Commentary Magazine


Topic: L.A.

No Labels? No Viewers.

Today marks the announcement of the new crusade called No Labels, which is about … well, it’s hard to say what it’s about, except that there’s too much partisanship and polarization and we need to work together to get things done. Various politicians (L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa, N.Y. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, former GOP Rep. Tom Davis, and, of course, Michael Bloomberg) are speaking about moving the country forward by finding common ground without vilification.

Do they mean things like … the Iraq war, for which half the Democratic caucus in the Senate voted in 2002? Or the No Child Left Behind Act, probably the most bipartisan piece of legislation of our generation, back in 2001? Or … the TARP bailout in 2008, which had bipartisan support as well? Those votes, and the policies that followed from them, have really done a lot to advance the cause of bipartisanship, no?

Anyway, I’m watching the No Labels webcast. And guess what? At this very moment, as I type, a grand total of 508 people are watching the webcast.

Today marks the announcement of the new crusade called No Labels, which is about … well, it’s hard to say what it’s about, except that there’s too much partisanship and polarization and we need to work together to get things done. Various politicians (L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa, N.Y. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, former GOP Rep. Tom Davis, and, of course, Michael Bloomberg) are speaking about moving the country forward by finding common ground without vilification.

Do they mean things like … the Iraq war, for which half the Democratic caucus in the Senate voted in 2002? Or the No Child Left Behind Act, probably the most bipartisan piece of legislation of our generation, back in 2001? Or … the TARP bailout in 2008, which had bipartisan support as well? Those votes, and the policies that followed from them, have really done a lot to advance the cause of bipartisanship, no?

Anyway, I’m watching the No Labels webcast. And guess what? At this very moment, as I type, a grand total of 508 people are watching the webcast.

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Forgetful Architecture

It is hard to design a memorial, let alone a Holocaust museum. There are a handful of firms equipped to handle the demands of the institution, the local community, the municipality, and those who are to be honored, let alone the style du jour of memorial-building.

Take, for example, the opening of the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum this week. Reviewing the museum in the Forward, Gavriel Rosenfeld discusses how the building, literally underground and conforming, mostly, to the terrain of Pan Pacific Park, is itself a metaphor for Holocaust remembrance. He writes:

It is hard not to conclude that the building’s underground location also has deeper significance. In one sense, the building’s self-effacing character might be seen as reflecting an assimilationist reflex on the part of L.A.’s Jewish community. After all, some of the city’s most important Jewish institutions, such as the Museum of Tolerance and the Skirball Cultural Center (designed by Moshe Safdie in the years 1986 to 1995), have strived not to appear architecturally Jewish in any way, a strategy that echoes their universalistic mission of reaching out to non-Jewish audiences.

As Rosenfeld notes, other museums have shied away from architectural elements that are distinctly Jewish. What he is referring to are direct references to Holocaust imagery such as smoke stacks and barbed wire. Some designs are not so literal but are nonetheless specific. The Houston Holocaust Museum design includes six steel poles, stand-ins for the 6 million murdered Jews.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum does not include such literalist elements but is designed to create an experience. James Ingo Freed, the architect for this building, writes, “There are no literal references to particular places or occurrences from the historic event. Instead, the architectural form is open-ended so the Museum becomes a resonator of memory.” Read More

It is hard to design a memorial, let alone a Holocaust museum. There are a handful of firms equipped to handle the demands of the institution, the local community, the municipality, and those who are to be honored, let alone the style du jour of memorial-building.

Take, for example, the opening of the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum this week. Reviewing the museum in the Forward, Gavriel Rosenfeld discusses how the building, literally underground and conforming, mostly, to the terrain of Pan Pacific Park, is itself a metaphor for Holocaust remembrance. He writes:

It is hard not to conclude that the building’s underground location also has deeper significance. In one sense, the building’s self-effacing character might be seen as reflecting an assimilationist reflex on the part of L.A.’s Jewish community. After all, some of the city’s most important Jewish institutions, such as the Museum of Tolerance and the Skirball Cultural Center (designed by Moshe Safdie in the years 1986 to 1995), have strived not to appear architecturally Jewish in any way, a strategy that echoes their universalistic mission of reaching out to non-Jewish audiences.

