Has My PhD Thesis Become Relevant Again in the Age of Trump?

January 21, 2018

One year into the Trump Administration, I am starting to conclude that my PhD thesis – entitled The Making of a Cultural Moment: Mel Gibson’s “Passion” Goes to the Movies – is becoming relevant again.

Part of my thesis dealt with how movies can reflect our cultural, political, economic and social obsessions – although not always directly, and not exactly in the ways we expect. The most interesting films are those that coincide with our immediate fascinations, meaning that a film – often years in the making – has had some “clue” as to what else was “burbling” along in the collective unconscious and our body politic, a long time before it became apparent to the rest of us.

Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was such a film, coinciding – and helping to create – a “cultural moment”.

And what is our current “moment”? Or, rather the question is, what are contemporary films telling us about our current moment?

Steven Spielberg’s The Post is an obvious one. Some selections:

  • “When a film is bang on the moment, as “The Post” is determined to be, what will remain of its impact when the moment is past? Maybe Spielberg, Streep, and Hanks are possessed, like many of their compatriots, by a deeper dread. Maybe they think that the moment is here to stay.” – Anthony Lane in The New Yorker
  • “At a pivotal time in American history, the government was preventing the press from getting the news out, on the grounds that it would do injury to national security.” – Manohla Dargis in The New York Times
  • The Post is the story of a legacy, but it’s also a rallying cry.” – Stephanie Zacharek in Time magazine
  • The Post examines a crucial moment in American journalism from more than 45 years ago, although the film clearly invites viewers to see the material’s gripping contemporary relevance.” – Tim Grierson in Screen Daily

And what do the other recent Golden Globe nominees (and possible Oscar winners) tells us about our moment?

  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (women’s empowerment, #metoo, Black Lives Matter)
  • The Shape of Water (immigration controls and fear of the other)
  • Get Out (Black Lives Matter and fear of the other)
  • I, Tonya (women’s empowerment)
  • Lady Bird (women’s empowerment)
  • The Greatest Showman (a metaphor for the current President?)
  • Dunkirk (are we strategically withdrawing? if so, from what?)
  • Call Me By Your Name (gay marriage, gender diversity)

Another connector between movies and life – at least life, political-style as experienced in the USA – is the well-known figure of Stephen K. Bannon, who seems to court controversy wherever he goes. In a telling New York Times article dated June 26, 2005 (“On the Right Side of the Theater Aisle”), journalist James Ulmer starts this way, quoting Bannon:

The film producer Stephen K. Bannon isn’t just on a crusade. He’s on a roll.

“Look at Feb. 25, 2004 — a watershed week for the Hollywood right,” he said in his Santa Monica office while scribbling a circle around the word “Lord” on his whiteboard. “On Ash Wednesday, ‘The Passion of the Christ’ is released theatrically, and on Sunday, ‘Lord of the Rings’ — a great Christian allegory — wins 11 Academy Awards. So here you have Sodom and Gomorrah bowing to the great Christian God, and did you guys notice? No, because 99 per cent of the content in the media’s sewage pipes is the culture of death, not life.”

Bannon – one of America’s greatest recent practitioners of the art of reinvention – understood back in 2005 the strong connection between American popular culture and American political life – an important theme in my thesis – and honed his skills in subsequent years. So much so that he rose just about as high as you can in political life (White House Chief Strategist to the President) before a spectacular fall. A great podcast from NPR’s Embedded program (“How Steve Bannon’s Time In Hollywood Changed Him”) from October 2017 illustrates how well Bannon was schooled in US movies before his move to politics.

The truth about the “current moment” is that it is awfully hard to know what is until it has passed, making the notion of “current” difficult to discern.

But it’s worth trying, and our movies are a great place to start.

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Paul Wellstone remembered

August 20, 2017

My tribute to the late Senator Paul Wellstone has been published on the official Wellstone website. This tribute is an updated version of what I wrote in 2002 in the Australian Jewish News, and re-printed on this blog in 2009.

