What to Watch, What to Listen to and What to Read….

What to Watch…

After more than 2 months, I finally finished watching the six seasons of the series The Americans. For the second time — the first time started with the series’ start in 2013. The Americans begins when Cold War is at its height, Ronald Reagan was US President, and the FBI was in conflict with the CIA on home turf. Yet the series makes hardly a misstep. Instead it illuminates how out of step the US was in tracking and stopping Soviet spies. I’ve written a bit about the Americans here earlier. The Soviet spies in this case were a couple of “illegals” – Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. Specially trained and sent by Moscow, they pose as owners of a small travel agency in Washington DC. At the start of the series, we see them, an attractive American couple, living a comfortable suburban life with their teenaged daughter, Paige, and sports-crazy 11 year old son, Henry. Just across their cul-de-sac, Stan Beeman and his family move in. When the Jennings en famille go over to the Beemans to bring a chocolate cake and a neighbourly welcome to them, Stan he tells Philip and Elizabeth — straight up — that he’s an FBI agent.

A Game of Cat and Mouse

The cat and mouse game begins. Of course Beeman sees the Jennings as great neighbours who have well-mannered children. But of course Philip and Elizabeth have to be extra careful to inject enough warmth and friendship—yet not arouse suspicion. Perhaps the most interesting plot twist is when Paige joins a Christian Evangelical church group – in her need to help the poor and distribute food. Her parents are stopped in their tracks – as Communists, they single out religion for opprobrium, yet they can say little openly. And the pastor’s contact and mentorship of Paige becomes a serious problem. The turns of the plot are believable and scary.

The Jennings’ marriage is stretched thin and at times drenched with fury and terror. Their relationship to their children veers from indulging them to ignoring them.

Stan Beeman, the FBI agent, becomes a trifle suspicious from time to time but is quickly mollified and sucked back into the conviviality and dinner invitations often extended and even exaggerated by the Jennings. I can’t say enough good things about this series. You can borrow each season on DVD from the Halifax Public Library, or buy it from Itunes. If you get the DVDs from the library, you can watch interviews with the actors, and outtakes. Here’s a trailer from Season 5.

‘The Public’

Nowadays during the Pandemic, every Canadian city is dealing with increased homelessness as the shelters contract their services and as most municipalities are reluctant to pay for hotel or motel rooms for the homeless. Thinking about the critical social issue, my friend Sam in Toronto recommended I watch The Public. In this well-written, believable and even humorous movie, two librarians at Cincinnati Public Library are used to seeing the homeless sitting for hours in the library – just to evade the winter’s cold. But one particularly cold night, the homeless men decide they won’t leave at closing time. There are not enough shelters in the city, and they don’t want to die on the streets. So the 100 men barricade themselves onto the third floor, order pizza and stay. The (over) reaction of the police, and the library authorities is swift and predictable. The two librarians are left to figure out a game plan. Emilio Estevez, as a librarian, is excellent. The TV media insists it’s a hostage-taking by terrorists. It’s a good film, and though it was made in 2019, it resonates today. It’s on Netflix. Here’s the trailer.

On Kanopy, I watched Between Us, a multiple award-winning film from 2013. This taut, and nasty film essentially is the story of two couples who have been friends since grad school. In 90 minutes we see relationships and dreams crumble, and an unhappy future getting built on little but a dusting of crumbs. It’s a fascinating portrait of love, intimacy, resentment—and American chauvinism. Here’s the trailer. Move over Edward Albee – this is more thoughtful, more honest and sharper than the 1966 film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (now a DVD which you can borrow from the Halifax Library). Here is a great trailer for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. To watch Between Us, see it on Kanopy which is available for free streaming if you have a Halifax Public Library card.

A scene from Between Us

What to Listen to…

If some of you are feeling smug after Biden’s “victory”, or let down because Trump was not convicted – though he was impeached– here’s an antidote.

How soon we forget what monsters the Americans are and were. Their drone attacks on Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan have killed thousands. In fact George W Bush okayed only 57 airstrikes during his presidency, compared with more than 563 initiated by President Obama. Is the tinting of our rose coloured glasses so dense that we forget that in Obama’s last year in office – in 2016—he sanctioned more than 252 air strikes, and more than 2100 deaths?
If we wend our way back 30 years to February 1991, we have an eyewitness account by a Iraqi woman, a middle-class wife and mother of four children, explain what happened when the US attacked the Amiriyai city air raid shelter in Baghdad which housed her children and four hundred other civilians. You should listen to a recent 10 minute podcast on BBC’s Witness History, entitled How US ‘Smart Bombs” hit an Iraqi air raid shelter in the 1st Gulf War.

“Drones will push people towards terrorism.”

Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan

The Guardian Long Read has a chilling account “Our Souls are Dead”: How I Survived a Chinese Re-Education Camp for Uighurs by Gulbahar Haitiwaji. Haitiwaji and her husband Kerim were born in the most western region of China, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Gulbahar –like 12 million others, or 50% of the population in Xinjiang, are members of the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighur minority. In 1988, she and her husband graduated as engineers and for years worked for an oil company in Karamay a major city devoted to “black oil” in the region. But the couple noticed many job ads in the newspapers which said in small type: No Uighurs. The couple realized they would never progress in their careers if they stayed in Karamay. In 2006, Gulbahar and Kerim, with their two daughters, received refugee status to live in France. But one day in 2016, Haitiwaji received a call from her old employer, the oil company; the caller demanded she come to Karamay in person to collect her pension. This is where the nightmare and the podcast really takes off.

Gulbahar feared going back, but Kerim reassured her with, “They’ll definitely pull you in for questioning, but don’t panic. That’s completely normal,”

Gulbahar arrived in Karamay only to be sent to a re-education prison camp, starved of food, beaten and basically brain-washed—for more than 2 years. If this sounds bizarre – you need to listen this Long Read here . It certainly made me sit up and read about Xinjiang, Karamay, and the Uighurs and the prison camps.

I’m a big fan of Canadaland’s Commons podcast series. This season focuses on the police; I just listened to The Police 9—Northern Patrol. I recommend it. Northern Ontario is an area bigger than France. For the last 26 years, it has been policed by the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service (NAPS). The idea is that old style, law and order, colonial fuelled cops should not be policing Indigenous territory. In this episode we see how the province has all but starved the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service, how their ramshackle buildings, poor equipment and lack of training means they can’t do the jobs they need to do. The episode emphasizes the fact that this is the ONLY major police force which has not killed one Indigenous person – something that comes from a sense of respect the officers have for their fellow northerners. Listen to it here.

What to Read…

Among the Insurrectionists by Luke Mogelson, is a long read in the New Yorker here. It’s a fascinating look at what actually took place in the US in the fall of 2020, leading up to Jan. 6, 2021– the day of the assault on the US Capitol. Shocking are the short interactions and interviews the writer conducts with members of the crowd; the racism and the terror that most want to inflict on other Americans – and the fact that most of the ‘rioters’ were suffering huge financial distress. It certainly shows a lot more and goes way deeper than anything else I’ve seen or read on it. The photos paint a vivid picture that strangely enough TV film footage can’t touch. The still photos have the effect of a punch to the gut.

credit: NBC.com

Christopher Ketcham writes a sobering article in The Intercept here which compares the last years of the Trump regime with those of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. The article is called, What the Far-Right Fascination with Pinochet’s Death Squads Should Tell Us.

Two Memes in The Intercept article. Left: Pinochet’s cap on the Hoppean snake; Right: image of snake and helicopter. Helicopters were used extensively by Pinochet to drop left wing or Communist prisoners to their deaths in the sea. For more on this I recommend watching A Grin Without a Cat (2009), by French filmmaker Chris Marker available on DVD at the Halifax Library

The article zeroes in on Hans-Hermann Hoppe, a little known economist at the University of Nevada who was and is – essentially a fascist. For decades he hob-knobbed with many on the extreme right including fellow economist and open supporter of Pinochet, Friedrich Hayek. Hoppe writes about the “physical removal” of undesirable citizens,
“There can be no tolerance toward democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and expelled from society.”
The article is bleak but informative. If you want to read more of my blogs about Chile under Pinochet and what really happened, look here, here and here.

10 Standard Drinks a Week…

Did you know that Canadian guidelines say that women should consume no more than 10 “standard” alcohol drinks a week, while men should limit themselves to 15? Did you know that Canada’s Chief public health officer, Dr Theresa Tam, stated that Canadians should limit what they drink at New Year’s celebrations?
Did you know that in Nov. 2020, Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada demanded the federal government put warning labels on alcohol products. “Amazingly, there aren’t even nutritional labels on alcohol products in Canada, a decision that Health Canada has repeatedly defended on the basis of not wanting to imply that alcohol has a nutritional benefit….”

“Amazingly, there aren’t even nutritional labels on alcohol products in Canada, a decision that Health Canada has repeatedly defended on the basis of not wanting to imply that alcohol has a nutritional benefit…”

James Wilt in We’re Drinking More in the Pandemic—and It’s a Problem

This rings a bit hollow when we see that virtually all edible products from chewing gum to cannabis edibles have nutritional labelling on the products. Did you know that in Friedrich Engels’s 1845 book The Condition of the Working Class in England, he wrote that

alcohol consumption was the “necessary, inevitable effect of certain conditions upon an object possessed of no volition in relation to those conditions.” Further, Engels wrote that laws “facilitated the spread of intemperance by bringing a beerhouse, so to say, to everybody’s door.”

