Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Say it Ain't So Horation Alger

A recent study from a Berkeley professor found that the rich tended to act more unethically than those with moderate or low earnings: Slate. Who would have guessed it? Of course, some are already calling the study an exercise in "class warfare," but I think it is important research. The author argues it could be the result of less reliance on social ties than middle class and the poor, thus creating a more individualistic mentality. Interestingly, researchers found that even those that win the lottery exhibited increased unethical behavior, including keeping incorrect change and even taking money from children. Really it is just more empirical support for the argument that the wealthy in America have low ethical standards for their behavior and think of themselves first. This is obviously not universally true -- take Bill Gates, George Soros and George Clooney as three examples -- but it does beg the question of what society will look like if we keep increasing the power they have in the economic and political realms. 

A good film that explores these ethical lapses is Margin Call (2011), which I recently saw. It dramatizes the days leading up to the 2007 mortgage crisis and the firms that offloaded their holdings right before the derivatives dropped precipitously in value. The film follows a night when the firm recognizes that it could be destroyed if it kept the mortgage derivatives on the books and thus decides to sell them to customers without informing them of the risk (and reality that they will soon lose their value). Some characters suffer through an ethical quandary, but all accede to the wishes of the CEO and the needs of the few (themselves and their firm) over the many. Wall Street has obviously never been a bastion for ethical behavior, but it is clear that Reaganomics and the liberalization and deregulation of markets has led to an almost sociopathic climate within firms, where greed reigns over even a hint of humanity and decisions are made that destroy lives across the globes every day. Overall, the film based loosely on real events and this latest study provide further argument for the claim that government and regulation are the only things that stand in the way of a return to a social darwinist world ruled by the few for their benefit alone. They may both be examples of class warfare, but it appears we need a fair helping of it at present.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

State of Refereeing

Much has been made of the state of refereeing in soccer over the past few years, particularly at the 2010 World Cup (a disgrace -- including among many horrific decisions the disallowed American and British goals in qualifying and the knockout stage, respectively). Ghost red cards have been handed out aplenty in the premier league this year, some questionable decisions in the Champions League last year (including the red card for Van Persie in the second leg against Barca) and a bizarre disallowed goal in the AC Milan game last weekend all hint at the problem. An interesting analysis by a blogger of the entire EPL season last season showed that Arsenal would have finished comfortably in second if not for several games decided by bad decisions (see my post from a few months back). Among those who often seem to rule against Arsenal is Mike Dean, one of the worst officials in the entire Premier League. And a video post seems to show him actually celebrating the first Tottenham goal on Sunday: 101 Great Goals. This is beyond disgusting and should lead to sanctions by the FA. One hopes something is done to improve this situation including goal line technology, more communication among all the officials involved in the game and the demotion of the worst officials.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Republicans Keep Getting the Facts Wrong

Reagan once said that "facts are stupid things" and this seems to be a rallying cry of conservatives in this election cycle. The latest parry in the hyperreal world conservatives continue to construct at their leisure is Santorum's claim that the recession was largely caused by increases in gas prices in 2008. First off, that is a ridiculous reinterpretation of the mortgage crisis and near Wall Street collapse the instigated the recession. Second, Obama didn't even become president to 2009, though Republican candidates like to ignore this fact. As CNN reported, Santorum claimed "We need to look at the situation with gas prices today. We went into a recession in 2008 because of gasoline prices. The bubble burst in housing because people couldn't pay their mortgages because they were looking at $4 a gallon gasoline." (CNN) Santorum blamed Obama for allowing gas prices to again rise by not exploiting domestic energy sources, creating a dubious connection to 2008. He later backtracked, claiming he should be "more specific" when making these claims.

This came a day after Santorum claimed that President Kennedy's call for a complete separation between church and state "makes [him] want to throw up" and Romney said that he wants to reduce taxes 20% on the rich and that he was like Detroit auto workers because his wife owns a few Cadillacs. This sort of tone deafness to those suffering in America should give people pause, but when Ron Paul is considered a candidate worth talking about, one wonders if sanity even has a place in conservative politics any longer. 

Santorum also wrote an op ed in the Wall Street Journal Monday that advocated simplifying the tax code and cutting $5 trillion from the federal budget over the next five years claiming "I'll work with Congress and the American people to once again create an economic environment where hard work is rewarded, equal opportunity exists for all, and families providing for their children can once again be optimistic about their future." But how cutting the federal budget, reducing taxes and attempting to eliminate affirmative action in all forms would actually accomplish any of this. Would reducing the size and power of government all of a sudden cajole corporations into fair wages? Would ending government intervention in the market and cutting educational funding somehow restore equality of opportunity? And would relying even more on a market that has failed over and over again really make people more optimistic? Lawrence Summers apparently ignored analysis from one of his economists back in 2009 that argued for a economic revitalization package almost double that which was implemented. Current economic data seems to indicate that she was right. And yet Republicans want the government to get out of the way of a business and financial community more interested in profits and executive salaries than restoring full employment (and thus increasing consumption). 

The irony is that a public that knows little about economics has a hard time recognizing this rhetoric as empty promises that will simply continue our economic decline. The fact that some still listen to Paul's Austrian economic platform, even as it has been denounced by serious economists, only affirms the point that rhetoric is more important than content today. And this is solidified by a constant rewriting of history to serve contemporary political debates. Sure this has always been done, but the acuity and cynicism at the heart of the reconstruction of the past and present today has reached the level of fairy tale accuracy.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Arsenal Schizophrenia

34 minutes into the North London derby today, Tottenham led 2-0, the Gunners looked terrible and I was screaming internally for the club to sell Walcott this summer, wondering what Arsenal in Europa would feel like. Then the team woke up, Sagna put in a nice header to make it 2-1, Van Persie followed with a beautiful left footed corker into the corner and we went to half time level, and with all the momentum. The second half started with Arsenal in the ascendancy but a nervous feel in the air, given our defensive frailties all season. But arguably the man of the match, Rosicky, had a lovely finish to give us the lead and two Walcott goals followed to keep us in fourth and hopefully give us serious inspiration to keep that spot until the end of the season.

