Tuesday, January 26, 2010

...And The Godfather

One of the most iconic songs in the history of music is Gil Scott-Heron's 1971 classic The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

Considered by many as "the Godfather of rap," I associate him more with poetry slams than I do with rap music. He's more Saul Williams than he is Lil' Wayne, but that's just me.

And, as 2010 is shaping up to be the year of the comeback, count Gil Scott-Heron as one who is poised to make a big comeback with his first album in thirteen years entitled I'm New Here due out next month on XL Recordings. If the new album is anything like his new song "Me And The Devil," 2010 will be a great year for "the Godfather."

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Confessions of a Pro-Choicer

As a teenager, the politics of the abortion debate was unformed like a lump of clay in my mind. I was religious at the time, but ideology in any direction wasn't exactly a strong component in my thought processes. During this time, a close friend of mine approached me with tears in her eyes and a revelation that she was pregnant. "My parents are going to kill me," she said. She asked me if I would loan her the money for an abortion which I did without hesitation. She was sincerely terrified and that was all I needed to make my decision.

The transition, for me, from redneck to college graduate was profound. I went from never having read a book to never being able to put one down. I shed my southern baptist skin and became an atheist who challenged everything, or so I thought.

Life, to me, is not exactly the miracle that so many make it out to be. Any two morons can have sex and create a life or lives that contribute more to the decay of this planet than the actual improvement of it. All you have to do is turn on your tv or pick up a newspaper or just walk outside your door to see living proof of it. And though I'm aware and sensitive to the multitude of social ills that plague this planet, I can honestly say that my efforts to alleviate them are minimal at best.

To say that I am pro-choice is an understatement, but a recent article in The New York Times Magazine by Annie Murphy Paul has not only challenged my way of thinking, but it has exposed a deficiency in what I thought was my greatest strength - challenging conventional wisdom and "group-think" mentalities to form my own unbiased opinion. But I never challenged the abortion debate because I've always believed that scientific evidence trumps religious faith any day of the week. When does life begin? Conception? 1 week? 1 month? Actual birth? I don't know and I really don't care because how much consciousness does one possess in the womb of its mother anyway? The article, however, has a twist as it follows a doctor by the name of Kanwaljeet Anand who was a medical resident in a neonatal care unit twenty-five years ago:
...his tiny patients, many of them preterm infants, were often wheeled out of the ward and into an operating room. He soon learned what to expect on their return. The babies came back in terrible shape: their skin was gray, their breathing shallow, their pulses weak. Anand spent hours stabilizing their vital signs, increasing their oxygen supply and administering insulin to balance thier blood sugar.

"What's going on in there to make these babies so stressed?" Anand wondered. Breaking with hospital practice, he wrangled permission to follow his patients into the O.R. "That's when I discovered that the babies were not getting anesthesia," he recalled recently. Infants undergoing major surgery were receiving only a paralytic to keep them still. Anand's encounter with this practice occurred at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, England, but it was common almost everywhere. Doctors were convinced that newborns' nervous systems were too immature to sense pain, and that the dangers of anesthesia exceeded any potential benefits.*

That last sentence floored me. Does logic not dictate that its better to err on the side of caution when dealing with a life form's capacity to feel pain? Anand would try to understand this issue further by conducting a series of clinical trials in which he found that "operations performed under minimal or no anesthesia produced a 'massive stress response' in newborn babies, releasing a flood of fight-or-flight hormones like adrenaline and cortisol." Anand's curiosity grew and, as the neonatal intensive care unit's technology improved, the ages of the pretern infants he cared for grew younger and he would find that "even the most premature babies grimaced when pricked by a needle."

The anti-abortion movement has, of late, rallied around fetal pain to champion their cause and I find it incredibly difficult, even in my pro-choice mentality, to argue against their case. I assumed that the medical and scientific community would not assume who does and does not feel pain. I was wrong. And in the legal framework of deciding when life begins in the abortion debate - ironically, it just might be science that assists the anti-abortion movement rather than faith.

