Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Tom Ridge, Porter Goss, and the Search for Noah's Ark

In 1992, I played a small role in a film called "The Search for Noah's Ark." Don't look for it on IMDB, as it ain't there. The film was about a 19th-century expedition to the Mount Ararat region of Turkey which is fabled to have actually discovered the Ark, described it in detail, and then was never able to find it again nor to adequately relate its location to anyone else. I played two roles in the film; the first as Ham, son of Noah, who pleads for the lives of Noah's wicked neighbors as the flood waters rise. "But Father, they're dying!" was my only line, as the actor playing Noah clenched his fists in pain and explained he was doing as God commanded. I tried to put a reaction on my face that summed up everything about Ham, what he thought of his father and his God, and why as soon as the boat hit dry land, Ham ran off to Africa to start civilization, and never looked back nor visited his father over the holidays. It was cut from the final film, of course. The other role I played was that of a Kurdish villager hauling dirt around a 19th-century Turkish village. Ah, the rustic life of the Kurdish dirt-carrier! Who can hear of it and not weep? Anyway, the premise was the film was going to re-create the fabled expedition, follow it up the mountain, witness the discovery of the Ark and its subsequent concealment by an incredibly ambitious glacier which apparently covers the Ark up so you can only see it periodically (this is why none of the thousands of commercial and military airline flights or GPS satellites over the region have never discovered the Ark. apparently. Ice.).

The day of the filming comes in July and I get into the producers' van and drive out to a strange little place in the middle of the Great Salt Lake called Stansbury Island. It's not a pretty picture. The lake is all that remains of a dinosaur-era collosal inland sea, so saturated with the leftover salt that it's very difficult to think within miles of it. I mean sink. Only brine shrimp and algae can live in it, each preying off the other in an elegant but boring dance of survival. Brine shrimp are what you used to order in the mail as "Sea Monkeys," remember them? The little packets of nothing you would put in water and wait for hours until nothing happened and you dumped the whole thing in the sink? The shrimp eat the algae, the shrimp live exciting and imaginative lives, the shrimp die, and the algae feed on the little corpses. Something about this process generates a gawdawful stench. Or maybe its the half-century of copper mine tailings and toxic runoff that the Kennecott mine regularly dumps into it. Anyway. Stansbury Island is in the middle of it, accessible by a dismal causeway. Apparently this island used to actually indeed be a bleak and windswept mountaintop, sometime in the Jurassic period. Now it rose about 300 feet above the surface of the lake. The chief amazing thing these film guys had done is covered one slope of the hill with artificial Astro-Snow which, as was explained to me, on film looks more like snow than actual snow. "Don't eat it," they added. It smelled like styrofoam but ironically it made good snowballs. On top of the hill, they've actually reconstructed the Ark of Noah, apparently exactly according to the description of the explorers, which matches the biblical description perfectly, of course. At the base of the hill, about 200 feet from the Ark, is a replicated Kurdish village street, fronts only, of course. So I mosey over to the extras tent with the other Kurdish villagers (in Utah, you mosey a lot. I don't know whether you moseyed in 19th century rural Turkey. I imagine so). These are two Mexican guys, one Armenian guy, and two Navajo gals. I guess the producers figured any brown person, even slightly beige like myself, would do to represent the Kurds. These were fun guys and gals. We had a good time being turned into Kurdish villagers, wearing the exact same thing you can see Turkish Kurds wearing today, and later we went out and had beers and laughed about what came next.

What came next was the four white actors playing the roles of the intrepid explorers who discovered the Ark. British heroes, all. They're wearing tweed walking outfits with knicker-pants and pith helmets. Yes, pith helmets, in Asia Minor. Anyway, these Brits come into the village and we villagers are all supposed to be going about our business, which is hauling big baskets of dirt around from one end of the village to another, as if a band of British short-pants-wearing maniacs looking for Noah's Ark happens every day. Well, the Brits find the Kurdish headman, who speaks English perfectly, and he tells them, more or less, "oh, sure, Noah's Ark? Up there. Hang a left at the yeti and you can't miss it. Don't forget to stop in at our gift shop on the way down."

So off they trot, and the next scene is them heading up the mountain. For this, the producers have brought in gigantic fans which blow the simulasnow around into a very convincing simulablizzard, through which the simulasplorers pretend to discover the simulArk. By this time we Kurds are laughing our heads off and the director is giving us dirty looks so we wander off to throw simulasnowballs at each other until it's time to go home.