On 20 July 2017 here in Sydney, I made a presentation at a Economics Society of Australia conference (“Economics for Better Lives”) on Australian inequality and vocational education and training. I dedicated my presentation to Paul Wellstone.

“We should never separate the lives we live from the words we speak. To me, the most important goal is to live a life consistent with the values I hold dear and to act on what I believe in.” – Paul Wellstone, The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2001, p. ix

Two photos of Paul below: his official Senate photo, and teaching as a young man (roughly the time I met him):


Film review of Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

May 27, 2017

This review of “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” appeared in a different form in the Australian Jewish News on 25 May 2017.

Written and directed by Joseph Cedar; starring Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Hank Azaria, Steve Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Michael Sheen

When American-born Israeli film-maker Joseph Cedar releases a new movie, the film world pays attention. Prior to his latest film, “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” (hereafter, “Norman”, opening this week in Australia), two of his four films received best foreign film Oscar nominations (“Beaufort” and “Footnote”). His other two – “Time of Favor” and “Campfire” – won best picture at the “Ophir” awards, the Israel “Oscars”.

“Norman” stars Richard Gere as Norman Oppenheimer, a sixty-ish New York business consultant (“Oppenheimer Strategies”) who is always on the make. People avoid him on the street because he is always asking them for something. Even his nephew – corporate lawyer Philip Cohen (British actor Michael Sheen, from “The Queen”) – tries to stay away. He pushes into social situations unannounced: when he “crashes” a fancy townhouse dinner party hosted by Jewish philanthropist Taub (Josh Charles), the effect is excruciating – humiliation writ large.

The Washington Post film critic accurately describes Norman as a macher, schnorrer and mensch all rolled together. He’s as complex a Jewish character as we have ever seen on screen, all the more fascinating because the audience knows almost nothing about him. He says he has a daughter, but nobody knows her. Does Norman have an office? Not clear. He appears to be on the Board of his synagogue, where he listens to choir practice for relaxation. He assists the Board with fundraising, and is friends with the rabbi, gleefully played by character actor Steve Buscemi. Richard Gere’s driven and hyperactive performance is breathtaking, avoiding the self-pity of many Woody Allen characters, to which there is some affinity; think “Broadway Danny Rose” and “The Front”. This Norman is both natty (he wears a cool camel hair coat) and desperately seeking approval.

Norman’s life changes when he discovers Micha Eshel (Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi), a junior Israeli trade minister, at a New York conference. Norman follows Eshel to a fancy shoe stop, and inveigles to buy the Israeli an expensive pair of shoes. They become friends, of a sort, and develop a transactional relationship assists both of them: through connections, Norman assists Micha’s son to get into Harvard. We don’t quite know what Norman gets from Micha, but it’s enough to repay his shoe investment many times over.

Some years later, Micha becomes Prime Minister, and warmly and publicly greets Norman at an AIPAC conference in Washington DC. Norman kvells with pride, later detailing his relationship with Micha to New York lawyer Alex Green (Charlotte Gainsbourg, daughter of Serge) on the train back to New York – the beginning of his “tragic fall”. This is writer/director Cedar in his best blackly comic mode. Some people do hilarious – and very stupid – things, and their actions return to bite them.

My favourite parts of the film were the ones in Hebrew with Prime Minister Eshel. So many American Presidents appear in dramatic films, so it’s fascinating to see a contemporary (albeit fictional) Israeli Prime Minister on screen.

A constant sense of unease underlies “Norman”, which may make some viewers uncomfortable. In Norman Oppenheimer, writer/director Cedar does not go for easy laughs, presenting us with a complicated and flawed character, in relationship to many other flawed characters – all of them Jewish. Recommended for those who are willing to pay attention to words that matter.

(above: Richard Gere and Lior Ashkenazi in “Norman”)


Summer reading for the Australian Prime Minister

December 30, 2014

Back in mid-December, The Grattan Institute – a Melbourne-based Australian “think tank” – launched it’s annual “Summer Reading List for the Prime Minister”, which for those of you unfamiliar with Australia is Tony Abbott.