Walcott looked terrible throughout the first half, with terrible touches, worse passes and no ability to take advantage of strong positions. Then he suddenly emerged from a rather long spell of bad form with two strong finishes to put the match out of reach and hopefully restore his confidence. There is no question that he is one of our most inconsistent players, but when he is on, he is always a danger (though more often providing service to Van Persie). But one has to ask, if we are really going to go after Hazard, whether this summer is the time to cash in on him. For those who read my commentary, they know my disappointment with his failure to develop over the past few seasons, but the reality is this -- Oxlade is arguably already a better player than Walcott and brings a lot more energy to  the pitch, Gervinho is also more consistent that Theo and Ryo Miyachi looks like a star in the making (based on his form at Bolton the past two  games). If we add another winger, why keep Walcott? We can sell him for a tidy sum and use it to shore up our defense, maybe try for M'Villa again and bring in the creative midfielder and second striker we need to really compete at the top of the league again.

However, this game does show the genius that is Wenger, even as his transfer policy has put us in this position. He picked a squad that has not played together all season, a formation that I don't remember them using and it paid off in the end (though most of the goals came after they switched back to this year's more common 4-3-3 formation -- or  maybe 4-2-1-3 to be more accurate). In any case, after a rather auspicious start, Vermaelen and Kosielny settled in, Sagna looked good on both ends of the pitch, Gibbs was average but adequate, Jenkinson better, Arteta good as usual (though I'd still like to see him push the ball through to van Persie more often), Song strong defensively and decent going forward, Rosicky excellent with his movement, passing and persistent approach to defense and Benayoun average. After the Sagna goal, the entire team looked stronger, with a more solid defensive showing, particularly in the box, nice control of the middle of the pitch, very good passing and, of course, nice finishing. This game reminded me of the Chelsea game and one hopes it augurs a strong finish to the season -- something Gooners have been waiting for for years.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Review: Black Book (2006)

I often write reviews of films I don't like, and this has been particularly true in the last year when Hollywood rather consistently disappointed. One film that I didn't write a review for but enjoyed was Ides of March (2010), which seemed like an update of the classic Redford movie The Candidate, though the focus moved from the candidate to election staff. The film, while cynical at its core, provided a strong critique of the relationship between media and political operatives and the ways the struggle for power can undermine our ideals. In any case, I thought I would mention here a film from 2006 that I think demonstrates what movies can still do if they are effectively conceived and executed. That film, written and directed by Paul Verhoeven of Basic Instinct fame, follows the tragic exploits of Ellis de Vries (Carice van Houton) during World War II. 

Ellis is a Jew hiding in a Dutch home during the Nazi invasion who sees a chance at escape with her family after her hiding place is bombed by Nazis. Unfortunately, the escape is a ploy by Dutch agents to steal money and jewelry from rich Jews by murdering them after the boat embarks. Her entire family is killed on the journey though she escapes. Back in Holland, she becomes involved with the resistance, becoming the lover of a Nazi agent (played by the excellent Sebastian Koch The Lives of Others). A series of double-crosses ensue and she is ultimately implicated as a traitor after falling in love with the Nazi officer and assisting in his escape. The tale is one of survival and redemption, with Ellis using her guile and beauty to escape the clutches of those seeking to kill her. In the end, it is a beautifully rendered story centered on a female character that is a flawed hero who ends up finding hope in the wake of great tragedy. Ironically, one could argue it also challenges the charges often levied against Verhoeven of misogynist leanings, as really she is the only character redeemed in the end. But Verhoeven does demonstrate his continued acuity at strong narrative structure, heart-stomping suspense, complex character development and beautiful cinematography that really brings the moment alive. If you haven't seen this film, I highly recommend giving it a shot. A+

The War on Women Continues!

When I read the news today, I sometimes feel like I'm stuck in a time warp back to the 1950s. The racist undertones, talk of socialism and Hitler, attacks on gays and the war on women again moving to the forefront of conservative politics sound like the pulpit of some firebrand Elmer Gantry poser. Maybe most surprising among the current issues stirring the conservative heart are those of abortion and contraception. Not condoms of course, as that would actually mean men shouldn't have sex either. It is the continued attempt to control women's bodies that seems to resonate so strongly with the evangelical crowd. Putting the argument into context, it appears that conservatives feel they can't win on their absurdly retrograde economic argument alone and are thus returning to the cultural wars as the only way to retake the Presidency. 

And at the heart of the cultural wars is the war on sex. Not just sex between men or sex before marriage, but any sex that involves pleasure of any kind. The only sex worth having to the evangelicals appears to be sex to procreate. But where does this come from? Where is it written in the bible that sex is only for reproduction of the species? Why in 2012 do we still have to hear that women are the evil force in the universe that is undermining God's work (along with the gays, of course, who want to destroy marriage)? What does the fear emanate from? Sexual repression, of course, is a powerful way to control a population as Nietzsche so aptly understood, but the question I have always had is why so many Christians buy into the absurd claim that pleasure is to be avoided at all costs. Sure the repression of pleasure is supposed to be the road to God's grace and the utopian afterlife, but the obvious question that emerges is why God would make the thing most pleasurable to humans verboten but in the singular case of two married people having a baby. 

At the deeper level though, the war on abortion and contraception is really a war on women's bodies, an attempt to discipline these bodies to religious doctrine and arguably to restore patriarchy as the law of the land. One can't help but wonder if the male support for these initiatives is not based on a deep-seated fear of emasculation and loss of power that followed the feminist victories of the 80s and 90s. What is most interesting, and beguiling to me, is why so many conservative women also support these initiatives. The pro-life fight at least makes sense as an ethical position. But to support essentially outlawing female contraception seems to be a call to return to the 1950s, when women were called to marriage at a young age and asked to forgo careers to serve their husbands and raise their families. Certainly not questioning the power of the church and religious doctrine plays a role, as does the very effective attacks on feminism that Reagan launched in the 1980s -- convincing many conservative women that their rightful place was in the home and that feminism had been highjacked by radical women that sought to destroy the fabric of American society. 