Six months or so later I'm told the movie is going to air on the PAX network so I dial up a plateful of sukiyaki, grab a Sapporo, and settle down to watch the fun. I call my Mom, too, because Moms live for this stuff. So I watch the film, and a sickening realization begins to dawn on me. This isn't a historical recreation film. It's a documentary. Apparently the producers were a subsidiary of the LDS Church, and the film is an extravagant showpiece done to give credence to the Mormon understanding of the Noah story. Mormon theologists take the Bible as a historical document, you see, so they have a deep and abiding urge to find scientific proof for every damn allegory the Bible has to offer. And we're not talking about just the Books of Moses, but the Book of Mormon, a text discovered by the 19th-century New York prophet and flim-flammer Joseph Smith, a man who single-handedly kept the tar-and-feather industry alive for years until he found religion and convinced a whole bunch of very brave, very stupid people to follow him to forge a polygamous utopia on the poisoned shores of the very stinking lake in the middle of which I was to play a Kurdish guardian of the Ark's secrets. This book is full of absurdities that make the contradictions of the Bible seem like cute little riddles. For one thing, Jesus came to America during his lifetime, where he hung out in a huge city called Zarahemla. The Church spends millions on archaeological expeditions looking for Zarahemla and so far has found nothing except a plastic fork, which doesn't disprove the authenticity of the find but only proves that plastics technology actually existed much earlier than previously thought.*

So the entire movie is full of honest-to-God fully credentialed "scienticians" who swear on a stack of Bibles that the story of the explorers is utterly true, every word, that pack ice exists on the top of Mount Ararat year round, plenty to conceal an Ark, and goes on to create this whole fantasia about how the Earth used to have a Venus-style cloud cover which all precipitated down one day and caused the flood. It gives a lot of geological data about how mountaintops used to be sea beds and all that, but didn't, I couldn't help notice, explain where all that water went when it drained away. Must have dropped off the edge of the earth, I guess. Anyway, the footage from the movie is used to illustrate the points of the scienticians in an intellectually dishonest but not very clever way, and I'm chugging Sapporos to counter the growing sense I'm feeling that my talents, such as they are, have unwittingly prostituted themselves to this sad affair, and another part of me is laughing my fool head off.

This is when the call from Momma Marx comes. I thought she was going to razz me. Didn't happen. She said the following thing:

"Mickey, did you see this? THEY'VE FOUND NOAH'S ARK!"

I'm too shocked to answer.

"THEY'VE FOUND NOAH'S ARK!" she says again.

"Mom, no," I manage to say. "It's just a movie. It's all a big lie."

"Mickey," she says in that tone she reserves for educationally subnormal people who ought to know better. "I'm looking at it right now. People are climbing on it."

"Mom," I'm pleading now. "That's a model, it's out on the Lake. Mom. It's still there, we can go see it tomorrow! Mom, I was IN this movie and I climbed on the Ark myself."

"There's no convincing some people," said Momma Marx, and hung up.

I'm telling you this story because Tom Ridge quit his job as Homeland Security Advisory today. Tom Ridge, who gave up a cushy job squeezing Pennsylvania's testicles in his trickle-down voodoo vice-grip to become Master Chief War Pig, High Commander of the Panopticon and Big Brother. He's the guy on the pirate ship who set up the cannons and always had one or two pointing at the DECK.

Now, it's not unusual to be loved by anyone, and it's not unusual for a re-elected President to shake up his War Pigs.. I mean, his cabinet a little. I mean, Richard Clarke, just couldn't take it, not handy enough with the kneepads and the mouthwash to survive in Bush's White House. Colin Powell, who stepped down from his position as Secretary of State, no surprise, right? Obviously he couldn't swallow George's spunk fast enough, and some dribble leaked from the corners of his mouth as this good man lied to the UN and then had to scramble all over the world putting out the fires set by Dubya's hamfisted fer-us-er-agin-us foreign policy. Don Evans, the Commerce Secretary, well, his resignation was enough to make a certain percentage of Americans sit up and ask this question: "Who's Don Evans?" Never mind. But the list goes on. John Ashcroft, Attorney General, who let the eagle soar and crap where it would, a master of fellatio to his seniors, steps down leaving America feeling like a crack whore, dazed while he wipes himself on our dress and tosses a five-spot on the counter, laughing, "don't spend it all in one place, bitch." Why would he leave? Well, he's the first draft choice to replace Chief Justice Renfield (hee hee hee hee) who is right now mainly concerned with keeping his ass out of the Eighth Hell. That must be it. But then, Stephen Kappes, Chief of the Clandestine Unit of the CIA and his deputy, Michael Sulick, both quit. Michael Scheuer, former head of the search for Bin Laden in the CIA, quit. John McLaughlin, replacement for George Tenet, who quit, quit, after Porter Goss explained his new "tough love" policy for the CIA. We know about "tough love." Chomsky explained it to us. It means love for the wealthiest Americans and tough for the rest of us in the world. Following this, two ultra-mysterious high-level figures, supposedly operating in the recruitment of foreign spies and overseas clandestine work, quit. All of these positions are being replaced with Bush loyalists, yes men like Condi and Porter who won't seek to balance the White House's arrogance, but enforce it.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said such turnover was to be expected as new leadership takes over. "The aggressiveness with which we will continue to fight the war on terror for freedom and liberty and democracy throughout the world will not be affected in any way by any sort of personnel changes here or any sort of reorganization of the intelligence functions of entities here," said Fristy.**