*"The First Ache," by Annie Murphy Paul. The New York Times Magazine, February 10, 2008

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

One of the more amazing aspects of Terry Gilliam's latest film The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, besides being a beautiful visual spectacle, is the fact that even though its star, Heath Ledger, died a third of the way through production, Gilliam creatively works it to where you don't even notice it. Besides that, I had a really tough time following what was actually going on in this movie. And even though Imaginarium will forever be known as Heath Ledger's last role, musician Tom Waits upstaged everyone with his role as the devil and, being the Waits fan that I am, that was worth the price of admission alone.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The King and the Queen

In 2001, Jack White of the White Stripes dedicated his breakthrough album White Blood Cells to country singer Loretta Lynn. A few years later, he would convince the 69-year-old Lynn to make an album in which he would play bandleader and producer. The result was Van Lear Rose - a country music classic that showcased Lynn's obvious talent and gave credence to White as one of the more influential musicians in recent time. With the success of Van Lear Rose under his belt, it's hard not to get excited about his latest project in the making in which he plays producer and bandleader once again. The legend he will be working with this time around is none other than the "queen of rockabilly" herself - Wanda Jackson - who has been hailed as the "sweet, little lady with the nasty voice." I saw her a few years back at the Continental Club and, at 72-years-old, she still sounds great.

And as 2010 should be a big comeback year for Wanda Jackson, the same should hold true for the "king of psychedelic rock" and one of my musical heroes - Roky Erickson - as he will be teaming up with the band Okkervil River to record original music for a new album entitled True Love Cast Out All Evil due out this April. The songs on this album were selected from sixty unreleased Erickson songs. Okkervil River frontman, Will Sheff, had this to say about the new album:
[These tracks went] unreleased due to decades plagued by the kind of personal tragedies that would destroy someone less resilient. There were songs written during business setbacks including the Elevators' painful break-up, songs written by Roky while he was incarcerated at Rusk, and a great deal of songs that reminded me of the sense of optimism and romanticism that I think sustained Roky through his worst years and ultimately reunited him, a few years ago, with his son Jegar and his first wife Dana ... The quality of the material we ended up with was exhilarating.

If you want to know more about the musical icon that is Roky Erickson, you should check out You're Gonna Miss Me which is, in my opinion, one of the best musical documentaries around.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Hoodwinked: An Interview with John Perkins

I am a skeptic. I don't subscribe to most conspiracy theories because they are what they are - theories. And these theories are often promoted by individuals whose expertise is nothing more than a mistrust of government.

John Perkins is not a conspiracy theorist. He is a man confessing his real-life role in the destruction of third-world countries as an "economic hit man" for hire on behalf of U.S. corporations.

In his book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, he claims that, as an economic hit man, he would identify resource-rich countries and then personally coerce them into taking massive loans from the World Bank for infrastructure projects that would be built by U.S. corporations for the "benefit" of that particular country. When a country defaulted on these particular loans, which never actually benefitted them as promised, John Perkins would go in and tell them that they had nothing to worry about - we will turn a blind eye to your debt problems if you sell us your resources at a cheaper price; drop environmental and labor laws; agree to never impose tariffs on U.S. goods; etc., etc.

Why do so many in our world live in abject poverty while so few live in comfort? John Perkins, in my opinion, is living proof of that answer.

In his latest book Hoodwinked, he explains why the world's financial markets crashed and what we can do to change it. He agreed to an interview with PopCultureJihad.

PopCultureJihad: What do big corporations stand to gain from a bad economy? It seems to me that they would be the ones fighting hardest to maintain a stable economy. Did the system fail corporations as well?

John Perkins: It's more about the people who run the corporations than the actual corporation itself. Unfortunately, most of the executives of the top corporations these days don't really care about the long-term interests of the corporation. The emphasis is now on the short-term and executives making a huge amount of money for themselves.

PopCultureJihad: Does libertarianism as an ideology make you uneasy? Is the notion of unregulated capitalism a dead concept now after this latest financial crash?

John Perkins: The idea of unregulated capitalism is terrifying to me. We have that today. When I was in business school back in the 60's, we were told that there would never be another recession like the one we just had - the laws and regulations that were put into place after the Depression would protect us against those kinds of problems in the future. And it was probably true back then, but in subsequent years - primarily beginning in 1980 when Reagan took over, but with every president after that including the democrats - regulations were removed and it made it possible for these modern-day robber barons to come along and drive us into this recession. We can look at the first hundred years of the history of the United States, no corporation got a charter unless they could prove that they would administer in the public interest. A charter lasted, on average, about ten years and then the corporation had to prove that it was administering in the public interest or it didn't get another charter. I really think we need to go back to something like that.

PopCultureJihad: You speak highly of former president Theodore Roosevelt as someone who took on big corporations and busted monopolies. Would a Teddy Roosevelt survive in today's political climate with so many powerful lobbyists and special interests influencing government?

