertarian side of the Republican party should not be in favor of the social conservative issues proposed. Others however can hold a very paradoxical ideology in their minds: Small government when it comes to taxes, but when it comes to very personal issues the government should be in each and everyone's minds. This partly speaks to a view common among many Tea Partiers that the American way of life (corresponding to an inaccurate picture of Eisenhower-era America [he was pro-union and suspicious of the military-industrial complex]). By keeping women and racial and sexual minorities from fighting for civil rights, it will somehow preserve a vision of an America where nice, white people can do exactly as they please.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has argued that Roe v Wade is premised on shaky legal ground. She believes that the opinion should have been argued for women's rights as in charge of their bodies and hence not inferior to the males of the species, rather than the "right to privacy." This shakiness means that it is at risk under the current Supreme Court. Fortunately, John Roberts has never brought onto the docket any case relating to abortion. Is this because he wants to leave the law in place? Or because any action the Court would take would result in great controversy? We can only speculate. It is clear, however, that the decision would be close. The crucial vote would be Anthony Kennedy whose Catholic roots may swing him to the side of Scal-ito, Thomas and Roberts, but then again Kennedy voted with Ginsburg and Breyer on Lawrence v Texas (2003), which ended sodomy laws. It would be a risky proposition any way they proceed.

Of course, the Republicans have no interest in spending federal dollars to help these children when they are born. They want to cut Planned Parenthood because it funds abortion (but not from federal monies), but that is only a small portion of the crucial work that the organization does. It helps prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place by providing birth control and provides to women a battery of health tests and prenatal care. The Republicans literally want to throw the baby out with the bath water.

The GOP has no intention of providing dollars to help the foster-care system or adoption agencies, but they sure as hell want lots and lots of babies born. As Margaret Cho said: "Most conservatives believe in the death penalty, but not abortion, which proves they like to procrastinate." Enough said.

Do we really want to return to a time of knitting needles and the risk of dying from infection? I hope we the dangerous implications of GOP decisions.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Financial meltdowns and the Shame of Financial CEOs

Two recent documentaries have shed renewed light on the financial meltdown of 2008 that brought the world perilously close to a second Great Depression. "Inside Job," Charles Ferguson's look at the wheelings and dealings of the board of Goldman Sachs, won the Oscar for Best Documentary on Sunday, while Alex Gibney's "Client 9," an examination of Elliot Spitzer's rise and fall, was nominated for the Satellite Award.  These films point to the fact that not enough reform has taken place to insure that small investors do not become the victims of Wall Street sharks who chase after short-term profits and bonus packages.

The narrative of the meltdown is now familiar. Risky mortgages were extended to families making $50k for $500k houses. With raising interest rates, these mortgages were unsustainable and people began to default. The world banking system had believed that it had minimized risk by spreading the burden of handling these riskier mortgages across the system in a series of new financial tools called Collteralized Debt Obligations and Credit Default Swaps. However, these CDOs implicated the entire system when the house of cards began to fall. Banks, over the course of the 90's and 00's, had lowered the amount of capital they had to keep in reserve and raised how much leverage they could take on. It was a painfully dumb equation.

With hindsight, it seems obvious that there was a housing bubble. Like other historical bubbles, from tulipomania in 17th-century Amsterdam, to the South Seas Bubble and simultaneous John Law Mississippi Land Bubble of 1720, the housing bubble of the 2000's saw housing prices rise far faster than it was justified thanks to the push of financial advisors and banks in creating more untapped markets for homebuyers. Unfortunately, many of these people could not afford a house in the first place.

The reason behind the push for more risk was that it resulted in high short-term profits. In order to create more profits, companies cooked books (much like Arthur Anderson did for Enron in the early 2000's) and took on high levels of risk. The Glass-Steagall Act (one of FDR's acts of his first hundred days) was designed to control speculation, but Clinton and Fed Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan believed it would be best to repeal parts of the bill that curtailed bank profits. By taking on higher risk, a bank could create a huge boon to their profits at a quarterly rate thus driving up stock prices, in term adding more to the bonus packages for the top executives of the company.