But in the end, the cultural wars is yet again attempting to displace the real blame for the declining standards of life in America -- the new economic order and corporate power. Conservatives seem unwilling or unable to see behind the veil that blames affirmative action, liberal elites and progressive reforms from the 1960s as the source of Americas decline, more comfortable displacing the real blame onto those they feel are not part of the utopian America constructed by their heroes (Reagan foremost on the list). The thought that the American dream could be dying, that America is no longer a White, middle class, Christian nation where everyone know their place and that the future could actually be worse than the past all foreshadow a fear that needs both victims and perpetrators. And it is much easier to play the victim and find the perpetrators amongst those who so readily disagree with their inherent values and morality.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Best and the Brightest?

As Romney's prospects of sealing the candidacy continue to be jeopardized by the rising stock of the latest "real conservative candidate" Rick Santorum, one wonders if the nomination could go all the way to the convention. In a surprising piece of news, Romney has spent so much money that not winning in Michigan could put a real strain on his ability to compete going forward. So who is the newest darling of the lunatic fringe. News is coming out daily on some of his more radical positions, making the other pretenders to the throne seem downright sane by comparison:
  1. New York magazine reported that the top issue on Santorum's page until it was changed yesterday was "Enforcing Laws Against Illegal Pornography." While this is certainly an issue worth considering, should this really be above the economy, education or healthcare? (NY Mag)
  2. Rachel Maddow has an interesting story from last year, when Santorum argued that public schooling is an anachronistic institution. He believes that neither the federal or state governments should be involved in education at all and that "parents should educate their children." (Maddow) So apparently the children of those who are not well-educated should stay that way and all children should hold the same ideas as their parents in perpetuity. Forgot standards, forget democracy, forget socialization -- as long as they're good Christians!
  3. Rick Santorum charged on Monday that President Barack Obama and Democrats were "anti-science" because they refused to exploit the Earth's natural resources to the limits of technology. That makes sense, let's kill the planet as quickly as possible -- that's what "science" is for! (Crooks & Liars)
  4. Santorum has never been big on subtlety, arguing that the Obama presidency is like the French revolution and that the current GOP campaign to unseat him is like the allies fighting Hitler. In 2008, as the Drudge report has noted, he argued that Satan was taking over America and needed to be stopped. (Daily Kos) He may be right,  but it seems the right is serving him dinner at  the moment.
  5. Given Santorum's position on science, it's not surprising that he thinks climate change is a joke. Here is a quote that sums up his position, "
    “We were put on this Earth as creatures of God to have dominion over the Earth, to use it wisely and steward it wisely, but for our benefit not for the Earth’s benefit,” Santorum told a Colorado crowd earlier this month. He went on to call climate change “an absolute travesty of scientific research that was motivated by those who, in my opinion, saw this as an opportunity to create a panic and a crisis for government to be able to step in and even more greatly control your life.” (TPM) Hmm, and religious conservatives of course never create a panic or crisis of government to try to control your lives. They only want to control our bodies, our beliefs, our sex lives and our access to democracy and clean air. Of course global warming is a scam!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Money Matters

It would be absurd to argue that money hasn't mattered in politics for a long time. But since the Citizens decision of 2010, money has moved to the forefront of American politics to the benefit of corporations and to the detriment of everyone else. Three stories in the past week highlight the ways money is further degrading our already degraded political process:

  •  A story from the New Yorker last week (Attack Dog) detailed the continued relevance of Larry McCarthy, the political advertising genius who gave us the infamous Willie Horton ad that helped George Bush senior win the 1988 election against MA governor Michael Dukakis. McCarthy is now making millions a year helping to create mostly negative ads that are often loose with facts and high on fear. The good news is he doesn't really have any deep political convictions, making him a perfect fit for the Romney campaign that he is now working with. And his ads work, helping to arguably win two presidential elections (he was also instrumental, together with the Swift Boat Veterans for Lies, in swinging the 2004 election to Bush Jr.) and a number of other state and local races.
  • Romney is currently facing a 10-point deficit to Christian, conservative candidate Rick Santorum. And while he is in jeopardy of losing the nomination that seemed like his a few short weeks ago, a deluge of advertising in Michigan has turned the polls to his side: Slatest. This was also the case in Florida and Iowa and may mean that he wins simply by outspending his more cash-constricted opponents. It is also true that every Presidential election since financial records have been kept has been won by the candidate who spends more money (including Obama), which does not bode well in an Obama vs. Romney matchup. 
  • Finally is the story of Gingrich patron saint Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire (worth about $25 billion) who after infusing the cash-hungry campaign with $10 million is now claiming he might spend up to $100 million to get his man in (Slatest). When reporters complained that he was essentially trying to buy the election he replied:
    "Those people are either jealous or professional critics. ... They like to trash other people. It’s unfair that I’ve been treated unfair—but it doesn’t stop me. I might give $10 million or $100 million to Gingrich. ...I’m against very wealthy ­people attempting to or influencing elections. But as long as it’s doable I’m going to do it. Because I know that guys like Soros have been doing it for years, if not decades. And they stay below the radar by creating a network of corporations to funnel their money. I have my own philosophy and I’m not ashamed of it. I gave the money because there is no other legal way to do it. I don’t want to go through ten different corporations to hide my name. I’m proud of what I do and I’m not looking to escape recognition."
    So while money may not buy happiness, it looks like it can go a long way in buying elections ...

Saturday, February 18, 2012


Enough is enough! After the disgraceful performance against AC Milan midweek, one thought the Gunners would show up today. Instead we suffered another early injury, had to watch Djourou and Squillaci remind us how bad our reserves are and then lose to Sunderland in a largely disgraceful 2-0 defeat. Yes we are beset by injuries. Yes we were a little unlucky with two own goals. But we didn't score for the second game in a row. We gave the ball away in midfield. We gave very little service to Van Persie all day and we looked downright pathetic in the defensive half. This team is playing without grit, without determination, without creativity and without any will to win. And it shows.

And so we have reached the seven-year itch, as the only competition we are still in we are out of, and it's time to state the obvious: our system is not working. Not even a little. The expectations just keep falling year after year and now we will be lucky to end the year in fourth place. If we don't, disaster is sure to follow. It's time to admit defeat in the "youth first" system and find a coach willing to have a win now attitude. Wenger just seems deluded and unable to make a good decision anymore. The 4-3-2-1 is not working. Our passing is terrible. We lack leadership and seem to retreat more than we push forward. And we get stuck at the back game after game. A squad like Arsenal needs quality at least two deep at every position and we only have two great players on the entire team. What happened? We lost our two best players, but we didn't do enough to replace them. We took chances on average players and only a few of them lived up to our hopes. We don't adjust when our game plan isn't working and we lose faith far too often. The FA cup was certainly an opportunity to end the silverware drought, and Wenger did play a strong side, but just doesn't seem to motivate the team to win. 