John Perkins: I don't know whether a Theodore Roosevelt or a Franklin Roosevelt could do what they did back then today. It's impossible to know that. Unfortunately, I don't think Obama has the same character that they had or the same ability to do that, perhaps, but I'm not really sure that he could in this climate. Corporations have become so powerful and, as you mentioned, lobbyists - there's roughly 35,000 in Washington alone. And even if a president could be elected and didn't take any money from corporations - Congressman Ron Paul being an example of someone who doesn't take corporate money - they would still have to deal with a Congress that takes a lot of money from corporations; they would still have to deal with all these lobbyists - so it would be very, very difficult.

PopCultureJihad: Do you think the economy is improving?

John Perkins: I think the economy is improving for the very wealthy and they're investing back into the economy so, from that standpoint, yes. However, bankruptcies this last year were up 32% over last year and unemployment is at the highest level its been at in a quarter of a century. Home foreclosures continue to rise. These are signs that the economy is not improving, so we've almost got two economies, and this has been true in developing nations for a very long time, where you've got the "official" economy - the GNP(gross national product) - and then you've got the economy that really impacts the average joe. That economy is not going so well, while the official economy, the one that we measure with GNP, seems to be starting to recover. We need to recognize that we are dealing with two different economies here and one is very sick and the other appears to be healthy. In the long run, none of us is going to make it through this unless there are drastic changes in the system. We cannot continue the way we're going. Just look at the numbers - less than 5% of the world's population lives in the United States and we consume more than 25% of the world's resources. That's a failure. It's not a model that can be replicated in India or Africa or Latin America or anywhere else or you would have to have another five more planets to make that happen. And at the same time, while these 5% are consuming so many resources, roughly half the world's population is living in poverty and starving. That's a failed model. We have to turn it around. We've got to do something different.

PopCultureJihad: You state in your book that Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, publicly proclaimed that Ecuador was not obligated to pay its national debt because the loans, he said, had been signed by unelected military dictators who were coerced by the World Bank, IMF, CIA, as well as people like yourself who were former economic hit men; therefore, his country did not have to honor them. Who ultimately decides whether or not Ecuador has to repay these loans and who would enforce it if they continue to refuse?

John Perkins: Well, that's an open-ended question. Just last week, Iceland also announced that they shouldn't pay their loans back either. We'll see what happens. Argentina has refused at one time and some other countries have as well and the repercussions have not been very serious. I think Rafael Correa is on the right track. He says that these loans were accepted by a military dictatorship - and I remember that very, very well - and the people never agreed to them. The members of the military junta made lots of money and they left the country. They're gone now. The country really didn't benefit from these loans, but a few wealthy families did. I suspect, in the end, there will be a compromise so, maybe, Ecuador will end up paying 25% of what is owed or something like that.

PopCultureJihad: You say that "paying more for products made by companies that are socially and environmentally responsible is always an investment in the future." With people struggling to make ends meet, do you really think people are going to be able or willing to pay more for products that are socially and environmentally friendly?

John Perkins: Well, I'm not sure they have to pay more, first of all. Nike's not cheap. Nike products are very expensive and they are socially irresponsible. You may pay more for a car that's more fuel-efficient but, in the long run, you save on oil. Overall, if all the costs are truly incorporated in terms of human cost and environmental impact - you come out better with products that are socially and environmentally friendly.

You can find out more about John Perkins through his website: johnperkins.org
You can also follow him on twitter at: economic_hitman

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bad Lieutenant, Good Performance

As far as acting goes, I'm not the biggest Nicolas Cage fan, but give him a role where he has a raging substance abuse problem plus a prostitute girlfriend and the guy absolutely shines. You won't find a better drunkard in film history than his Academy Award winning performance in Leaving Las Vegas and, with that exception, the only other role that has left me impressed with Cage's acting chops was the recent Werner Herzog film Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans where he plays a morally-challenged cop with a severe drug problem.

The film is not without controversy, however, as it is similar to Abel Ferrar's 1992 film Bad Lieutenant which takes place in New York City. I've seen both and, yes, they are very similar but each has its own unique charm. Ferrar, however, doesn't quite feel the same way saying "As far as remakes go,...I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they're all in the same streetcar, and it blows up." I'm guessing that Mr. Ferrar won't be giving this film "two thumbs up", but I will and I will also say that Nicolas Cage deserves a nomination for Best Actor with this role. And Werner Herzog should be given some sort of award for allowing his actors to use their regular voices rather than a phony, over-the-top Louisiana accent.

And while I can honestly say that I haven't been extremely impressed with rappers turned actors(other than 2Pac), Xzibit turns in a great performance as drug kingpin, Big Fate.