As Rosenfeld notes, other museums have shied away from architectural elements that are distinctly Jewish. What he is referring to are direct references to Holocaust imagery such as smoke stacks and barbed wire. Some designs are not so literal but are nonetheless specific. The Houston Holocaust Museum design includes six steel poles, stand-ins for the 6 million murdered Jews.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum does not include such literalist elements but is designed to create an experience. James Ingo Freed, the architect for this building, writes, “There are no literal references to particular places or occurrences from the historic event. Instead, the architectural form is open-ended so the Museum becomes a resonator of memory.”

Freed wants the visitor to experience the museum building viscerally. Just as the Holocaust defies understanding, so, too, should the building, which is meant not to be understood but rather felt.

Such experience-as-metaphor is the sin qua non of contemporary memorial design. The as-yet-to-be-built 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero exhibits many of the same tropes as the LAHM. Michael Arad and Peter Walker, the creators of the winning design, describe viewers’ experience of Reflecting Absence:

Bordering each pool is a pair of ramps that lead down to the memorial spaces. Descending into the memorial, visitors are removed from the sights and sounds of the city and immersed in a cool darkness. As they proceed, the sound of water falling grows louder, and more daylight filters in from below. At the bottom of their descent, they find themselves behind a thin curtain of water, staring out at an enormous pool. Surrounding this pool is a continuous ribbon of names. The enormity of this space and the multitude of names that form this endless ribbon underscore the vast scope of the destruction. Standing there at the water’s edge, looking at a pool of water that is flowing away into an abyss, a visitor to the site can sense that what is beyond this curtain of water and ribbon of names is inaccessible.

These contemporary designs wish to evoke an experience. Certain motifs prevail, such as a descent into the ground, a list of individual names, familiar yet distant forms — all of which are intended to “move” the viewer to contemplate the inaccessibility of horrific tragedy.

These motifs are not new. Take for example this description of perhaps the first such “non-monument”:

A corner submerged into the earth, the work is welcoming in its open-ended, book-like form, and yet disconcerting to those who realize that to read the names is to stand below the horizon — six feet under — conversing in the space of the dead. The work is outspoken and angry in the way in which it functions as a visual scar on the American landscape, cutting aggressively into the Washington Mall, and yet is dignified for the way in which it carves out a space for a public display of grief and pain. These emotions, necessary to the healing process, have a place in Lin’s work and are as natural as the cycles of the earth.

This describes the Vietnam Memorial designed by Maya Lin on the Washington Mall in Washington, D.C. This monument makes it clear that passage underground is a metaphor for death. One feels an uneasiness while reading the names of each soldier. Her monument does indeed reflect “grief and pain” and is to be understood not only as a memorial to those who sacrificed their lives but also to the ambivalence and anger at the country that sent them to war.

But should ambivalence be what visitors experience toward the Holocaust or 9/11? The architectural motif of descent into the ground does not carry the same complexity as it does for the Vietnam Memorial, nor should it. But if we accept the interpretation offered by the LAHM architect, Hagy Belzberg, not only are these monuments invisible, they celebrate that invisibility by communicating a dubious contradiction:

He noted that embedding LAMH into the natural environment of a public park represented a commentary on how the Holocaust transpired in the midst of ordinary German life. Citing Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin, whose location in the heart of the busy metropolis lends itself to such prosaic activities “as picnicking and playing Frisbee,” Belzberg observed that the daily occurrence of these same activities near LAMH would symbolically underscore the chilling fact that during the Holocaust, “people knowingly or unknowingly went on with their lives while extraordinary events were taking place.” Given this claim, the museum’s relative inconspicuousness as architecture does not so much hide as illuminate one of the more disturbing facts of the Holocaust: the coexistence of atrocity and normalcy.