I've said this before, but it is obviously time to look elsewhere for a coach that can restore belief and make the necessary changes. We need a mix of established talent together with our youth to cultivate that talent and help it grow. One can see the stalled Walcott development as a perfect example of what a lack of seasoned players can cost us. Chamberlain is coming up strong, but he's not ready to lead yet. Gervinho also looks like a talent, but when our opponents pack it in in the back, we have a hard time even creating opportunities these days. And with Henry back in New York, there is a serious question of who else can score on this team besides RVP. We need some flexibility in formation and strategy. We need to be active in the transfer window and not continue to buy youth when we need established talent. The latest comments from the Chairman lead to fears that he too is stuck in a bubble, relying on past glory as the barometer of the future. But nothing is left of those old teams that challenged for silverware perennially. Instead we have players who shouldn't even be in the premiership, players too young to perform consistently, one superstar and the worst bench in the top half of the table. If Wenger is given another season, he could theoretically destroy Arsenal for a generation. Hopefully our American owner realizes the ramifications in profits and prestige and will finally make the moves necessary to stop the bleeding. If we play like we have in the past two games, we could easily lose 5 or 6 nil to Tottenham. Something must be done!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Class Dynamics of Batman

Batman has an uncomfortable relationship to other superhero comic books and films. While many, including Lawrence and Jewett and Eco, have argued that the superhero genre tends to be conservative in its narrative structure -- with an outsider coming into a community to restore order and reinforce the status quo -- Batman goes a step further. Rather than simply overcoming evil and restoring order, as a Jesus-like savior to the powerless masses, Batman is not a redemptive but a revenge narrative. Batman is avenging the murder of his parents, who are portrayed as the embodiment of the angelic rich, who only do good in the community. This is particularly true of the Batman Begins film, where the butler Alfred (Michael Caine) speaks of Thomas Wayne as a godlike figure that was a leader of his community and a voice of reason against the violent, unredeemable poor. Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham to seek his revenge, and while he ultimately rejects the idea of mass murder as the ultimate form of justice ala the evil Henri Ducard (notice the French nom), he does believe in violent revenge against all criminals. This theme is repeated in the more recent Dark Knight, though they at least show some criminals as above complete reproach. 

The overarching theme of the entire series could be summed up as the "White Prince on the Mountain" looking over the dark, corrupt and dreary world of the poor and working class below. The police are corrupt, the court system is corrupt, the media is corrupt (particularly in the original version), politicians are corrupt (and even Harvey Dent loses his virtue in the death of Rachel) and the masses are corrupt. Only Batman, with the help of the one honest cop, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his faithful "servants" Alfred and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), can restore order and bring peace to the darkness below. What then is the message? Everyone is corruptible except the rich, who must selflessly protect us from the evil that lurks in the mind of the common man. And how does he do this? By spying on the masses, through violent retribution and by ignoring the corrupt systems of the state that can't do their jobs. Like so much Hollywood fare, the only answer is the outsider, the lone ranger (or American monomyth) that has to live in lonely isolation from the normative, unable to consummate his love in the long run. Sure Bruce Wayne actually has sex, unlike so many other superheroes (lest us forget that Superman getting laid and married led to the planet being overtaken by three aliens), but he can't actually have a normal relationship. There is a new love interest in almost every film and his love Rachel from the past two actually dies before the end of that film. 

The troubling portrayal of the working class and poor in recent Hollywood films is a theme that has not been adequately analyzed within film studies (I did have an essay on this in my book Hollywood Exploited and there is the book Hard Hats, Rednecks and Macho Men). There are few films that valorize the working class, as was often the case in old Hollywood and the many great "auteur" films of the 70s. Since then, we have the tale of the working class girl or boy that finds not only love with a richer mate but also social status and wealth (from Pretty in Pink to Here on Earth to Good Will Hunting and Pretty  Woman). We have the gritty working class crime drama (Gone Baby Gone; Mystic River; etc.). We have the naturalistic treatment of the corruption and evil of the working class and poor (Winter's Bone; The Wrestler; Bar Fly). And we have the working class hero film (Rocky; Cinderella Man; etc.) showing that escape is always the ultimate goal. Batman goes a step further showing a society that is really beyond redemption, even as it occasionally surprises us. Everyone is corruptible except for the selfless rich white man that is the only respite from chaos and madness -- a Leviathon of one that reenacts the Hobbesian nightmare in the contemporary urban landscape. 

Batman is possibly the most obvious representation of the great irony in American popular culture today, a hatred for the very working class that serve as the embodiment of the "before" in the American dream transformation. The fact that he is violent and without mercy only further solidifies the contemporary American sensibility -- borderline sociopathology with a skewed sense of justice to legitimate greed as the raison d'etre of the entire system. Don't worry about the 1%, they are actually selfless representatives of the very best in the human spirit. Fight on sweet prince!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Arsenal Massacre: Part Deux

As I have told friends in the past, low expectations and high hopes is a good way to avoid the rather constant disappointment that can otherwise color a life at times. With Arsenal this season, that has been an apt aphorism indeed. And the match against AC Milan at the San Siro today certainly reinforced the notion that low expectations will keep Gooners from going insane. This has to go down as one of the worst performances by the club in recent years and the worst performance in Europe that I have ever seen. We were dominated from beginning to end, looked like a second division team at times and got really shoddy performances from many of our best players. The 4-0 defeat not only effectively knocked us out of the Champions League before the quarters for the second year in a row, but showed the extent to which this once top club has fallen. Sure we are sitting in fourth place at present and are still in the FA Cup, but this is just the sort of performance that has become so endemic of our second-half collapses the past few years.

