December 15, 2007


Goat Rope is pleased to once again feature a contribution by our official film critic Mr. Sandor Sege (pronounced Shandor Shegg-AY). And, since the holiday season is fast upon us, we have decided to reprint from last year his review of the perenially popular Christmas film "It's a Wonderful Life."

Once again, we must remind our readers that Mr. Sege sustained a head injury whilst crashing into a wall chasing a squeaky toy. As a result, he sometimes transposes the plots of the films he discusses. Nevertheless, we are convinced that his insights into the world of cinema more than compensate for this regrettable shortcoming.

It is our hope that these weekend features will help to elevate the level of public discourse and promote a greater appreciation of both the humanities and the animalities.


OK, so this is like everybody's all time favorite Christmas movie. It's about this Jimmy Stewart guy, except he's pretending to be someone else. That's acting, which sometimes happens in movies.

After he loses a bunch of money and thinks he messed up his whole life, he thinks about killing himself. But just before he throws himself into the river, this big twister comes and picks up his house and drops it on a witch. Only her feet are sticking out. And these little people are real happy about it.

Glenda the Good Witch tells Jimmy/the other guy that he needs to go see the Wizard to figure it all out with this angel named Toto who wants to get his wings. Toto kind of looks like a squeaky toy to me.

So anyway he takes off on the Yellow Brick Road and is joined by some hobbits, an elf and a dwarf. They have to fight off a lot of orcs and trolls, which is kind of cool.

Moomus and Doodus say I look like a cave troll...So anyway, they finally get to the wizard and destroy the ring. And when the bell rings, Jimmy gets his wings and goes back to Kansas.

And here's the thing: he could have got there all along.

The cinematography is outstanding. This is a technical film critic thing, but it's like in these old movies they take a bunch of pictures and show them quickly so it looks like people are moving around. So it looks like there are people moving around.

They say if you play Pink Floyd's The Wall while watching this movie you get real confused and depressed. I think that's only true if you run out of popcorn.


December 14, 2007


Welcome to the final day of Heart of Darkness Week at Goat Rope. What can I say? It seemed like a cheery holiday theme and I happened to be in Washington DC. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier entries.

As mentioned previously, Conrad's novel is recounted by the seaman Marlow to friends sitting at twilight on a boat. Marlow is described more than once as sitting like a Buddha.

I'm not sure how well-versed Conrad was in Buddhism, but that image really fits for this story. Particularly in the Mahayana tradition, it is the essence of a Buddha to overcome the delusions of dualistic thinking, which is the all-to-human tendency to classify the world through binary opposites like self/other, good/bad, us/them.

Dualistic thinking is also at the root of imperialist ideologies, with such pairs as civilized/barbarous, white/black, progress/primitivism, etc. Like Guatama, Marlow has gone beyond these dualities. As much as anything else, this story seems to me to be about setting up many polarities and then relativizing or demolishing them.

Two prominent examples would be colonizer/colonized and light/dark.

When the book was published (1902), Britain was near the apparent summit of its imperial power. It was a place where "the sun never set" and where a popular poet wrote of "the white man's burden."

But as the group gazes at the lights around the Thames, the recounting of the tale of the journey to the Congo begins thus:

"And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth...

"I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago--the other day..."

He imagines what this "dark" country seemed like to a Roman colonizer intent on extracting tribute

Imagine him here--the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke...going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages,--precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falerian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in the wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay--cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death--death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush...

Land in a swamp, march through the wood, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him--all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There's no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination--you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.

...They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force--nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind--as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.

Light and dark are relative and power an accident of history.

A little later, Marlow describes the European city which rules the Congo as "a whited sepulchre," borrowing an image from Jesus' attacks on the Pharisees. The "whiteness" of the imperial city is a superficial layer, concealing darkness, decay and rot within--and we haven't even made it to Africa yet.

Final comment. In a week's worth of writing about this book there's been scarcely a mention of the mad and enigmatic Kurtz who becomes the object of Marlow's quest. The Gentle Reader knows where to find him. He's up the river. Waiting.

WHAT RETIREMENT? Millions of workers, particularly younger ones, have no retirement savings:

More than one out of every three American workers born in 1990 will have zero dollars in a 401(k)-style plan at retirement, a government report said Tuesday, an ominous sign considering many businesses are dumping pension plans.

One step towards a solution would be the creation of universal voluntary accounts that workers could take from job to job and which could help them build the needed savings. Some folks in WV are working to establish such a system at the state level.