It’s a cute concept, and is based on the rationale that:

Summer is a great time to relax with friends and family, to take a holiday, to reflect on the year past – and to read. During the year it can be hard to find time for reading. Our ministers and MPs have less free time than the rest of us…. The list contains books and articles that we believe the Prime Minister – or indeed any Australian – will find stimulating over the break. They’re all good reads that say something interesting about Australia, the world and the future.

This year’s list includes five books and one article:

Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, by Michael Ignatieff, Harvard political scientist and historian, and “failed” Canadian politician – a fascinating read for those of us who have ever entertained the thought of entering politics, with the pitfalls painfully detailed.
Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession, by James Brown, a defense analyst and former army officer who is critical of the ANZAC legend.
A Rightful Place: Race, Recognition and a More Complete Commonwealth, by Noel Pearson, national Indigenous leader.
The Golden Age, by Joan London, a love story set in a Perth polio clinic – a new novel.
The Wife Drought: Why Women Need Wives and Men Need Lives, by Annabel Crabb, one of Australia’s top political reporters and broadcasters, who has marked herself out as both incisive but and yet good-humoured.  The title pretty much says it all.
– “The Inequality Puzzle”, a short journal article by Lawrence H. Summers, former President of Harvard University, his review of Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, published in Democracy Journal; see full article here.

I am critical of this last choice, not because I disagree with Summers, but why not recommend the whole book?  If we are going to recommend essays for our Prime Minister to read, there are many better contemporary essays than this one.  I have described this concern with inequality as a “zeitgeist moment”, with lots of attention here in Australia.  Every couple of weeks there are additional analyses.  Not long ago, Bill Gates (Microsoft founder) wrote a review of the book.  In May, The Economist summarised Piketty’s thesis in a pithy (four paragraph) article.  Also in May, The Economist explained (“Le French Touch”) why Piketty’s book is more popular in the USA and places like Australian than in his native France:  some believe that it is not sufficiently left-wing to appeal to French intellectuals.  So the last is truly an odd and misleading choice.  Isn’t the whole idea of reading books during the summer (for those too busy during the year) actually to read the whole (or most of) the book?

Enough criticism.  What would you include on your list?  And what would you nominate for your national leader’s summer list, if you live in the USA, Canada, the UK, New Zealand or elsewhere?  (Okay, it’s only summer in New Zealand at the moment, but the idea is the same.)


The USA on Australian Television: Two must-see shows on SBS

November 22, 2012

If you live in Australia, it’s not too late to start watching the best two hours of weekly quality American television documentary we have going right now.  Appearing each Tuesday evening on SBS One are two outstanding (and astonishingly relevant) four-part series: America in Prime Time (about American television) at 8.30pm and Clinton (part of the “American Experience” series, about Bill and Hillary Clinton) at 9.30pm.

These two series (we have had the first two hour-long episodes of the four already) go well beyond the breathless reporting on American media/culture (the former series) and politics (the latter series) that usually passes for “informed” analysis.  Both were produced originally for the American Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) network (yes, the one that Mitt Romney wanted to “de-fund”).

The Clinton series also has extraordinary timing:  Hillary Clinton just visited Australia, in Perth for a series of meetings with senior Australian politicians for “AUSMIN” talks.  The difference between the Hillary Clinton we saw this past week on the SBS (the early, naive, years of the Clinton Administration in 1993) and the Hillary of now – November 2012 – is amazing. The poised, confident and experienced politician Hillary has moved a long way in the last 19 years.  She is also a political survivor, and able to reinvent herself successfully – first as a very successful Senator from the State of New York and then as a very successful Secretary of State (and hey, didn’t she just help broker the Israel-Gaza cease fire?).  She tried for the Presidency three years ago, losing the nomination to Barack Obama, and she may yet try again in 2016. Somehow I doubt it, but that still does not diminish the oustandingly successful  journey she has been on during the last eight to ten years.

Interested in reading more about the Clintons?  The US PBS network has helpfully put together an online bibliography.


