Sunday, July 26, 2020

Hands Up. It's Showtime. “Federal Agents Push into American Streets, Stretching Limits of Their Authority” | The New York Times


Now is the political moment to revisit Kurt Andersen's 2017 Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, “Hands Up. It’s Showtime.”. In it Anderson provides an analysis of the events around Ferguson Missouri, the associated paramilitary response, institutional rhetoric offered as it's rationale, and the ensuing representation seen in the media. “I’ve been studying Americans’ accelerating penchant for blending the fantastical into the real world", writes Anderson, "from Disneyland to reality TV, from themed restaurants to war reenactments to ubiquitous porn to Burning Man. So I started seeing evidence of the phenomenon in some very unlikely places - such as the excessive police response to the protests in 2014 in Ferguson, Mo., where officers with AR-15s in Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter-Attack Trucks struck me as law enforcement doing war-fighting role play, cops playing soldiers on TV. After Ferguson showed Americans just how militarized our police have become, the Obama administration put restrictions on the federal program that had given police departments billions of dollars worth of military equipment. And I thought of the Ferguson spectacle again last week when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that President Trump would be removing all those new limits on the handouts of military hardware. Mr. Trump, of course, is a stupendous embodiment of my theory of the merger of fantasy and reality. As a business hustler and entertainer, then as candidate and president, he peddles over-the-top make-believe from his branded cologne and “university” and Ceausescu-esque residences to his WWE appearances and “The Apprentice” to the tales about millions of illegal 2016 voters and his predecessor’s birthplace. And he has depicted American cities as centers of “carnage,” turned monstrous cops like Joe Arpaio into celebrities, told the very opposite of the truth - “the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years” - and encouraged the police to rough up suspects. Mr. Trump’s view of policing clearly derives from “Dirty Harry” fantasies, with he himself playing the beloved strongman commandant."

We now find ourselves at a social and political crossroads, wherein this "American carnage" has been reenvisioned as our fellow citizens, and can be seen acted out in a number of US cities, such is the case with, “Federal Agents Push into Portland Streets, Stretching Limits of Their Authority”. This has been executed in at least three separate dispatches to cities across the United States, and "From the Start, Federal Agents Demanded a Role in Suppressing Anti-Racist Protests". All of which assigned ludicrous nomenclature like Operation Diligent Valor, and Operation Legend, in addition to the surveillance of protests in at least 15 cities during the months of May and June prior. In the case of the latter, both manned and drone aircraft filmed demonstrations in Dayton, Ohio, New York City, Buffalo, and Philadelphia, among numerous other cities, sending video footage in real time to control centers managed by Air and Marine Operations, a branch of Customs and Border Protection. These all being aspects of a nationwide operation that deployed resources usually used to patrol US borders for smugglers, trafficking, and illegal crossings. As widely reported in most major newspapers, including The Guardian, The Washington Post, New York and The Los Angeles Times, under the claimed auspice of, “The agents in Portland are part of rapid deployment teams assembled by the Department of Homeland Security after Mr. Trump directed federal agencies to deploy additional personnel to protect statues, monuments and federal property during the continuing unrest." The teams, which include 2,000 officials from Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Transportation Security Administration and the Coast Guard, "are supporting the Federal Protective Service, an agency that already provides security at federal properties." These agents have been dispatched to Portland, Seattle and Washington, D.C., Customs and Border Protection have also sent drones, helicopters and planes to conduct surveillance of the protests across the country. But in truth, many of the arrests detailed in the articles contained herein are far removed from the federal sites in question, and no clear crimes are seen being committed in much of the footage or first-person accounts. In addition, as reported by the Los Angeles Times below, federal agents appeared to fire less-lethal munitions from slits in the facade of the federal courthouse, one officer walked the street while swinging a burning ball emitting tear gas, and camouflaged personnel drove in unmarked vans making arrests outside of the federal properties they are deployed to protect. Subsequently, Oregon state officials have a very different take on the motives and objectives of the dispatch of these federal troops, and have confronted the Justice Department and Homeland Security, "Portland Mayor to Trump: Get Your Troops Out of the City".