Let's start in the back, where Szczesny had a very average game, including the inability to clear the half way line on clearances that led to the first goal. Vermaelen had one of his worst games as a Gunner after finally find his way back to his preferred centre back position, slipping on the all important third goal but really looking out of sorts all day. Koscielny had a very good first half, but then went off with an injury to be replaced by Djourou who we really need to unload. He is just too prone to mistakes and cost us the fourth goal with a pathetic attempt at defending the hero for Milan (Ibrahimovich) that led to a successful penalty by the Czech star. On the wings, Sagna was adequate and Gibbs average in his return, though he was beat often by Boateng, who launched a scorching volley for the first goal of the massacre. Moving to the midfield, Song played okay before moving back to centre back when Oxlade-Chamberlain came in. Chamberlain looked good again and almost sparked a couple of goals, begging the obvious question of why he didn't start. Arteta played average, completing a lot of passes but few that moved the team forward in threatening positions. And Ramsey was truly terrible yet again. He constantly tries to push the ball through the middle and fails over and over again, hits poor back heals when we are in good positions and has essential  lost the creativity and confidence that had him looking really strong earlier in the campaign. Moving forward, one has to say that Van Persie had an average game by his standards, failing to come out to get the ball as service failed to impress. Walcott was truly terrible and begs serious questions about his role as Gervinho comes back from the ACN. And Rosicky was okay, but lacks the skill he possessed when coming to the squad, with his shots always errant and his passing less than precise. Henry played the entire second half but had a minimal impact in a match that was soon 3-0 and all but out of reach.

Looking at the game overall, one has to ask what Wenger is thinking? Why he decided to play a 4-3-2-1 is beyond me, as it seemed to isolate van Persie even more and he only had a few opportunities the entire match (almost converting one but for a good save). One can also ask why he didn't start Chamberlain who appears to be the second biggest threat on the attack and why Ramsey started, given his form of late. And he just doesn't seem to motivate his teams for these big matches in the ways he did in the past, starting way back in the heartbreaking Champions League final loss to Barcelona and the lackluster Carling Cup final performance last year. Ramsey and Walcott need to spend some time on the bench to contemplate what has happened to their games, we need to find a way to get beyond this loss as big matches lie ahead and we have to find a new formation that poses more of a threat offensively (or just go back to the 4-3-3 with better performances from the attacking troops). The team seemed to play scared and without real belief and it showed. Yes AC Milan played a good game, but we were pathetic in the back, average in the midfield (often retreating rather than pushing forward), too narrow for most of the match and completely without creativity or quality in the final third (besides the Van Persie shot). If this form continues, we will be out of the FA Cup, fall out of fourth place, probably lose Van Persie (who has been a little lackluster of late, except in the Blackburn mauling) and have a hard time signing the top players we need to compete in the future. And on a final note, if we had signed a real striker rather than Park one wonders how the first half of the season would have gone. If we had signed Cahill instead of Mertesacker, could we have avoided the early season and New Year's slump? And if we signed a creative midfielder, might we have scored a few more goals, sitting solidly in fourth place and able to concentrate on the other competitions? All of these questions together add up to the key one I have been asking for months -- which is whether it is time to let Wenger move on to another club? Sometimes you need a scapegoat and change and I just sense that he has lost control of the team, with Van Persie screaming "no" against Man U. and Vermaelen complaining about where he plays. Ultimately, the management has to decide if they will continue telling the fans to f*off and hope they stay true or actually do something to return the Gunners to past glory.

Monday, February 13, 2012

CPAC Lost in a Hyperreal World

Reports from the just completed CPAC conference seem to highlight the depths of the historical amnesia and outright insanity that now reign supreme through too many parts of the conservative movement in America: Salon. Among the highlights were anti-democratic rhetoric, anti-Obama vitriol, anti-tax anthems, anti-Immigrant and anti-Black rabble rousing and a blanket anti-government stance. Really it is yet another reminder of the negative stance the Republican party has taken against everyone except the 1% in America today (and really only the 1% who is white and male if we extrapolate up from the invited White Supremacists and anti-woman-can-control-their-own-body set). It is hard to know what is most troubling about the GOP today, but I thought I would take a shot based on the CPAC highlights.

1. At the top of the list for me is the aforementioned historical amnesia. We have been living in a conservative world for over 30 years now, if we rightfully admit that Clinton continued "neoliberal" policies of limiting government, deregulation and dismantling of the social safety net. While Obama has spent the past four trying to finally confront this legacy of increased income inequality, increased poverty and increased profits and income for the richest Americans, he has been blocked at every corner. So what is the legacy? The neoliberal project has failed at every turn, causing America into economic decline, putting Europe on the precipice of economic ruin and causing untold poverty and heartache in the third world countries that really suffer the brunt of the neoliberal global worldview. The environment is in shambles, workers rights are on the decline, people are starving even in the belly of the beast and our education system is beyond mediocre. Yet we continue to hear that this is the best system available. We hear conservatives say with a straight face that Obama is to blame for our current economic malaise. We continue to hear that Reagan was a great president when many would look at the S&L Crisis, 1987 Wall Street collapse and tax code changes as auguring our current decline. If we do not learn from history, we are bound to repeat it. The GOP seems immune to this type of logic, and assume some socialist said it anyway; even though it was an elitist philosopher who might very well have shared some of their views.

2. The anti-democratic trends in the GOP over the past two decades are troubling to the extreme. Efforts were made to make the presidency essentially extralegal in its immunity to all impunity under Bush and Cheney, congressional rules have been changed to allow them to block almost any action they disagree with, they blocked more judged under Dems than the other way around by far but continue to use that as a rallying cry and they have worked to essentially ransom and buy the media into supporting their perspectives enough of the time. The latest example of this anti-democratic spirit comes from anti-tax renegade Grover Norquist who argued that the next President should actually take a relatively passive role:“We’re not auditioning for someone to tell us what to do,” he declared. “We know what to do. We just need a president who can sign the legislation that the Republican House and Senate pass. … We don’t need someone to think. … We need someone who knows how to hold a pen.”

3. I have often written about the anti-intellectualism at the heart of conservatism and in the middle of that argument stands the fulcrum upon which the conservative movement has built its base: "we don't need someone to think." Political rhetoric has always relied on pushing for emotional over factual appeal, for creating bandwagoning through hatred, for appealing to the common man through false connection and for bending the truth to skew public opinion. Yet the new GOP has become so adept at those strategies they have forgotten to stand for anything at all. The Romney lying is but a symptom of the disease that has infected a party with one idea that seems destined to destroy America if ever fully enacted. One CPAC attendee explained that "Conservatives are more positive because we've got truth on our side." What they are positive about is hard to discern and that truth even more illusory.