Rosenfeld and Belzberg are exactly correct; the horror of the Holocaust is heightened when one considers German complicity and daily life. And life goes on for us. We picnic and play frisbee and visit parks on our day off. But when even our monuments dedicated to the memory of atrocity forget the victims, surely everyone else will too.

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Media Bias, Liberal Cluelessness

Ross Douthat writes:

A month ago, a U.C.L.A. graduate student named Emily Ekins spent hours roaming a Tea Party rally on the Washington Mall, photographing every sign she saw.

Ekins, a former CATO Institute intern, was examining the liberal conceit that Tea Party marches are rife with racism and conspiracy theorizing. Last week, The Washington Post reported on her findings: just 5 percent of the 250 signs referenced Barack Obama’s race or religion, and 1 percent brought up his birth certificate. The majority focused on bailouts, deficits and spending — exactly the issues the Tea Partiers claim inspired their movement in the first place.

On one level, as Douthat points out, this is a lesson about desperate liberals making up comforting myths. (“The Democrats are weeks away from a midterm thumping that wasn’t supposed to happen, and the liberal mind is desperate for a narrative, a storyline, something to ease the pain of losing to a ragtag band of right-wing populists.”) But it is also a cautionary tale about the willful ineptitude and outright laziness of the mainstream media.

A single intern did what not a single mainstream outlet, with collectively thousands of cameramen and reporters, refused to do: get the facts. The mainstream media eagerly recited false accounts of racial epithets but could not be bothered to do a systematic report on the Tea Partiers’ actual message.

The media and elected liberals reinforce their own contrived narrative. Liberal leaders proclaim that the Tea Partiers are racists. The media dutifully report the accusations and search out the isolated Obama = Hitler signs. The liberals breathe a sigh of relief as they read the New York Times or watch MSNBC, which confirms that, yes, these people are wackos and racists. The cycle repeats. The only thing missing are facts.

While the mainstream media’s bias rankles conservatives, the latter should be pleased that the willful indifference to reality repeatedly deprives liberal officialdom of warning signals and essential feedback on the public reaction to their agenda. It is maddening for conservatives, but it is dangerous for liberals to operate in a world of fabrication.

Ross Douthat writes:

A month ago, a U.C.L.A. graduate student named Emily Ekins spent hours roaming a Tea Party rally on the Washington Mall, photographing every sign she saw.

Ekins, a former CATO Institute intern, was examining the liberal conceit that Tea Party marches are rife with racism and conspiracy theorizing. Last week, The Washington Post reported on her findings: just 5 percent of the 250 signs referenced Barack Obama’s race or religion, and 1 percent brought up his birth certificate. The majority focused on bailouts, deficits and spending — exactly the issues the Tea Partiers claim inspired their movement in the first place.

On one level, as Douthat points out, this is a lesson about desperate liberals making up comforting myths. (“The Democrats are weeks away from a midterm thumping that wasn’t supposed to happen, and the liberal mind is desperate for a narrative, a storyline, something to ease the pain of losing to a ragtag band of right-wing populists.”) But it is also a cautionary tale about the willful ineptitude and outright laziness of the mainstream media.

A single intern did what not a single mainstream outlet, with collectively thousands of cameramen and reporters, refused to do: get the facts. The mainstream media eagerly recited false accounts of racial epithets but could not be bothered to do a systematic report on the Tea Partiers’ actual message.

The media and elected liberals reinforce their own contrived narrative. Liberal leaders proclaim that the Tea Partiers are racists. The media dutifully report the accusations and search out the isolated Obama = Hitler signs. The liberals breathe a sigh of relief as they read the New York Times or watch MSNBC, which confirms that, yes, these people are wackos and racists. The cycle repeats. The only thing missing are facts.

While the mainstream media’s bias rankles conservatives, the latter should be pleased that the willful indifference to reality repeatedly deprives liberal officialdom of warning signals and essential feedback on the public reaction to their agenda. It is maddening for conservatives, but it is dangerous for liberals to operate in a world of fabrication.

