Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Flickr Fun

I’m eager to push that depressing Blackwater post further down, so here are three great sets from Flickr.

As previously mentioned, I am a big fan of old Penguin/Pelican design. Here’s a set of album covers reimagined as Pelican paperbacks. Here are two sets of different comics artists tackling the same subject matter: David Bowie and Nancy. And Fantagraphics has some exciting news for Nancy fans!

Friday, August 21, 2009


Over the last month there have been some pretty stunning revelations about military contracting company Blackwater—now called Xe . . . obviously they have a failed screenwriter concocting these names for them—and the depth of their involvement with the C.I.A. First, the Nation published this chilling article by Jeremy Scahill (who published a book on the company in 2006), detailing claims “that the company’s owner, Erik Prince, may have murdered or facilitated the murder of individuals who were cooperating with federal authorities investigating the company.” That article also explores Prince’s anti-Muslim (or should that be pro-genocide?) beliefs and how, according to a former employee, “Prince intentionally deployed to Iraq certain men who shared his vision of Christian supremacy, knowing and wanting these men to take every available opportunity to murder Iraqis.” Oh, and there was also some gun smuggling, which almost seems like an innocent lark in light of the first two allegations.

Now the New York Times has published two articles revealing the close dealings the C.I.A. had with these murderous sociopaths. The first looked at Blackwater’s role in an assassination program and the second their involvement in putting bombs on unpiloted drone planes (in other words: the other assassination program). That article also contained the alarming news that Blackwater has a secret division whose
operations are carried out at hidden bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the company’s contractors assemble and load Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs on remotely piloted Predator aircraft, work previously performed by employees of the Central Intelligence Agency. They also provide security at the covert bases, the officials said.

Scahill has a follow-up article which includes this quote from Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky: “Erik Prince operated at the highest and most secret level of the government. Clearly Prince was more trusted than the US Congress because Vice President Cheney made the decision not to brief Congress. This shows that there was absolutely no space whatsoever between the Bush administration and Blackwater.”

I’m sure as time goes by more and more crazy lefty conspiracy theories from the Bush era will be proven to be true. For example, Tom Ridge apparently acknowledges in a forthcoming book that the Bush administration manipulated the terror threat level for political reasons. But what’s insane about these Blackwater revelations is that the U.S. government continues to pay the company millions of dollars. The Obama administration argues these payments are simply continuations of Bush-era contracts, but seriously, is there really no legal means to break a contract with a company that has committed war crimes? And how do the various facts in this paragraph from an earlier Scahill article work out exactly?
[On August 1] the Obama administration extended a contract with Blackwater for more than $20 million for “security services” in Iraq, according to federal contract data obtained by The Nation. The State Department contract is scheduled to run through September 3. In May, the State Department announced it was not renewing Blackwater’s Iraq contract, and the Iraqi government has refused to issue the company an operating license.

Friday, August 7, 2009

1960s/80s Postscript

This summer is really bringing that feedback loop between ’60s and ’80s nostalgia into relief. Michael Jackson’s and John Hughes’s deaths’ coinciding with the Summer of ’69 commemorations—the moon landing, Woodstock, the Manson murders—makes the idea so obvious I almost feel absurd commenting on it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Why Are We So Nostalgic?

In the latest issue of The Wire, David Keenan takes a turn at one of the magazine’s periodic attempts at playing genre taxonomist (see also: post-rock and hauntology). His new genre, “hypnagogic pop,” doesn’t interest me in its particulars all that much, but it does tie into this blog’s unofficial theme: nostalgia. The kids in the bands Keenan writes about were all born in the 1980s, and, according to the article, the pop music of the era seeped into their DNA—even though they’re making weird and noisy music that doesn’t have anywhere near the mainstream appeal of the massively popular MTV hits they’re claiming as influences.

The thing that most caught my attention in the article was the bizarre fact that Don Henley’s 1984 hit “Boys of Summer” is a touchstone for these bands. “Boys” is the kind of incessant radio staple that is less a musical composition and more a grim signifier of the cultural stagnation I was alluding to in this post. If you’d asked me five minutes before reading the article what I thought of the song, without hesitating—or really thinking about it much—I would have told you I hated it. But the incongruity of a bunch of early twenty-something weirdoes taking the song as an important sonic blueprint made me look it up on YouTube.

“Boys” has a cinematic lushness that is emotionally appealing; like a lot of ’80s hits it sounds like it was designed to play over a bittersweet movie’s closing credits. Twenty-five years after the fact, the song’s primitive digital gloss has managed to accrue a patina of strangeness and a naivete it actively avoided at the time of its creation. There’s something about the production that is on the one hand alienating and slickly machine-like and on the other melancholy and haunting.

But what’s most striking to me is that here we have a bunch of young musicians taking a song as a nostalgic key to their youth that is itself about nostalgia for one’s youth. But not just anyone’s youth; Henley’s lyrics are about aging and they’re fairly specific about who is growing older: baby boomers. Henley sings, “out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac / A little voice inside my head said, ‘don’t look back. You can never look back.’”

Anxiety and guilt over ’60s radicals turned ’80s sell-outs was a common cultural trope back then, but more to the point, I wonder if this little feedback loop of nostalgia is symptomatic of why our current moment is so suffused with nostalgia. Anyone who grew up in the ’80s grew up in a climate of constant reminiscence over The Sixties (don’t worry: this isn’t going to be a tiresome rant about boomer cultural dominance, I promise). In other words, anyone born after 1975 or so, grew up in a profoundly nostalgic time, and therefore indulging in nostalgia for your youth can lead to nostalgia for nostalgia, as is the case with “Boys”. Perhaps we’ve also been conditioned for nostalgia—programmed into a preciosity about the past, especially our own, through repeated exposure to things like “Boys of Summer”, A Christmas Story, The Wonder Years, Happy Days, etc.

I think I mentioned in a comment to an earlier post that when I was a kid I didn’t realize Happy Days was made in the ’70s—I thought it was an authentic document of the ’50s much like all the other shows I was watching on Nick at Nite (Donna Reed, et al). I think as we go forward, and as the internet transports almost all cultural production to an eternal now, that kind of temporal blurring will become characteristic of our time.

I don’t think I’ve answered the question posed in the post title, but as I’ve mentioned to a couple of people off-blog, nostalgia is emerging as the guiding concern of Elephant Rock, so this won’t be the last word on it. Whether it can be chalked up to a generational accident of birth, the internet, the cultural decay of late empire, or me entering my curmudgeonly old man phase rather early, how people process, think about, and use the past defines my perspective on the present.