4. As I have written on several occasions, lack of empathy on the right has become downright nasty. One CPAC attendee turned to an occupier and said "just because you've failed doesn't mean the system has failed." Yet that occupier has a job and is just protesting the 1% that many at the conference thought were the embodiment of the American dream. This group shows no empathy for the working class or poor, little empathy for even the children of "illegal" immigrants, no sense of solidarity with the middle class losing their jobs or homes, no empathy for women's bodies (many even if they are raped) and, if they are to be believed, little sympathy for the other 99% of Americans (even as many of them fall within that group). Empathy is really the glue that holds a society together, the very fabric of democracy. If we cease caring for others who are different than us, we move toward fascism and unbridled capitalist exploitation. And this seems where the GOP seems destined to take us if they get their way. 

In line with this view, while Romney did squeak out victories in Maine and, surprisingly, in the straw poll at CPAC, Santorum has stormed to a 15 point lead in national polls, meaning the last true conservative standing might hold the mantle for a movement that careens toward a showdown on the future of America. Conservatives have been playing to the worst instincts of Americans for four decades now and one wonders if hatred, anti-government rhetoric, anti-intellectualism and lack of empathy can continue to stir the public toward their ultimate ruin.

Arsenal Comeback in Henry EPL Finale

After the disaster that was the beginning of this year, the thought that this team had restored the meddle that once saw them win trophies and complete the first and only undefeated season in EPL history started to wane toward dust. But then Thierry Henry pulled off a miracle late winner against Leeds in the FA Cup and an improbable comeback from 2-0 down against Aston Villa to win 3-2 (with the club actually getting two penalty calls in one game) cemented the sense that maybe there is some belief in this club. That victory came a week after the substitution debacle against Man U. that arguably cost us at least two points and was sandwiched by a very disappointing 0-0 draw at Bolton. So what next for the Gunners? A massacre of Blackburn with another Henry gem to make the final score 7-1 (eliminating most of the goal differential problem from earlier in the season). And then we went to the stadium of lights needing the three points.

We dominated possession from the start, but had trouble getting the ball to Van Persie and were still scoreless when a freak injury to Mertesacker left Sunderland winger James McLean one-on-one with Sczcesny and he cooly slotted past him for a 1-0 lead on 70'. Like many Gunners fans, I looked on realizing this looked a lot like the second half collapses that have become so endemic at the club the last six years. And then, in a surprise move, Ramsey comes on to substitute for Mertesacker (with a realignment at the back, obviously) and puts in his first EPL goal since October to tie it up (after a lucky carom off of a Sunderland defender). Then in stoppage time, the little Russian who doesn't did, sending a perfect cross to the magical feet of Henry, who put the ball in the net for a stirring 2-1 victory, that based on the other results of the weekend, but us back into the Champions League spot. It was not a virtuoso performance, but was certainly a compelling final game for Henry and might have saved our season from complete disaster. 

Now we turn to the toughest part of the season, that will probably define the short, and maybe long term, future of the club. After the first leg of the Champions League against Milan on Wednesday, we return to the Stadium of Lights for a fifth round tie against a Sunderland team that will be looking for revenge. A victory in that match could set us up for our most realistic chance at silverware since last year's Carling Cup nightmare and one hopes Wenger takes the game seriously, though I worry he won't. Then three EPL games that could solidify our fourth place finish, or could push us outside the top four looking up once again. The first is a Emirates showdown with rival Tottenham, who look in top form after dispatching resurgent Newcastle with ease. Then we go to Liverpool where it is hard to know what you will get against the mercurial side that doesn't let in many goals but scores just as few. And then we have a must win against Newcastle at home (followed by a trip to Everton, which is never an easy endeavor). After that battle against Newcastle with the Champs League second tie right before, we should have a good sense of where the season is headed. FA Cup silverware, a trip to the quarters and solidifying the top four spot could do a lot to convince Van Persie to stay with the side. Otherwise we might see yet another of our top players push toward the exit. Go Gunners!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Romney the Schmuck

So I rarely watch the Daily Show anymore, even though it's still often quite good, but happened to catch a repeat of the 2/1 show, where Steward deconstructed the latest brilliant analogy from Romney. He was talking to a reporter at CNN and explained that the extremely rich will be fine (fair enough) and that the extremely poor will be fine (um, what?). His explanation was the "safety net" that obviously provides them with an opulent lifestyle that really doesn't look that different from the rich made them okay. Sure they have crappy healthcare. Sure they get about $12 a day for themselves and their family. Sure they can't fly first class, pay for the gas for the yachts the government reserved for them, have to rent out a room in their one-bedroom-apartment-for-four so they can buy an ounce of caviar and buy their designer J.C. Penny clothes at the Salvation Army. But, hey, they do pay the same tax rate! 

I sometimes wonder why the Republican party hasn't already embraced Romney as their best shot at winning the Presidency back from the evil, unAmerican socialist now occupying the top CEO spot. Then I listen to him talk with his aristocratic voice, cluelessness to the world that surrounds him and general disdain for truth and understand. But who do they turn to? After flirting with an even bigger tool from Texas, a pizza magnet that misunderstands delivery in less than an hour, a cherub who likes pizza a little too much and a woman that knows less about American history than a five year old Cossack, they have finally embraced the rich dude with a heart of steel. Or wait, maybe this anti-gay fella who thinks evolution is as silly a theory as global warming might be the next "great white hope." Stay tuned for the next episode of "The party that seems intent on self-immolation."

