The Sadism of Joss Whedon

After the first episode of the Dollhouse I was markedly not impressed. It may not ever be explicit in the plot, but it’s certainly clear external to the plot that the Dollhouse is a whore house. That’s the whole premise of the tantalizing advertising campaign. They are not delivering hostage negotiators or assassins. The hard drives in the mezzanine laboratory are full of sex kitten fantasy lives. In the flashback scene to Echo’s induction into the Dollhouse, Adelle DeWitt offers her the chance to make amends, but Echo objects that she doesn’t really have a choice, does she? It’s third-world sex slavery brought to the high-tech first world.

But I think that Joss Whedon is not confused about whether or not he’s an artist. He’s fully aware that it’s his job to turn out a product that gathers eyeballs to the FOX ad stream. And a house full of stoned-eyed, will-less, child-like babes wandering aimlessly in their yoga outfits clearly has appeal for a certain demographic. Apparently dropping the false power suite professionalism in favor of after-hours yoga-clad submissiveness is the new yuppie sexuality.

Where Whedon is an artist is that in his productions, the joke is on the studio and on us. It was no accident that the premiere of a series that’s about a bunch of sex slaves leads with an episode where one of the slaves is sent out as a hostage negotiator instead of on a sexual escapade. In the final scene where Echo goes into the kitchen to retrieve the kidnapped girl from the refrigerator, I expected the refrigerator to be upright against the wall, like refrigerators usually are, but instead it was horizontal on the ground — just like the sleeping chambers to which the Actives are sent at day’s end. “He doesn’t return them. He keeps them — until he’s done with them, or until they’re worn out,” Echo says of the kidnapper. Just like the Dollhouse will use up the Actives. The Actives are a bunch of sexual kidnap victims and episode one was Whedon accusing his entire audience of fantasizing their sexual molestation. It’s the same thing that Oliver Stone did with Natural Born Killers.

Combined with tonight’s episode, I’d say that the series is off to a pretty Sadistic start.

And is it just a coincidence that Harry Lennix, a total Barack Obama look- and sound-alike, has been cast as Echo’s handler? Does the entire country get its mind wiped clean and returned to a child-like state of naïveté after each mission? But at least we’ve got a fatherly overseer in whom we can place our complete trust.

The Iconography of Barack Obama: The First American

26 January 2009 The New Yorker and 14 February 2009 Economist, both with Barack Obama as George Washington

See what I’m sayin’. A lot has been made of President Obama’s appropriation of Abraham Lincoln, but why stop there. Obama is the every-president. The 26 January 2009 issue of The New Yorker put Drew Friedman’s illustration, “The First” on the cover and the 14 February 2009 issue of The Economist has for its cover a parody of Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, both featuring Barack Obama as George Washington.

Freedom Safely Delivered to Future Generations

Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Listening to President Obama’s Inaugural Address with the variable sound quality on the Mall, I thought it was okay. An inaugural address should be more high principle and values than policy specifics and argumentation. Does the President know that he has a State of the Union Address in like 20 days? Save all of the detail and proposals and the laundry lists for then. And there was a too much of the boilerplate political rhetoric about our children and the future and freedom, et cetera.

But on a second listening, the rhetoric remains a little too detailed, but the overarching structure of the Address stands out to me, and within their context, a few lines become brilliant. The Address is constructed as a meditation on Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware (above; higher resolution version here).

As SLOG’s reporter onsite Christopher Frizzelle points out (“A Review of the Speech from the Third Row,” 20 January 2009), the Address is bookended by images of storms and ice. The new President starts by saying,

The words [of the oath] have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms.

And ends with similar imagry:

… in this winter of our hardship … let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come

Mr. Frizzelle characterizes it thus:

He is doing there what poets, namely the Romantic poets, used to do better than anyone — expressing the emotional / psychological plane of reality in terms of weather, pastoral phenomena, landscape.

The coda of the speech, the closing invocation of ice and storms, is a description of one of the darker moments during the Revolutionary War. In July of 1776 the British had landed on Staten Island and for the remainder of the year dealt a string of defeats to the Continental Army, capturing New York City, driving the Continental Army into retreat up Manhattan, across New Jersey and across the Delaware river into Pennsylvania. Washington’s army had been reduced from 19,000 to 5,000 and the Continental Congress abandoned Philadelphia anticipating British capture when the campaign season resumed in spring. It was, as President Obama described it, “a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt.”

The Continental Army encamped at McKonkey’s Ferry, Pennsylvania where General George Washington plotted a surprise attack back across the Delaware River. It was an especially unconventional move as the British had assumed the campaigning season over and established winter quarters. As President Obama relates, prior to the Christmas night crossing of the Delaware River General Washington ordered that a reading be made amidst the soldiers. The words are not General Washington’s, but those of Thomas Paine. Mr. Paine had been traveling with the Continental Army and his pamphlet, The American Crisis had just been published. It was this from that General Washington judged that the night’s inspiration would be drawn. The line that President Obama quoted from Paine is this:

Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.