Many of the CEOs of Wall Street had (and still have) salaries of exorbitant sums. Thomas Montag of Bank of America receives a yearly wage of $30 million dollars, while Jamie Dimon of Chase receives approximately $16 million. And these are their salaries of 2009.

Angelo Mozilo, who headed Countrywide before its collapse in 2008, sold much of his Countrywide stock between 2006 and 2007, making $139 million before the company went bankrupt and the stock was worthless at the end of 2008. In October of 2010, he agreed to pay $65 million in fines to the SEC in order to avoid formal charges of insider trading.

Richard Fuld, the former CEO of Lehman Brothers, made $457 million dollars in his last year at the investment bank that closed its doors during the meltdown. How could someone who headed a company that went bankrupt make as much as the GDP of some small foreign countries? If any of us were involved in a company that went bankrupt our $10 an hour would be snapped away, but yet if you as CEO ordered your firm to take on added leverage and more and more risk, you are exonerated from blame and instead rewarded?

No CEO or bank executive has faced any formal charges or jail time for their decisions in this regard. Even Moody's and Standard and Poor, two of the most important rating institutions in the world, have received no prosecutorial paperwork for lying about the riskiness of certain banks' holdings. Their defense? "It was our opinion." And how wrong it was, dear sirs.

What has Obama done to regulate the practices of Wall Street? Well, he has created a Consumer Protection Agency, which, if headed by Elizabeth Warren, could be one of the great federal innovations of the past twenty years. But little else has been done to significantly regulate these practices. The SEC has not been granted any wide-ranging powers and, unlike the EU, no bill has been passed to regulate compensation packages for banking CEOs.

Why hasn't further reform taken place? Unfortunately, Obama has hired as his economic team many of the same players that helped engineer the downfall in the first place. Timothy Geithner, the Secretary of the Treasury, was a former staff member of Goldman Sachs. Larry Summers, before he spouted racist and sexist adages as Harvard President, had advised Clinton to take apart the Glass-Steagall Act.

Elliot Spitzer, who as Attorney General of New York, prosecuted many Wall Street firms for unfair trading saw his career come to a dead halt after patronizing a prostitute. In Gibney's film, the director argues that the enemies he made at AIG and within Republican ranks aired his dirty laundry in order to force his resignation. Yet David Vitter, junior Senator from Louisiana has had two identical scandals, and remains a Senator.

And somehow, when a bill is brought to the house floor to raise taxes of the richest 1% to the levels under Clinton, there is an uproar! Somehow these CEOs who depleted the life savings of thousands of Americans, should be able to keep every penny that they "earn." But seniors and working-class families who have seen their ability to send their children to college thrown out the window should suffer the indignities of a system that rewards the richest for the poorest behavior.

Here are some of the books and films that should be watched and read for more information:

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Brief Reflections of the 83rd Annual Oscars

There were few if any surprises at this year's Oscars. "King's Speech" won four of the biggest categories; "Inception" swept many of the technical awards; and James Franco was not funny. The Academy is toying with the idea of moving the ceremony a month forward to late January hopefully to infuse some excitement into the awards.

James Franco's constant smirks and general demeanor of being stoned do not have appeared to have been a hit with viewers or critics as host of this year's Oscars. It felt as if Anne Hathaway was desperately trying to infuse some energy into his delivery. I am not sure why: a) the Academy asked him when he informed them that he would be unavailable to rehearse during the week, or b) why he would agree to do it if he is so "committed" to his PhD program at Yale. He was floundering through many of his tidbits and numerous jokes bombed. In my house, we were playing a drinking game that stated we had to drink every time that a joke failed. We drank a lot in the first thirty minutes.

I think we have all come to the general consensus that Mr. Franco should take a brief respite from the world. It would allow him to create a new store of "creativity" (I stifle laughter as I type this). And allow me to go on the Internet or watch tv without having to see his snarling, smirking visage. We will all be able to take a deep breath of relief when he has retired to his ivory tower.