Yeah, that's one option, certainly it's one I'd like to believe. But it reminds me of Momma Marx. Momma Marx is no fool, people, but I guess that what with one thing and another, a bit of cinematic sleight-of-hand to bring the Ark back from its mythic tomb, a flashy show, and a genuine real-and-for-true hope that in this crazy mixed-up world of trickery and deceit there could emerge something ancient and pure and true, like the Ark of Noah, it was just easier for Momma to believe what she saw, despite the vast truckloads of evidence to the contrary in the form of me telling her it was all a sham.

So I'd like to believe the Frister, I really would, in the face of what appears to be a massive amount of evidence suggesting something else. Rats, it is well known, only leave a ship in droves, as the War Pigs are abandoning Georgie, for one reason. If you don't know what that reason is, why then, I've got an Ark to show you.

* I am sorry if this statement offends any Mormons, but I had to live in your city for 23 years so I feel entitled to hold a bit of a grudge.
** This from CNN.com, "Top leaders of CIA's clandestine service resign" by David Ensor

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

NPR Film Reviewers Can Eat Me

It's bad enough, frankly, that NPR caved in to the whole "let's report the news exactly as Donald Rumsfeld wants us to" craze, where the media is hesitant to state a fact critical of the administration and so presents it as "liberal opinion," case in point being the loss of weapons from the Al-Caca munitions dump.

But, and I hope I can get a shout-out here, the film reviews on NPR eat my pinched-out cholesterol-laden Cleveland Steamers (apologies to may all-time favorite film critic Kevin "Tom Servo" Murphy; I don't mean you. You're awesome). Here's Bob Mondello on June 13, 2003: "The science-fiction action film THE MATRIX and the animated MONSTERS INC. may belong to different genres, but they have a striking similarity: both tell the story of an alternate universe fueled by the efforts of humans who are unaware that they are doing the fueling."

What's the problem with this? For one thing, Bob didn't figure this out until he was walking out of FINDING NEMO and ran into the exiting audience of MATRIX RELOADED in 2003! Now this is two years after MONSTERS INC was released, and four years after THE MATRIX was released. This is because Bob Mondello, is, unfortunately, an utter berk, and he's lucky to know his right foot from his left. The rest of us, that is, those of us who are not educationally subnormal, or have been actually participating in popular culture instead of sitting alone in a locked vault on the bottom of the Marianas Trench with our eyes closed and wads of wax stuffed in our ears whacking off to nude pictures of Tinkerbelle for the last ten years, have been watching with interest the explosion of films with exactly this theme that goes all the way back to BRAZIL (1985), and includes 12 MONKEYS (1995), THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998), (DARK CITY (1998), THIRTEENTH FLOOR (1998), and of course the sub-genre of movies that provide much-needed work for the non-union letter Z: EXISTENZ (1999), and ANTZ (1998). We've even been discussing it. We've even been writing about it. We've even been holding university-level classes about it. With grades and credit and everything, Bob. In fact, if you wanted to take a look at what we hoity-toity East Coast intellectuals call "history," you might even discover that people like Plato, Jesus, and the Kabbalists have been bandying these ideas about for CENTURIES. So take your goddam finger out of your fucking ass, open what we nasty elitist East Coast intellectuals like to call a "book," and pay attention to what's going on before you call yourself a culture critic. There's nothing I hate more than some yahoo who once looked for a long time at the cover of Pop Smear thinking he's the new Aristotle. Congratufuckinglations, Bob, you hit on an idea everyone already had, and you did it ALL BY YOURSELF. Now see if you can learn to cross the street when the little man appears.

Why am I writing about this now? Because this morning's film review of ALEXANDER, by Oliver "Boring" Stone by Kenneth Turan, who has already proven himself to be an Olympic-class goofus, makes the rather banal statement that Oliver Stone is trying to BE Alexander the Great. He even comments on the eagle Alexander uses as an emblem without commenting on the fact that, since it's a bald eagle, it's actually an emblem of the modern US. These kinds of movies legitimize conservative foreign policy by embodying a fallacious mythic precedent. Alexander, the film argues, was right to conquer the world, specifically the Middle East, because he brought the divinely-ordained Greek civilizing process to this ravaged world. I grant you, Alexander's accomplishments were impressive: he was the last guy to successfully establish a stable government in Afghanistan, for instance. Alexander's triumph, then, legitimizes the neo-con crusade to "bring civilization" to the Middle East, whether those know-nothing third world filth-eating fez-wearers (who, by the way, invented algebra, the number zero, and reading) want it or not. The eagle is just a dead giveaway.