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Liberals Surprised Again

Liberals continually expect that conservatives will match the cartoonish image that the left has concocted. They were shocked that Christian conservatives didn’t run Sarah Palin out of town on a rail because of her pregnant unwed daughter. Aren’t conservatives prudes and intolerant misogynists? Umm, no. Now, they can’t believe conservatives are so accepting of  Ken Mehlman, who publicly announced he is gay. You can sense the disappointment and surprise on the left — aren’t conservative going to repudiate him? No, nor do most of them even care.

I think the problem is this: liberals have more friends who are gay than friends who are conservative…  or evangelical… or gun owners. They often accuse conservatives of living cloistered lives, but it is urban liberals who congregate in homogeneous communities ( e.g., San Francisco, West L.A.) and may live their entire lives without forming a serious relationship with anyone who doesn’t ascribe to their laundry list of inviolate truths (e.g., global warming is real, abortion-on-demand is sacred, government creates jobs). They don’t much bother to understand conservatives’ rationales for their positions — so much easier to assume they are rooted in ignorance or bigotry. Or as Michelle Obama put it, “meanness.”

This is why liberal media outlets try to hire reporters to cover the “conservative” beat. Like Margaret Mead, they are supposed to go trampling in far-off lands and report back on the natives’ habits and customs. If they really understood and knew conservatives, they would have no need for a special-assignment reporter.

It has been and remains a great advantage for conservatives — they understand their ideological opponents far better than their opponents understand them. That is why Harry Reid is amazed Hispanics can be Republicans, the left can’t imagine there is an explanation for Ground Zero mosque opposition other than Islamaphobia, and Obama treats his gun- and Bible-clinging countrymen as if they were aliens. Actually, to him and many of his ilk, they are.

Liberals continually expect that conservatives will match the cartoonish image that the left has concocted. They were shocked that Christian conservatives didn’t run Sarah Palin out of town on a rail because of her pregnant unwed daughter. Aren’t conservatives prudes and intolerant misogynists? Umm, no. Now, they can’t believe conservatives are so accepting of  Ken Mehlman, who publicly announced he is gay. You can sense the disappointment and surprise on the left — aren’t conservative going to repudiate him? No, nor do most of them even care.

I think the problem is this: liberals have more friends who are gay than friends who are conservative…  or evangelical… or gun owners. They often accuse conservatives of living cloistered lives, but it is urban liberals who congregate in homogeneous communities ( e.g., San Francisco, West L.A.) and may live their entire lives without forming a serious relationship with anyone who doesn’t ascribe to their laundry list of inviolate truths (e.g., global warming is real, abortion-on-demand is sacred, government creates jobs). They don’t much bother to understand conservatives’ rationales for their positions — so much easier to assume they are rooted in ignorance or bigotry. Or as Michelle Obama put it, “meanness.”

This is why liberal media outlets try to hire reporters to cover the “conservative” beat. Like Margaret Mead, they are supposed to go trampling in far-off lands and report back on the natives’ habits and customs. If they really understood and knew conservatives, they would have no need for a special-assignment reporter.

It has been and remains a great advantage for conservatives — they understand their ideological opponents far better than their opponents understand them. That is why Harry Reid is amazed Hispanics can be Republicans, the left can’t imagine there is an explanation for Ground Zero mosque opposition other than Islamaphobia, and Obama treats his gun- and Bible-clinging countrymen as if they were aliens. Actually, to him and many of his ilk, they are.

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The Bloody End

Despite the consensus view that P.T. Anderson’s latest film is a searing, visionary work, numerous critics have complained about the final scene of There Will Be Blood. The New Yorker’s David Denby calls it “a mistake.” Ross Douthat writes in the most recent National Review that the film’s weakest part is its end. And Chris Orr, writing for The New Republic, argues that it “runs aground in its final act and, especially, its final scene.” But although the final scene is jarring, I think it’s a perfect close for both the director and the film’s central character. (As you might expect, spoilers lie ahead.)