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Superbowl as Spectacle and Man's Search for Authenticity

I rarely watch the half time show at the biggest sporting event in the U.S., but this year, sitting in the bar, my friends seemed intent on watching it so I was all but forced to follow the crowd. Watching Madonna lip sync her way through her old songs (including the highly controversial Like a Prayer, with a new Black Jesus on stage, followed by a one hit wonder in a moo moo) made me realize how far the spectacle society has come from its earlier instantiations in Guy Debord's situationalist formulation. In fact, the Super Bowl might be the best example of the spectacle society today. From the two week buildup to maximize exposure, to the pre-pre-pre show to the half time spectacular (which was aesthetically quite stunning) to the coronation at the end of the game, it is really all about selling. The real genius of the event was their decision years ago to start hyping the commercials as an essential feature of the four hours. Instead of people getting up to grab a beer, some guacamole or chat up the cute guy or girl across the room, the commercials are the headliner, with the silly game really just the reason to have a bunch of people over to watch TV. And the media, of course, plays along like sycophantic dogs lapping up the hype and reporting back on the best and worst commercials of the day as if this were the official salon shows of Paris in the 1880s. The Super Bowl makes players, makes teams, creates legends and sells a lot of products, while sometimes working to rejuvenate a career. I had thought Madonna at 53 was finished performing, but apparently this was her comeback stage, as she now plans the most extensive tour of her career (and a new album as well, of course). As to the game, it was quite entertaining and came down to an exciting last 5 minutes where the Giants squeaked out a victory as Brady's final pass fell on the endzone turf untethered to a players hands. (As a side note, it's funny that Belicheck has been hounded for allowing the Giants to score, as otherwise they just would have kicked the winning fieldgoal as time ran out. I guess it's easy to be an armchair quarterback).

Missing from the game that surrounds the game was that mercurial quality we call authenticity. As youth try harder and harder to find it, it seems to become more and more elusive. And that is the signature quality of the spectacle -- where everything is mediated for maximum emotive effect, undermining any real connection to the underlying event. It seems to me that that desire for the authentic is ironically found throughout the current youth culture landscape, though every attempt is so quickly commodified it must be a dizzying quest indeed. From the hipster movement gone mainstream, to the various subcultures (punk, goth, emo, rocker, folk, etc.) to Facebook and the entirety of Internet culture, the search for authenticity seems as meaningless as the search for Bobby Fisher. As we move closer to the 2012 election, authenticity in politics again comes to the fore, as the people search for someone, anyone who they think actually believes in what they say and stands by what they do. That is a rare commodity these days and it will be interesting to see if Romney can somehow convince the public that all of his lying and flip-flopping doesn't completely undermine his authenticity as a "real" conservative and real American. Bush was able to pull off this feat even as he grew up in the elitist of families and Clinton and Obama both succeeded because they arguably had roots that made them more authentic by virtue of their upbringing. Obama will have to do so again if he is to win and convince the public that his attempts to change the country and improve the economy were authentic and not just a ploy to get elected. This, of course, is made more difficult by a Republican party that has mastered the art of negation as policy, blocking everything Obama has attempted to do that they could. Authenticity has always been a complex idea that some would argue doesn't exist, but it is something that people seem to strive for more and more, particularly as it recedes into the spectacle society and its commodification and mediation of everything that it comes across.

Ron Rossenbaum has an interesting take on another politician grappling with the authenticity issue here: Slate.

Obama Leads in Latest Poll

In good news for those not interested in a "CEO" President redux, Obama has forged ahead of Romney in the most recent Washington Post-ABC Poll of the potential match-up (Slate). While Romney continues to lead slightly on the economy (48-45) and by a larger margin on dealing with the deficit (51-41), Obama has amassed an almost 10 point lead (52 to 48) overall. As the Republicans continue to duke it out for the nomination, even as it appears Romney has all but stitched it up, Obama can continue to build on the populist message he has been cultivating for the past two months while calling out the GOP for blocking any attempt to address underlying economic issues. This is backed by new unemployment figures that saw a drop to 8.3 percent, the lowest since the collapse. 

Obama now has to start the difficult work of building his case for reelection in the wake of continuing economic troubles while Romney continues to engage in damage control of the attacks of his nearest rival Gingrich, who almost seems intent on helping Obama win as his last realistic chance at a run for the country's top office goes the way of the Contract with America. The reality is most of the attacks levied by Huntsman, Paul, Santorum and now Gingrich are accurate and thus money the only real defense Romney has to a past as a corporate raider and flip-flopper extraordinaire. Questions about his Mormon faith are also coming to the fore and one does wonder if Mitt can really escape the fact he is the very embodiment of what so many in the country now despise.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Arsenal Wins; Chelsea Collapses

The start to 2012 has been a veritable nightmare for the Gunners after returning to the top four in the last breath of 2011. Giving up a lead late and losing all three points to Fulham, tying Swansea only to give up the winner seconds later, a listless draw against Bolton when we had chance after chance and a late loss to hated Manchester United at home when the best player on the pitch was taken off for the little Russian that can't. The only sparkles of hope were a late winner in the FA Cup against Leeds, pushed in by beloved Gunner Thierry Henry in his return, and a wonderful comeback against Aston Villa in the same competition with three straight goals for an important victory that brings hope of finally ending the trophy drought. We went into the game against bottom dwellers Blackburn needing maximum points on Saturday and didn't disappoint.

In fact, with the exception of the 5-3 victory against Chelsea, this was the highlight reel game of the season that might just have rejuvenated our chances of a second half drive back into a Champions League position (we sit only three behind a wobbly Chelsea, though Newcastle and Liverpool are also clearly in the hunt for the coveted $30 million spot). Again Blackburn has one of the most porous defenses in the Premiership and they played much of the game a man down (and without Samba), but pouring in seven goals should do a lot to restore our confidence as we prepare for the toughest stretch of the season. Next up is the rejuvenated Sunderland side that Martin O'Neill has inspired into top form. Then we have the first leg of our Champions League bout against Series A second place squad AC Milan, an away FA Cup game that could vault us into the semis, Tottenham at home, Liverpool in the Kopp, leg two at home then Newcastle and Everton. If we falter in the next five weeks, Wenger's time at the Emirates is surely over, but a good run of form could restore a season that started terribly, sparkled into hope and then started to fizzle a little over a month ago. 