Obama’s popularity in Australia

August 28, 2012

It’s official.  If Barack Obama was running against Mitt Romney in Australia, Obama would win by an historic landslide.  As reported in The Sydney Morning Herald today (Tuesday, 28 August 2012), an online poll by UMR Research discovered that 72 percent of Australians would vote for Obama and a miniscule 5 percent for Romney.

I could have told you that.  As a long-resident Australian from the USA, I have found that Obama is possibly the most popular politician I have ever seen … in this country.   My public expressions of support for Obama – from the moment he entered Australian consciousness in early 2008 during the Democratic primary elections – have been met with universal approval here.  That’s never happened to me before. And it’s not like Australians actually like politicians.  Plenty of people here in Australia strongly dislike both the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott.

But Obama haters in Australia?  I have not found one yet.  In fact, the Herald article quotes Geoff Garrett, Head of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, reporting that during the 2008 American Presidential campaign, “Australia was the third-most pro-Obama country in the world, behind Kenya and Italy”.  (Kenya okay, but Italy?)

Why is this?  No one I know can give a satisfactory answer.  But the survey has stimulated renewed interest in US-Australia political comparisons, including one by Peter Hartcher, the International Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.  In the same paper, Hartcher writes in an “op ed” that Australia is much more “left-leaning” than the US, is “the only country in the developed world that does not provide paid maternity leave” and “does not pay child support to all families”.  As proof of the triumph of conservatism in the US, he quotes John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, British commentators whose book The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America examines the phenomenon.

I think that Hartcher, Micklethwait and Wooldridge are missing an important point, one that is less about American politics and more about American society.  The USA is, at heart, a deeply individualistic country, from its very early settlement.  Thomas Frank wrote about this in What’s the Matter with Kansas? How the Conservatives Won the Hearts of America, and the late Joe Bageant wrote about this in Deerhunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War. (Ironically, Bageant’s book was, per head of population, MORE popular in Australia than the USA.)  I think that many commentators are confusing America’s die-hard commitment to individualism with conservative politics, Australia and British style.  The success of American commitment to the individual is reflected in its popular movies, a large number of which are about individual achievement and triumph over adversity (let’s think The Blind Side)

Pop quiz:  Which country’s leader is publicly committed to gay marriage – the USA or Australia?  Not Australia, whose unmarried Prime Minister lives with her de facto partner, but implacably opposes gay marriage.  Hmmm. It’s President Obama who supports it.  Which country still has widespread rent controlled apartments (deemed true “socialism” by many commentators of a conservative bent)?  Last I looked, it was the USA, with numerous cities participating, notably New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC and numerous smaller communities.  The “Global Property Guide” deems the US far more “pro-tenant” than Australia.  So not everything fits so neatly into a British-Australian attempt to cast Americans as the conservatives in all things.  It’s far more complicated than that.

Postscript: Thursday 30 August 2012 – My letter to The Sydney Morning Herald responding to Hartcher’s Op Ed was published today.  Here is a link.  Mine is entitled “It’s complicated”, and is about 2/3 down the page.


Harvard, Yale and the Making of American Presidents

August 16, 2012

Everywhere I look now there seems to be discussion about the nature of elite universities and their role in – using the words of Nicolas Lemann (The New Yorker, May 28, 2012, p. 24) – “controlling access to life membership in the elite”.

Lemann also reminds us of the high degree of alignment between the top universities and national political leadership in the USA:

Now that we know that either Obama or Romney will be President next year, we also know that, from 1989 through at least 2017, every President of the United States will have had a degree from either Harvard or Yale, or in the case of George W. Bush, both  That could be a three-decade accident, or it may be a sign of something lasting – the educational version of the inequality surge, elevating the “one per cent” institutions far above the rest.