A quick recap: After two and a half hours of quiet, tightly-controlled, poetic naturalism, in which Daniel Day Lewis’s fiercely independent oil baron Daniel Plainview manipulates and dominates everything and everyone around him, the film explodes into a wild—some might say unhinged—absurdism. He confronts Eli (Paul Dano), a wily spiritual huckster—and something of a competitor—who has come begging for help, and then, after growling and howling his way through a riveting, if borderline insane, monologue that features the line, “I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE,” he begins hurling bowling balls at Eli and eventually kills him. It’s transfixing, brutal, uncomfortable, and defiantly weird.

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Despite the consensus view that P.T. Anderson’s latest film is a searing, visionary work, numerous critics have complained about the final scene of There Will Be Blood. The New Yorker’s David Denby calls it “a mistake.” Ross Douthat writes in the most recent National Review that the film’s weakest part is its end. And Chris Orr, writing for The New Republic, argues that it “runs aground in its final act and, especially, its final scene.” But although the final scene is jarring, I think it’s a perfect close for both the director and the film’s central character. (As you might expect, spoilers lie ahead.)

A quick recap: After two and a half hours of quiet, tightly-controlled, poetic naturalism, in which Daniel Day Lewis’s fiercely independent oil baron Daniel Plainview manipulates and dominates everything and everyone around him, the film explodes into a wild—some might say unhinged—absurdism. He confronts Eli (Paul Dano), a wily spiritual huckster—and something of a competitor—who has come begging for help, and then, after growling and howling his way through a riveting, if borderline insane, monologue that features the line, “I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE,” he begins hurling bowling balls at Eli and eventually kills him. It’s transfixing, brutal, uncomfortable, and defiantly weird.

The first thing worth noting is that Anderson has finished other films with similar tonal shifts. Indeed, he seems to enjoy pushing his films both over the top and out of this world in their final moments. His last two pictures both started relatively small and naturalistic, but built towards grand, fanciful scenes of magical realism. Magnolia, an Altman-style California character drama, ended with a literal plague of frogs descending upon Los Angeles, and Punch-Drunk Love ended with a dream-like flight out of L.A. to a confrontation with a surly pimp in mattress warehouse. Anderson, in other words, has never been much for restraint in his finales.

And it seems to me that restraint—emotional restraint—is what finally does Plainview in. Lewis’s phenomenal performance (favored, correctly, I think, to win an Oscar) is centrally about one thing: domination. He’s a conqueror of men, land, and fortunes—not because he particularly cares for any of those things, but because he is driven to conquer simply for conquering’s sake.

And for Plainview, the will to conquer and dominate requires emotional constriction of the sort that is ultimately unsustainable. For most of the film, he’s a sharp tactical manipulator, coolly and calmly assessing his opponents—which is to say everyone—and how he can best them. But such a drive must, at some point erupt, must blow up, and is likely to result in the sort of hysterical violence found in the final scene.
There’s a reason, I think, that Plainview is drawn to oil; they share many of the same qualities, and they grow more alike as the film goes on. Like him, it is a source of great power, great wealth, and great misery, always pulsing, always flowing, always threatening to explode or ignite when others try to control it. One might even say the violent, oddly spectacular explosion in the final scene was inevitable: Like so many of the oil wells he built through his life, eventually Daniel Plainview was bound to blow his top.

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Competitive Victimization

The Hillary/Obama race vs. gender dustup has just given the country a taste of why the Democratic Party spent so many years in the wilderness. The game of competitive victimization reminds swing voters in general and white men in particular why the Democrats can be problematic.

The night of her unexpected New Hampshire victory on the basis of a strong turnout from blue collar female voters, the press began to explain away the polls that had pointed to an Obama landslide by referring to “the Bradley effect.” That refers to the experience in Los Angeles where Tom Bradley, L.A.’s first African-American mayor, who did far better in public opinion polls than at the ballot box where he failed to win the governorship in 1982. The thesis was that white voters, not wanting to appear racist are reluctant to tell pollster about how they truly feel about black candidates. The implication–laid out without clear evidence by Andrew Kohut, a pollster for the Pew Research Center and picked up by the likes of Maureen Dowd–was that Clinton won on the basis of the racism of lower-middle-class whites.