As to the 7-1 drubbing of Blackburn at the Emirates, there were a lot of positives to take from the game. First and foremost for me was a better performance from Walcott on the wing and one of the best showings by Song going forward all season. Chamberlain is quickly becoming our second-best offensive threat and his two goals show that he does have the finishing touch at the top level that he's been showing in other competitions. Van Persie got his hat trick, Arteta threw one in in his return and Henry got a late goal to cap a wonderful day for the team and fans. Looking forward, I think it is clear that we should be seeing a lot more of Chamberlain and very little of Arshavin for the remainder of the season. Rumors are out that Henry might extend his loan for a few weeks and Gibbs appears close to being fit again. Seeing Sagna was also good news and he played solid on the right for the last twenty minutes or so. 

But the game did leave me asking a few questions. Many Gooners including me have been complaining about the form of Ramsey over the past two months and our attack looked much stronger with him out. I wonder if he can get back into form, particularly as Wilshire looks set to miss most or all of the rest of the season, or if he will find himself relegated to the bench (as I think he should be at the moment). I also am thoroughly impressed with Coquelin and wonder if there is a place for him once the injured come back (the answer probably being only to give others rests and as a sub). And when Gervinho returns we will have a serious competition for the two winger positions between Chamberlain, Walcott and the Ivorian -- which I see as good news. While Walcott does show up with some great crosses when he's playing well, I still wonder if he will ever get his instincts right in front of goal (and if not, if it's worth selling him this summer to help fund bringing in a creative midfielder and striker and/or Goetze or Hazard). In any case, a positive win that also restored our goal differential to respectability and which could prove important in such a tight race for fourth.

Finally, a quick note on the weekend's other games. Man City looked strong in taking down Fulham, gaining two points on the chasing crosstown rivals. Man U however pulled off one of those unlikely comebacks that could be demoralizing to a Chelsea squad that just can't seem to find consistency under Villa-Boas. Yes one could argue that Howard Webb again showed his favoritism for MU with the penalty decisions (particularly the second), but when does Chelsea even give up one goal leads in Stamford Bridge in the past? This year has been different and even as the squad looks impressive at times, their age issues (manager too young; too many stars getting old) and lack of consistency could see them be the team to fall out of the Champions League next year. This was the kind of loss that felt a little like our dramatic collapse draw against Newcastle last year that was a precursor to our complete collapse. Chelsea might have too much experience for that kind of fall, but there have been serious questions asked all year. The Tottenham-Liverpool match today was also a little telling, as Liverpool continues to have trouble scoring and Liverpool, with Harry stuck at home watching because of court and jet trouble, seemed intent on just toughing our a point (which they did). Liverpool had the ball most of the game but lacked creativity and a good final ball into the box for most of the fixture, while blowing the few chances they created. Given those results and the Newcastle win, I wonder if it may be Arsenal and Newcastle duking it out for the spot while Liverpool continues to tease and Chelsea falls into the abyss (though for the shorterm). Their pickup of Cahill seems prudent and as the aging stars depart, the new generation and summer signings should probably restore them toward the top -- but for now they certainly seem like a team lacking confidence (and results). Go Gunners!   

P.S. A disappointing admission from Wenger today that they might not have the money to go after Hazard and that the club is expected to make profits in the $15-20 million range. But if they keep marching toward  mediocrity, can they really sustain those profits? If not buying anyone of note in the transfer window costs us $25-30 million, does that make sense? And what big names will play at a club that claims it can't afford 30 million pounds for one of the brightest young stars in the game, after tracking him for years. Can't seem to stay on the positive side of the news with this club this year. 

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Arsenal Blows Another

Another away game with plenty of chances; another meager point and a clear indication that spending a little money would have done us good. Van Persie almost converted on a couple of chances, hitting the woodwork twice, but we should have been ahead before halftime except for yet another blown opportunity from Walcott. I have been writing this for some time but just don't understand how Wenger cannot see what everyone, including the announcers, seems to see on most occasions he is on the pitch: missed opportunities, poor crosses, terrible decision-making and an inability this season to finish when he is one on one with the goalkeeper. A beautiful through ball by Chamberlain put him in just that position and a movement to either side would have made for an easy goal, but like he does so often he shot too quickly and too close to the goalkeeper. It was a nice save but again showed a player who lacks either the skill, intelligence, confidence or poise to finish far too many of his opportunities. I think it is fair to say a decent finisher would have scored at least 10 to 15 goals with the chances Walcott has had. Instead he blew two (one late in the game from close range that went wide) yet again and really cost us two points. 

We looked dangerous for large stretches of the first 70 minutes, but seemed to go lame the second Oxlade-Chamberlain went off the pitch. Instead of the quixotic switch for Arshavin that occurred against Manchester United, this time Henry came in, but one has to ask why it wasn't Walcott that was substituted off. Wenger did replace Ramsey with Rosicky, which at least told the Welshman that he can't continue to play at a subpar level, but it appears that Wenger has run out of ideas and is living on his past. An FA Cup victory now sits in our sights, but fourth place keeps begging as we've picked up one point from our last four games. It is a pathetic run of form that brings us back to the beginning of the year and something odd for an Arsenal team -- the inability to score. It is generally not for lack of chances, though we aren't pushing the ball forward with the urgency or acumen that we once did, but for a lack of finishing touch and a ridiculous reliance on Van Persie alone. One assumes Chamberlain will start to score, but who else can we count on on this team? Arteta's goal scoring days seem behind him, Mertesacker's promise of the occasion goal was a tease to appease, Ramsey hasn't hit a decent shot on goal in months, Gervinho has yet to repeat his success at Lille and I have cataloged the Walcott debacles almost every week (lest us forgot his last goal was a fluke). When Gervinho returns, one wonders if the starting wingers aren't he and Chamberlain, leaving the lame Walcott on the bench where he belongs.

This is clearly a mediocre team that had a decent run in October and November and a team that lacks the motivation and/or talent to compete at the top level. I continue to hope they can get on a run again, but a 0-0 draw against a bottom dweller we beat 3-0 in the reverse fixture just shows how far we've fallen. The bad news on Wilshire just continues the injury plague that has beset the Emirates and I have to once again wonder if our medical team is up to snuff. In the end, I think we are heading for the inevitable departure of Wenger and hopefully a more inspiring coach for the future. I hold out the dream that we can somehow grab the fourth place spot that is begging us to take it and/or get one final piece of silverware under Wenger, but can't find it in my heart to believe that he understands what it takes to win any longer. Watching the Gunners play right now is borderline torturous.