This phenomenon has been clear for a while.  Bob Greene (CNN) wrote about it in April 2012 and the Harvard Gazette noted it back in November 2008.  For the record, the following eight Presidents all graduated Harvard, the institution which has produced the most people to hold the nation’s top office:

–          Barack Obama (J.D., 1991)

–          George W. Bush (M.B.A. 1975)

–          John F. Kennedy (S.B. 1940)

–          Franklin D. Roosevelt (A.B. 1903)

–          Theodore Roosevelt (A.B. 1880)

–          Rutherford B. Hayes (LLB. 1845)

–          John Quincy Adams A.B. 1787, A.M. 1790

–          John Adams (A.B. 1755, A.M. 1758)

And Yale clocks in with the following five Presidents:

–          George W. Bush (B.A. 1968)

–          Bill Clinton (Law 1973)

–          George H. W. Bush  (B.A. 1948)

–          Gerald Ford (Law 1941)

–          William H. Taft (B.A. 1878)

And finally, here is the list of other universities which have produced more than one President:

–          William and Mary (3): George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Tyler

–          Princeton (2): James Madison, Woodrow Wilson

–          West Point (2): Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower

–          Columbia (2): Barack Obama (undergrad), Franklin D. Roosevelt (post-grad)

I write with some knowledge about elite American universities, having attended two Ivy League colleges – Dartmouth and Cornell – and receiving my Bachelors degree from the latter.  Again, for the record, here is my brief potted history of American colleges:  I applied to eight colleges out of high school – five “Ivies” – Dartmouth, Brown, Yale, Princeton and University of Pennsylvania, and to three others – Union, Middlebury and Rutgers.  I was accepted at Dartmouth, Middlebury, Union and Rutgers and enrolled at Dartmouth because (a) a close friend was there and (b) it was the most prestigious place to accept me.  I left Dartmouth after one year and somewhat later (after more than a few life adventures) applied to and was accepted by Cornell (College of Arts and Sciences), where I graduated with my B.A. (or A.B., as they called it there, in the great Ivy tradition).

The year after I graduated Cornell, I lived in Boston and took an “extension” course at Harvard University in city and regional planning taught by Professor Lawrence Mann.  When I applied for Masters degree programs in city planning, I was accepted by Harvard, UCLA and the University of California at Berkeley (but rejected, I hasten to add, by Massachusetts Institute of Technology).  I consulted Mann about my choice, and he had three words of advice:  “Go to Berkeley.”  So I did and received my Masters degree from there.  But, I can say, I ALMOST went to Harvard for grad school.  To complete the circle, in April of this year, I received my PhD from Macquarie University here in Sydney, having originally started a PhD at Flinders University in Adelaide many years before and yet a prior PhD at Macquarie as well.

Thus I write with some experience about the American college system.  And I can tell you that the nature of American elite colleges is not a new phenomenon:  my own choices (five Ivy League applications) indicate that.  And Dartmouth at the time?  I still hold the “Freshman book” (the Dartmouth precursor of what turned into “Facebook”), with some 800 fresh faces.  At least one third attended elite private prep schools in the northeast.  About fifty percent were first team football players and I think a staggering 10 percent (yes, some 80 students) were captains of their football teams (I was not).

Elite is not new. Mitt Romney, George W. Bush and Barack Obama are the inheritors of a tradition of “Harvard men” that extends back to the second American President – yes to John Adams.  Now, that’s history, and in this case elite tertiary education easily trumps racial differences.  Would Obama have become President if he had attended Howard University or Spelman College, both historically “black” institutions?  I suspect not.  Which may lead us to conclude that while racism may be fading (but by no means gone, more on that another time), elite education – as a concept, theme and necessity to enter the “power elite” – lives on stronger than ever.

Postscript:  For this reason, it may not be odd that I have just finished a rather unique and highly engaging novel about American college admissions:  appropriately called Admission, by Jean Hanff Korelitz, the book’s main character is an admissions officer at Princeton University (which Korelitz once was) and holds a bachelors degree from Dartmouth (Korelitz again).  I am not certain what form of Ivy League coincidence is taking place, but the previous novel I finished this year was The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.  All of the major characters of that book attended Brown University.