“Governor Brown said in an interview that she asked the acting homeland security secretary, Chad F. Wolf, to remove federal officials from the streets and that he refused. She said the Trump administration appeared to instead be using the situation for photo-ops to rally his supporters. “They are provoking confrontation for political purposes,” Ms. Brown said. Mr. Wolf, who arrived in Portland on Thursday, called the protesters a “violent mob” of anarchists emboldened by a lack of local enforcement. In response Wolf dispatched, “Federal Agents Unleash Militarized Crackdown on Portland”, and to which, "Portland Mayor Demands Trump Remove Federal Agents from City". In a statement, "Brown, said Trump was looking for a confrontation in the hopes of winning political points elsewhere, and for a distraction from the coronavirus pandemic, which is causing rising numbers of infections in Oregon and across the nation. Brown’s spokesman, Charles Boyle, said arresting people without probable cause was “extraordinarily concerning and a violation of their civil liberties and constitutional rights”. The Oregon attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, said she would file a lawsuit in federal court against the US Department of Homeland Security, the Marshals Service, Customs and Border Protection, and Federal Protection Service, alleging they have violated the civil rights of Oregonians by detaining them without probable cause. She will also seek a temporary restraining order against them. The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon said the federal agents appear to be violating people’s rights, which “should concern everyone in the United States”. But beyond generating content for the media cycle and current and future political campaigns, the normalizing effects of such misuses of power will have other far-reaching implications as noted by Jason Stanley, Yale philosophy professor and author of “How Fascism Works”. “Now, the spectacle should already worry us, because he did the spectacle in Lafayette Square,” Stanley writes, referring to Trump’s violent clearance of peaceful protesters from a park near the White House in June. "Then he did the spectacle in Portland. And when you allow too much spectacle, as it gets worse over time, people start to say, ‘This has been happening for awhile, what’s the big deal?’ The spectacle normalizes, and then you can’t tell - say it’s November - you can’t tell if it’s still spectacle any more."
Illustration credit: Daniel Zender

Thursday, July 9, 2020

“A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” | Harper's Magazine


In rapid succession over the course of a week following Matt Taibbi's “The American Press is Destroying Itself”, there came an open letter published by Harper’s magazine, signed by luminaries including Margaret Atwood, Wynton Marsalis, Salman Rushdie, and Noam Chomsky, which argued for openness to opposing views. The debate began immediately, as the New York Times coverage conveys, "Artists and Writers Warn of an ‘Intolerant Climate.’ Reaction is Swift.". A surgically precise and more insightful response to the instantaneous backlash can be found in the pages of Reason magazine from journalist and the host of "Blocked and Reported", signatory Jesse Singal, “The Reaction to the Harper's Letter on Cancel Culture Proves Why It Was Necessary”. Outside the optics of identity, and the associated discussions of merit through which it is being considered, the letter is assuredly one of the higher profile and culturally significant statements of its kind. Linked herein is the open letter published in the October edition of Harper’s for all to deliberate, “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”.

"Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides."

"The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought."

"More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement."

"This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us."
Illustration credit: Dan Bejar

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Japan Cuts 2020 Edition: Jul 17 - 30 & Nippon Connection Jun 9 - 14 | Contemporary Japanese Cinema Virtual Theatrical Exhibitions



Worldwide, the organizers of film festivals scheduled for the spring and summer have responded to the pandemic in a variety of ways. Generally by cancelling altogether, optimistically postponing, or going online with virtual theatrical exhibitions. Even Cannes, the world's most prestigious and influential festival will not be hosting a physical edition. But have instead opted to organize events in other festivals in the coming year, what they termed “Cannes hors les murs”. Cannes also joined Berlin, Venice, Toronto, New York and other major film festivals to present last month's free live streaming fundraiser, We Are One: A Global Film Festival. Concurrently there are also a number of significant Asian and Japanese-specific festivals that have found themselves unable to host a physical edition this year and have transitioned into the virtual. From which The Japan Times have assembled an overview, "Asia-themed Film Festivals Migrate Online Amid Coronavirus Pandemic". These festivals continue to represent and offer a bounty of cinema over the course of the two decades since the Japanese cinema explosion of the 1990s. The directors who led that wave; Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Takeshi Kitano, Naomi Kawase, and Takashi Miike, are still among the industry's most high profile faces on the international festival circuit. Contemporaneously, a new generation of filmmakers are also making themselves heard. Though one is hard-pressed to see the abundance offered by these voices in domestic theaters. Particularly regionally here in the northwest as we have seen a significant dropoff of such titles in the programming offered in the once-abundant Seattle International Film Festival. Make no mistake, while there is a dearth to be seen on domestic screens, this is not representative of the volume and quality still issuing from Japanese film culture. Taste of Cinema's 2017 overview goes some way to assert this, with their substantial serving offered in the "The 25 Best Japanese Movies of The 2010s (So Far)".