These fascinating facts are woven into James Wilt’s excellent article in a recent Walrus magazine, We’re Drinking More in the Pandemic — and It’s a Problem here. The alcohol industry is enjoying the profits, but public health is paying the price.

11,343 Rape Kits collected and left untested in a Detroit warehouse

As a leader of Equity Watch, a Nova Scotia organization (equitywatch.ca) dedicated to fighting harassment, discrimination and bullying in the workplace, I appreciate a story published in Harper’s Magazine about two years ago. In Obstruction of Justice: Why the criminal justice system is ill-equipped to prosecute rape charges. You can read it here. Reviewer Charlotte Shane first watches the 2018 documentary film I am Evidence, here is the trailer. Shane notes the film shows that law enforcement is “still saturated with misogyny.” She writes, “When former LA prosecutor Steve Cooley says that rape charges can ruin a man’s life, he echoes the implicit conviction of many entrusted with handling rape cases that the victim is lying or was ‘asking for it’.”

More than 11,000 Rape kits in Detroit, never opened or tested (credit HBO)

Shane reviews three books, Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay; Querying Consent: Beyond Permission and Refusal, edited by Jordana Greenblatt and Keja Valens and all this can be yours, by Isobel O’Hare. The one book I read of the three, is Not that Bad by Roxane Gay – who is a favourite author of mine. In planning her book, Gay recruited reportage and essays by different writers who examined the nature of rape culture. She writes,

“What is it like to live in a culture where It often seems like it is a question of when, not if, a woman will encounter some kind of sexual violence? What is it like for men to navigate this culture whether they are indifferent to rape culture or working to end it or contributing to it in ways significant or small?”

You can rent I am Evidence from Amazon Prime Video, at a cost of $3.99.

What you can do!

The latest webinar Equity Watch is presenting exposes the issue of Non-disclosure Agreements (NDAs). We are having Prof. Julie Macfarlane (Univ. of Windsor) who’s new book Going Public (Between the Lines) recounts her own story of the powers that be trying to shut her down — for speaking out. And the other presenter is Zelda Perkins — who used to work for Harvey Weinstein, signed an NDA or gag order — and broke it to speak out! Don’t miss this free webinar. 4.30 pm (AST), Tues. Mar. 9 — register here! Everyone can sign up here.

The Memory Monster – a great read

The Memory Monster (2020) is an excellent satirical novel. Written by Israeli lawyer and author Yishai Sarid, it is a dark and deep look at the Holocaust – both the Holocaust “industry” as Norman Finkelstein refers to it, and the many historians of the Holocaust.

Book covers of The Holocaust Industry; The Memory Monster, and right: the Holocaust memorial in Ottawa.

The Memory Monster focuses on a young Israeli Jew who is wending his way through his PhD in Holocaust Studies. As a historian, he’s happy to have a job as a professional tour guide for a number of former concentration camps in Poland. The book’s magic lies in the fact that it is written as a long letter to the director of Yad Vashem – the Holocaust Museum in Israel. The director offered him the paying gig as a tour guide. The book is stellar. The want-to-be academic has to usher bleary-eyed Israeli teenagers, bored IDF soldiers, American tourists, among others through the gruesome grounds and buildings of the Nazi death camps and the slave labour camps. He knows and recites details of daily life in the camps and can energetically enumerate the atrocities more than 75 years before. But the more he knows, and the more he wants to impart to the tourists – the less he is rewarded both psychologically and financially.

When he is finally awarded his doctorate, he wants to change things up. He wants to work for Yad Vashem proper – no more commuting to Poland, and depending on gratuities from tourists. But barriers spring up – not the least being the fact he demands respect from the visitors to the death camps — respect for his academic knowledge and for the millions of Hitlers’ victims. You won’t put the book down!

Germany: The Generation of ’68

I recently finished Petra, by Canadian author Shaena Lambert. Though it’s just shy of 300 pages, it took me ages to finish because I didn’t want it to end. Petra is a novel about Petra Kelly, the founder and leader of the German Greens in the 1980s. Kelly was a dynamo, whose teenage years were spent in the US, and moved back to Germany as a young adult. For a heady year or two, the Greens had nine seats in the Bundestag, in Bonn. The book’s narrator is Manfred, a former boyfriend and political comrade —who remained in love with her throughout her lifetime. Spoiler alert: in 1992, she dies by bullet to the head, shot by her lover, before he turned the gun on himself. The book is as surprising as it is sympathetic to her, and to other Greens in West and (the former) East Germany or GDR. Lambert weaves history, family tensions, women’s liberation, green politics, slanted media and intrigue into a novel that really works well. It’s a gem.

Book Cover of Petra

Feature Image above:

The Fall of the Berlin Wall, by Herbert Smagon (1995, German)

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