The victory won at the Battle of Trenton resulted in a turn away from the flagging morale of the Continental Army. When the British attempted to retake Trenton on 3 January 1777, they were outmaneuvered and quite nearly driven out of New Jersey.

The central arc of President Obama’s speech, set between the two snows and storms, reflects Thomas Paine’s image of “the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive.” Since it’s Barack Obama, the hope part goes without saying at this point, no? So the body of the speech addresses itself to the virtues by which the country will meet our “common danger.” Here I would like to make a list of examples, but the surprising thing about rereading this speech is how his description of the various virtues defies a simple list. They are often painted in contrasts, or without directly saying their name. I think something like constancy is a good example. “We are the keepers of this legacy.” “… the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages.” For an obvious example, he says,

Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old.

Even when listing other values, constancy — “these things are old” — underlies them all. One of the best parts of the speech for me, especially as a leftist, was the President’s paean to workers, especially “men and women obscure in their labor.”

Among all these virtues, one receives particular recognition: unity, self-sacrifice, the common good, the gaze toward something greater than one’s self. “[Our predecessors] saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.” “We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.” The cynics have forgotten “… what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose …” “… more united, we cannot help but believe … that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve …”

Look again now at Mr. Leutze’s painting. It’s most outstanding characteristics are an imposing river of ice between the Continental Army and the New Jersey shore, a tumult of citizen soldiers raging in boats and on the near shore. In the midst of this chaos and struggle rises the figure of General Washington, unperturbed, resolute, beyond the fray, his face fixed on distant goals and illuminated by the bursting sky.

Then study the crew of the boat. It is a microcosm of the colonies. The two oarsmen in the bow of the boat are a Scotch (note the Scottish bonnet) and an African American. There are two farmers in broad-brimmed hats toward the back. The man at the stern of the boat is quite possibly a Native American (note the satchel). There is an androgynous rower in red who is perhaps supposed to be suggestive of women. “… our patchwork heritage is our strength.”

Return now to President Obama’s Address. In this winter of adversity what persists are our virtues, above all unity. The icy currents of the bookends of the speech are the Delaware River, the middle arc of the virtues of the nation are the boat with its diverse crew of rebel irregulars. And consider the last line of the Address, “… with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.” It is a description of General Washington, father and symbol of the nation, rising out of the clamor of peoples — out of many, one — illuminated, gazing toward the future of freedom safely delivered over to the other side.

I’m not exactly a nationalist or a collectivist. I’m not so hot on all the unity talk. I more prefer an individualist, contending interest groups theory of politics. We are most markedly not one people and to say otherwise is the propaganda of an agenda. But if you dig Romanticist nationalism, then President Obama in his Inaugural Address is your artist-president, poet-in-chief.

The Transition from Idealism to Power

For all the idealism and slogans of the campaign trail, what I see in the moves of the last few days — in the selection of Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff, in his politicianly reticence at Friday’s press conference, in his meeting with Senator McCain — is a man making preparations for the actuality of governance, of the exercise of power, of making the necessary compromises between idealism and the hard reality of the achievable.

Along similar lines, here’s Ezra Klein (“Legislator-in-Chief,” TAPPED, 16 November 2008):

… the success of Obama’s presidency is dependent on his ability to navigate an increasingly dysfunctional Congress, and that the ability to pass bills through the institution requires pretty fair knowledge of how it works and pretty good relationships with the key players. Clinton didn’t have that. He entered office and showed very little respect for congressional expertise, surrounding himself with trusted associates from Arkansas and young hotshots from his campaign. Obama is not making the same mistake.

I’m essentially pro-establishment. All that hoary stuff of Sarah Palin on the campaign trail about shaking up Washington and the evils of Washington insiders is just junk pander to an ignorant public. Washington, D.C. — any center of power — is a complex place. Knowledge of the workings of Congress, of the bureaucracy, of all the hangers-on, especially the unofficial, undocumented byways, counts.

A point that S. made this weekend is that there is a difference between being an advocate and being a policy maker in a position of power. Al Gore has said that he feels he can best advance his agenda from outside of government and that may sound like something that someone in his position just says. But Mr. Gore can adopt an uncompromising position that the United States should be completely off of fossil fuels within ten years. And President-elect Obama has embraced that position on the campaign trail. But here is the contrast of actual governance. President Obama will probably pursue a more mixed agenda on energy and climate change because he has to make policy of principle and that will involve grabbing at what can be had in the current political environment, bringing in fence-sitters and even some opponents to a comprehensive, compromise package.