This is something the many Obama admirers in the press picked up and ran with. The problem, as John Judis shows in a detailed New Republic piece, is that “Obama’s support among New Hampshire Democrats without college degrees slightly increased from the pre-election poll to the exit poll.” Clinton’s late gains, Judis notes came from well educated women who might well have been responding to the now famous incident in a dinner where the former First Lady seemed to tear up under the weight on being doubled teamed by Obama and Edwards.

And that’s when matters began to heat up. People around the Obama campaign, though not the candidate himself, suggested that Clinton had played on her supposed victimization as a woman, to win an election driven by economic anxieties. Obama in this view had been victimized by both his race and his gender. As for race; the supposed “Bradley effect” as well as statements by Bill and Hillary which may or may not have had double meanings regarding Lyndon Johnson’s role in achievements of the Civil Rights Era and the constancy of Obama position on Iraq have led to implausible accusations of racial insensitivity on the part of the Clintons.

In the short run, this is good news for the Obama campaign which has done its best to keep its fingerprints off the matches being lit by the press but stands to benefit greatly in the upcoming South Carolina primary if the accusation shift African-American voters away from Hillary Clinton.

On one level none of this hair-trigger “sensitivity” should be taken too seriously. All the parties involved are marvels at playing double games. A practical effect of the race versus gender game may be increased pressure on Hillary Clinton to choose Obama as her running mate should she win the nomination. But it raises the issue of whether Americans who are neither black nor female will be allowed to ask serious question about the two leading Democratic candidates without potential accusation of bias of one sort or another.

The Hillary/Obama race vs. gender dustup has just given the country a taste of why the Democratic Party spent so many years in the wilderness. The game of competitive victimization reminds swing voters in general and white men in particular why the Democrats can be problematic.

The night of her unexpected New Hampshire victory on the basis of a strong turnout from blue collar female voters, the press began to explain away the polls that had pointed to an Obama landslide by referring to “the Bradley effect.” That refers to the experience in Los Angeles where Tom Bradley, L.A.’s first African-American mayor, who did far better in public opinion polls than at the ballot box where he failed to win the governorship in 1982. The thesis was that white voters, not wanting to appear racist are reluctant to tell pollster about how they truly feel about black candidates. The implication–laid out without clear evidence by Andrew Kohut, a pollster for the Pew Research Center and picked up by the likes of Maureen Dowd–was that Clinton won on the basis of the racism of lower-middle-class whites.

This is something the many Obama admirers in the press picked up and ran with. The problem, as John Judis shows in a detailed New Republic piece, is that “Obama’s support among New Hampshire Democrats without college degrees slightly increased from the pre-election poll to the exit poll.” Clinton’s late gains, Judis notes came from well educated women who might well have been responding to the now famous incident in a dinner where the former First Lady seemed to tear up under the weight on being doubled teamed by Obama and Edwards.

And that’s when matters began to heat up. People around the Obama campaign, though not the candidate himself, suggested that Clinton had played on her supposed victimization as a woman, to win an election driven by economic anxieties. Obama in this view had been victimized by both his race and his gender. As for race; the supposed “Bradley effect” as well as statements by Bill and Hillary which may or may not have had double meanings regarding Lyndon Johnson’s role in achievements of the Civil Rights Era and the constancy of Obama position on Iraq have led to implausible accusations of racial insensitivity on the part of the Clintons.

In the short run, this is good news for the Obama campaign which has done its best to keep its fingerprints off the matches being lit by the press but stands to benefit greatly in the upcoming South Carolina primary if the accusation shift African-American voters away from Hillary Clinton.

On one level none of this hair-trigger “sensitivity” should be taken too seriously. All the parties involved are marvels at playing double games. A practical effect of the race versus gender game may be increased pressure on Hillary Clinton to choose Obama as her running mate should she win the nomination. But it raises the issue of whether Americans who are neither black nor female will be allowed to ask serious question about the two leading Democratic candidates without potential accusation of bias of one sort or another.

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