2015 was a standout year for this set of rising new directors, it saw the domestic release of Shunji Iwai's disorienting urban drama, "A Bride for Rip Van Winkle", Ryusuke Hamaguchi's 5-hour domestic tranquility stunner, "Happy Hour", and Koji Fukada taking home the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes for “Harmonium”. In many regards, this "New Wave of Japanese Filmmakers Matches the Old". Of them, it could be said that "Fukada’s Filmmaking is a Breath of Fresh Air" following most explicitly in the footsteps of Kiyoshi Kurosawa in his darkly pessimistic take on the concerns that comprise modern Japanese life. It is not long before it becomes clear that, "In ‘Harmonium,’ a Family has Let the Wrong One In". As well as directorial debuts from new voices like Isamu Hirabayashi and Kiyoshi Kurosawa student, Yui Kiyohara who arrived with her fully formed "Our House". There have also been strong returns offered by "Sion Sono's Set of Films That Don’t Fit His Bad-Boy Label", and Takahisa Zeze's miraculous transformation seen in "The Chrysanthemum and the Guillotine", offering up a whole new array of concerns around, "Takahisa Zeze's Crime, Punishment, and Transcendence". San Francisco's Japan Film Festival, and New York's Japan Cuts have been two of the standard-bearers for representing this ongoing issuance of quality film from Japan, as are examples seen in European settings like Frankfurt's Nipppon Connection. For further reading, The Japan Times feature highlights the unexpected convergence of quality and volume on offer from the latter, "Frankfurt's Nippon Connection Brings Together an Extensive Collection of Japanese Films". There's also no shortage of excellence presented annually by Japan Society's North American setting of, "Japan Cuts Film Festival at Japan Society Emphasizes the Eccentric". Year in and year out, the festival offers "Asian Cinema That Pauses for Reflection", "Life in the No-Go Zone of Fukushima and Two Views on Husbandry", "The Hard Road of the Japanese Documentary Maker", and generally an expansive representation of, "The Best of Contemporary Japanese Cinema".

By way of example, this year's online edition of Nippon Connection saw the memorable feature length oddity of Isamu Hirabayashi "Shell & Joint", the excellent Sakura Ando boxing vehicle from Masaharu Take "100 Yen Love". Documentary and genre works are presented,  Sabu's supernatural "Dancing Mary", the tough skinned urban realities of Tetsuya Nakashima's "World of Kanako", Sion Sono trying his hand at sci-fi in "Whispering Star", and the documentary on progressive journalist Isoko Mochizuki, by Tatsuya Mori "I-Documentary of the Journalist". There's also groundbreaking anime to be had in Masaki Yuasa's follow up to his award-winning "The Tatami Galaxy", "The Night is Short, Walk On Girl", and Keiichi Hara's historic "Miss Hokusai". Urban life is painted in very different hues by Yukiko Mishima in "Shape of Red", and Takafumi Tsuchiya's "Flowers & Rain". Inspired by Roc Morin's "How to Hire Fake Friends and Family" for The Atlantic, Werner Herzog delivers one of the slipperiest of his indistinguishable hybrids of documentary and fiction, "Family Romance LLC", and "Nobuhiko Obayashi, Unpredictable Japanese Director", leaves us his final film as a "Labyrinth of Cinema". Similarly there's some overlap to be had in this year's online iteration of Japan Cuts. Hirabayashi's "Shell & Joint" is on offer, as is Obayashi's final film, and a documentary on the late director as well. If one missed any of Yoji Yamada's serial films focused on the imperturbable Tora-san, there's a quartet being presented, from his first to the fiftieth, and a few in between. This year's winner of the prestigious Kinema Junpo award, Haruhiko Arai's "It Feels So Good", will surely be a highlight, as will Takuya Misawa's "The Murders of Oiso". "Snow on the Blades" director Setsuro Wakamatsu makes a return with star power and melodrama in "Fukushima 50", and "One Cut of the Dead" director Shinichiro Ueda is back again with some, "Special Actors". Tadanobu Asano likely had a wonderful time making Toshiyaki Toyoda's spirited response to his wrongful arrest. New films by rising directors can be found from the assistant director on Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Journey to the Shore" Taku Tsuboi, as well as the passion project from Hirokazu Kore-eda protege, Nanako Hirose. Also appealing are award-winning mentions for relative unknowns Anshul Chauhan, and the intensity on offer from newcomer Ryo Katayama. Discussions on labor and class, with a dash of "the humanistic impulses of Kenji Mizoguchi", from Kana Yamada, and a tender and quietly devastating roadtrip drama, seen as a bridging of adolescence and adulthood in this Berlin Film Festival Special Mention from Nobuhiro Suwa.