Don't you guys know what a "critic" is?

Friday, November 12, 2004

Bush's Anti-Intellectualism

In 2001 Lynne Cheney, wife of the V.P., and senator Joe Lieberman, as founding members of the academic watchdog group American Council of Teachers and Alumni (ACTA) sponsored the Defending Civilization report, a McCarthyesque blacklist of American professors, students, and others in the academic community who spoke out against the war or the administration (you can still read it at goacta.org/publications/Reports/defciv.pdf). The report is vicious in its condemnation of American professors, who displayed a hatred of America, apparently, when they: “sponsored teach-ins that typically ranged from moral equivocation to explicit condemnations of America. While America’s elected officials from both parties and media commentators from across the spectrum condemned the attacks and followed the President in calling evil by its rightful name, many faculty demurred. Some refused to make judgments. Many invoked tolerance and diversity as antidotes to evil. Some even pointed accusatory fingers, not at the terrorists, but at America itself.”

To be sure, there was indeed a segment of the American people who opposed the President’s reaction to the 9-11 tragedy, and a percentage of that population that was hesitant about marching in lock-step with the President was employed in the academic profession. Some of these professors may even have crossed the line into absurdity in their passionate reactions, but the ACTA report explicitly targets professors who “advocated tolerance and diversity,” who “refused to make judgments,” and who “demurred” from joining the President’s suspicious, underthought “Crusade” (this was his word). Professors earned places on this list for comments as innocuous as “we should build bridges and relationships, not simply bombs and walls,” “I deplore those who are deploying rhetoric and deploying troops without thinking before they speak,” and “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

Universities came under criticism in the report for allowing teach-ins, antiwar speakers, or providing a diversity-based curriculum. Included in the report is a quote from a speech Lynne Cheney gave on October 5, 2001: “to say that it is more important now [to study Islam] implies that the events of Sept. 11 were our fault, that it was our failure… to understand Islam that led to so many deaths and so much destruction.” Over the following three years, this document was used to isolate and frighten professors whose patriotism was deemed insufficient, to discourage the creation of nontraditional courses, and to silence academic dissenters with vague threats.

The report was used to target reprisals as professors across the US were reprimanded, harassed, humiliated, flamed in email, threatened with violence and even fired for espousing strong anti-administration views, and came to a head in 2003, when HR 3077 brought the Title VI provision under review. Title VI mandates that programs receiving federal money train their graduates for careers in national service. ACTA, acting on behalf of the White House, advocated the creation of an “advisory board” which would monitor these programs to ensure they met the federal mandate; the clear purpose of this board was to evaluate whether universities were representing conservative foreign policy. It could recommend pulling funding from programs that employed professors critical of the administration. Historically the Bush White House is known for stocking such advisory boards with unqualified corporate schills or demagogues to ensure a particular agenda. Such boards have been instructed todistort and suppress scientific data and other findings (a recent example of this was the 2004 appointment of W. David Hager, a pro-life activist who advocates a “biblical” approach to medicine that has flown in the face of scientific understanding, to chair the FDA’s Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee).

Such a climate on the academic side encourages the proliferation of organizations like Campus Watch, which puts out inflammatory and misleading dossiers on professors critical of the Bush administration and advocates anti-Muslim ethnic cleansing in America. Such a climate legitimizes the work of conservative activists like David Horowitz, whose “academic bill of rights” is the centerpiece of an ongoing effort to silence liberal voices on American campuses.

These facts are not in dispute. The administration is open about, and proud of, its actions against the intellectual community. What should make America’s professoriat, conservative and liberal alike, quake in its penny-loafers about the fact that the architects of this anti-intellectual movement have won a second term in office is that this win is an honest one. We can no longer dismiss Bush as an accident of a loophole or star-chamber manipulation of the election. If our President truly reflects the values of America, apparently these values include the silencing of critical thought, retarding of scientific progress, and transformation of our universities into nationalistic theological seminaries. Now that Bush has his so-called mandate, we can certainly expect the next four years to bring an intensified chill on academic discourse, an increased sense of fear among our nation’s intellectuals to speak and write freely, and a significant “brain drain” as the next generation of thinkers thinks twice about entering such a vilified profession.