SHOUTING HEADS. A new study tells us what we kinda suspected:

Television can encourage awareness of political perspectives among Americans, but the incivility and close-up camera angles that characterize much of today’s “in your face” televised political debate also causes audiences to react more emotionally and think of opposing views as less legitimate.

COUNTING THE COST of the Iraq war is the theme of this op-ed from Madison, WI.

MEGAN WILLIAMS UPDATE. Here's the latest on the planned rally in Charleston.

DEATH PENALTY. New Jersey became the first state in over 40 years to abolish the death penalty, a step that foes of capital punishment hope will signal a larger trend. It is interesting that something seems to be happening at the cultural level. Even in the Bush era, the number of executions has declined dramatically.

URGENT DINOSAUR UPDATE. They found a new one in Antarctica.


December 13, 2007


Caption: The truth behind the lie. Native workers during King Leopold of Belgium's reign of terror in the Congo who failed to meet production quotas were punished by mutilation. Photo courtesy of wikipedia.

Reading Joseph Conrad is always challenging for me. (If this is your first visit, please click on this week's earlier posts for background on the writer and his short novel Heart of Darkness.)

Part of the reason for that may be that Polish rather than English was his first language. On the other hand, I'm not sure he'd be a cakewalk in the original either. But part of the difficulty comes from the truths he related through his fiction.

Heart of Darkness has an odd narrative device. It is told by an unnamed narrator who presumably recounts the story verbatim as told by the well-travelled and world weary Marlow, who is like an Odysseus without a home to strive for.

The setting for the storytelling is liminal. It takes place among a group of old acquaintances on a boat at twilight on the Thames near enough to the sea to feel the tides. Many of the listeners are now landsmen, though all had been to sea in the past. As the silence settles in, Marlow, who is sitting "in the pose of a meditating Buddha," begins the tale of his journey to the "Belgian" Congo which was the site of almost unimaginable colonial brutality 100 years ago (see Monday's post).

There's way too much to the story to do more than indicate here, but here are some choice nuggets from Marlow about imperialism and the ideology that tries to justify it:

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves,is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but and idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea--something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to...."

At the bottom, though, the idea/idol is a lie:

You know I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies--which is exactly what I hate and detest of the world--what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose...

The lie and the taint of death that accompanies it are still with us.

EXPORTING JOBS. The US has lost nearly 3 million manufacturing jobs since 2001, with no end in sight, according to EPI's latest snapshot.

CALL UP THE RESERVES. Cognitive reserves, that is. They may be the key to maintaining mental abilities as we age.

ANOTHER VETO on CHIP yesterday.

MEGAN WILLIAMS CASE. Here's the latest, from yesterday's Gazette. It seems that publicity is more important for some people than the outcome of the trial.


December 12, 2007


Caption: Author Joseph Conrad. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

This week, El Cabrero is attending a conference in DC. I'm savoring the irony of writing about Heart of Darkness within view of the Bush White House.

Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness and many other works, was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Russian-dominated Poland in 1857. His father was convicted by the Czarist government of revolutionary sentiments. The family, including Jozef, was deported to northern Russia, where his mother soon died.

Note: while his parents truly were opposed to Russian rule, one didn't have to work to hard to be convicted of being a revolutionist by that government.

Before he was 20, he signed on as an apprentice on a ship and spent much of the next 20 or so years at sea. Like the narrator Marlow in Heart of Darkness, he sailed the Congo River in 1890 and personally witnessed some of the imperial brutality described in his novel.

I think of Conrad as writing about the apparent apex of colonialism much as Graham Greene wrote about the era of its apparent decline. The story was not intended to be primarily a work of political propaganda, which may have had the odd effect of making its political statement stronger.

But Conrad's concerns were not limited to the political. The darkness that he delved was existential and even cosmic. He seems to be asking what kinds of creatures we are who can do this kind of thing to one another.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, here's an item from Common Dreams about torture, death squads and disappearances from Central America to the Middle East.

OFF BASE. Iraq's government says the US cannot have permanent military bases there. I wasn't aware that they had a choice...

WEIGHED IN THE BALANCE AND FOUND WANTING. That's the verdict of a new study of the Bush administration's Labor Department.


December 11, 2007


Caption: Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Recently El Cabrero re-read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I was struck more than ever by the force of its denunciation of colonialism and imperialism. It was set in the Congo of a century ago, where the "Christian" king Leopold of Belgium and his minions perpetrated a holocaust that rivaled Hitler's. (See yesterday's post.)

I know that the interpretation of this short novel remains controversial. A colleague who is a native of Congo pointed out to me recently that the great writer Chinua Achebe thought that the novel de-humanized Africans by denying them language and culture.