I would say that so far President-elect Obama is looking pretty shrewd and his choices are already giving me confidence.

The Current Climate

The Onion’s post-election analysis (“Nation Finally Shitty Enough To Make Social Progress,” Issue 44-45, 5 November 2008):

Carrying a majority of the popular vote, Obama did especially well among women and young voters, who polls showed were particularly sensitive to the current climate of everything being fucked. Another contributing factor to Obama’s victory, political experts said, may have been the growing number of Americans who, faced with the complete collapse of their country, were at last able to abandon their preconceptions and cast their vote for a progressive African-American.

Citizens with eyes, ears, and the ability to wake up and realize what truly matters in the end are also believed to have played a crucial role in Tuesday’s election.

Deliver Me From These Awful Debates

I’m the kind of person who gets wound up over the State of the Union Address like it were the Super Bowl, but both these debates bored the life out of me. I was looking at the clock and whishing for it to be over. I blame it on the Senate: it’s too insular a world. When Senator McCain said that he had written a letter to the Treasury Secretary that Senator Obama had not signed, that he whishes we could see that letter, I was one impressed customer. You wrote a letter. I’ll bet the Treasury Secretary wound up the entire department and wrote one back. God! If the next president would just write a letter to Wall Street or to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, I’ll bet they would write letters back too.

And John McCain’s jokes were such insufferable stinkers. His stilted humor is the perfect analog to his person. And what was up with that bizarre attack on Tom Brokaw?

And where is the Barack Obama of the prepared statements? Take away rehearsal and he’s just another quibbling, rambling Senator lost in the shuffle. In the last debate when he stammered for what seemed like two or three minutes trying to get out the name of that thing we did with those other countries about those big bombs I couldn’t believe it. “The Nuclear … uh … uh … Proliferation … uh … Agreement.” It’s a treaty. What’s so hard about that?

Tom Brokaw was a dud of a moderator. Where the hell did he dig up that completely arbitrary non sequitur about holding Congress to a two year deadline to reform Social Security? Why not the proverbial first hundred days?

People who say that one candidate or the other won are either spin-meisters or possessed of higher levels of discernment than me. I think that these debates are completely inconsequential for the outcome a month from now.

The Democrats Reborn?

I’m trying to keep up my jaundiced eye here, but I feel like tonight I have seen a Democratic party unlike any I have seen before in my lifetime. Walter Mondale was perhaps the last of the old guard still to possess some fight, but after that, not Dukakis, or Clinton, or Al Gore or John Kerry. They all seemed too timid, too poll tested, too cowed. First last night in Joe Biden’s speech and then again tonight in Barack Obama’s I heard a Democratic party unbowed, spirited, confident.

Senator Biden’s introduction by his son and his own discussion of his family was surprisingly emotional and seemingly so for everyone involved. His speech was the version of values that Democrats should be putting forward, it was tough on foreign policy, and unlike Democrats for the last eight years, effortlessly sincere, uncontrived. As Matthew Yglesias pointed out (“It’s Biden,” ThinkProgress, 23 August 2008), the selection of Biden for VP “signals as desire to take the argument to John McCain on national security policy” and deliver to voters “a full-spectrum debate about the issues facing the country rather than a positional battle in which one party talks about the economy and the other talks about national security.” In Joseph Biden I think I first, finally saw a different, rejuvenated Democrats.

The same was true for Barack Obama’s speech tonight. His cadence was off in places, but it was defiant, pugilistic and signaled to me that the Senator has absorbed all the right lessons about the campaign. I think many of the myths that have plagued the Senator as well as the party at large for the last few weeks have been definitively left behind after tonight. It showed some of the populism that worked so well for Al Gore in the final weeks of the 2000 election. My favorite part, like with Senator Biden, was when Senator Obama took the foreign policy issue by the horns:

You don’t defeat — you don’t defeat a terrorist network that operates in 80 countries by occupying Iraq. You don’t protect Israel and deter Iran just by talking tough in Washington. You can’t truly stand up for Georgia when you’ve strained our oldest alliances.

If John McCain wants to follow George Bush with more tough talk and bad strategy, that is his choice, but that is not the change that America needs.

If Chris Matthews waxing rapturous is any indication, then he achieved everything he needed to do. After Chris Matthews, what more can you ask for? Who knows, maybe even Maureen Dowd will write a positive review. I think McCain’s speech a week from now will look pretty wooden in comparison.

My only concern is as, I think it was Patrick Buchanan said last night, after a week of the Republicans ripping into Senator Obama next week, the Democrats may regret going so easy on Senator McCain. Alternately, Democrats may finally have learned that you have to run your negative stuff stealth.