Achebe has a point, but in fairness Conrad would probably get clobbered these days for presuming to speak for Africans as a European. And, with the exception of the narrator, the Europeans in the novel who do speak talk nonsense. Conrad went as far as he could go in this novel, which was pretty far. It is an unmistakable and explosive condemnation of the atrocities perpetrated not so long ago.

I first became aware of Conrad's brutal gem in the late 1970s with the release of the film Apocalypse Now, which is still one of my favorites. The film, as the reader will no doubt recall, was set not in Africa but in Vietnam, but it seems to me to be pretty close in spirit to the novel that inspired it.

But while Apocalypse Now was a film about war, Leopold's holocaust was perpetuated in a time of official "peace" in the name of Christianity, commerce and humanitarianism. Conrad described it best ironically in the tile of this post: "the merry dance of death and trade" whereby millions of people were exploited, exterminated and/or mutilated, physically or otherwise.

Sad to say, the merry dance continues, although generally in a more subtle form.

SHOCK AND ALL. Here's an interesting piece on neocons and the roots of the "shock doctrine" of disaster capitalism which was the subject of Naomi Klein's recent book.

SOCIAL EUTHANASIA. A few years ago, a dear friend and comrade applied for Social Security disability. By the time she finally got it, death was near. As this New York Times article shows, her case was not an isolated one:

Steadily lengthening delays in the resolution of Social Security disability claims have left hundreds of thousands of people in a kind of purgatory, now waiting as long as three years for a decision...

But in the meantime, more and more people have lost their homes, declared bankruptcy or even died while awaiting an appeals hearing, say lawyers representing claimants and officials of the Social Security Administration, which administers disability benefits for those judged unable to work or who face terminal illness.

WHAT DUMB ANIMALS? In lieu of Goat Rope's usual gratuitous animal picture, here's an item on animal intelligence. And here's one about the longstanding bond between animals and fermentation. Drink up!


December 10, 2007


Caption: King Leopold II of Belgium, who claimed the Congo as his personal property, courtesy of Wikipedia.

A recent Business Week cover story asks the question, "Can Greed Save Africa?"

Far be it from me to deny that investments and enterprise have a role in development, but the snarky response that occurred to me was, didn't they try that before?

I'm thinking about the horrible atrocities perpetuated upon Africans by more economically developed countries over several centuries, and particularly about the Belgian plundering of the Congo in the 19th and 20th centuries. This vast area was the personal property of King Leopold II (1835-1909).

As the BBC put it awhile back,

While the Great Powers competed for territory elsewhere, the king of one of Europe's smallest countries carved his own private colony out of 100km2 of Central African rainforest.

He claimed he was doing it to protect the "natives" from Arab slavers, and to open the heart of Africa to Christian missionaries, and Western capitalists.

The result was a massive forced labor system for the extraction of things like ivory and rubber. The BBC estimates the death toll at 10 million, although some estimates are higher. Torture and mutilation were common. It was a human, epidemiological, and ecological disaster.

The atrocities committed there were so over the top that they were condemned by other imperialist powers, much as was the case with Spanish cruelties in the heyday of its empire centuries before.

One missionary was so horrified that he wrote the following to Leopold's agent:

I have just returned from a journey inland to the village of Insongo Mboyo. The abject misery and utter abandon is positively indescribable. I was so moved, Your Excellency, by the people's stories that I took the liberty of promising them that in future you will only kill them for crimes they commit.

The murder and mutilation in there revved up the ire of Mark Twain, who wrote the scathing King Leopold's Soliloquy in 1905.

This was also the setting for Joseph Conrad's short novel, Heart of Darkness, about which more tomorrow.

HEALTH CARE. Here's a good item from a medical journal about universal health care.

MEGAN WILLIAMS UPDATE. It looks like out of state groups plan another event related to this case. The Logan County prosecutor has expressed concerns about the impact of such events in the case against those police say kidnapped and abused the young African-American Woman.

WORKER FREEDOM BILL. If we're ever going to try to expand the ranks of the middle class in this country, restoring the right to organize is an obvious step. Here's an op-ed by one of El Cabrero's buddies, WV AFLCIO secretary-treasurer Larry Matheney about a bill that will be introduced in the 2008 legislative session. Dubbed the Worker Freedom Bill, it would prohibit employers from requiring workers to attend mandatory meetings in which their bosses rant on politics, religion, or the evils of a free labor movement.

CHAMBER OF YOU-FILL-IN-THE-BLANK-CAUSE-MINE'S-UNPRINTABLE. Here's a link from Wired Science about the US Chamber of Commerce's commercial about the evils of doing something about global warming. Tell us another story!