Archive for the Commentary Category


Posted in Commentary, Photography on June 24, 2017 by baker

9th St and 6th Ave, Park Slope, Brooklyn.  January 21, 2017.

I took this the day after Trump’s inauguration, on a street corner smack in the middle of one of the most progressive, well-educated places in the entire country.  It is without question the most transparent expression of pointless hate speech I have ever seen: a white man, walking a dog in affluent Brooklyn, espousing discriminatory fascism (complete with flagrant Nazi overtones) while flanked by a white trash bag and a woman with a dove on her sweatshirt.

I revisit it now because in the months since, this sentiment not only does not seem to have faded, but in many ways seems bolstered by a strange tide of nationalist ignorance, fueled by an endless stream of abject lies from the head of state and its propaganda machinery.  It’s become a place where honest journalism is labeled fake, without evidence, when it does not conform to belief systems.  Where blue states refuse to travel to red states whose recently-passed laws enable discrimination on religious grounds – and otherwise reasonable people call this refusal fascism, as though to react against destructive discrimination is itself destructive.  Where the dominant political party allows thirteen white, male members to draft an entire health care bill that proposes limiting health care provisions in order to reduce costs, while all but ensuring skyrocketing costs and ending coverage for millions – in secret, without public discussion or congressional hearings, calling it “freedom”, and attempting to force a vote within a week of release.  Where the President of the United States and nearly his entire cabinet and staff…well, take your pick.

How can a nation move forward with these divisions?  Where to move forward to?  I fear this country is wearing blinders, willfully, because in its youth and self-aggrandizement, it can’t fathom the possibility of the direction we are headed.  This cannot be resolved simply by listening to those who disagree with you.  There are attitudes that must be made unacceptable again, because equal protection is a moral imperative in a society that remains free – and by all indications, they will not go without a bitter fight.  I hope I am profoundly stuck in my own interpretations, and have missed signs to the contrary.


Posted in Commentary on July 13, 2016 by baker

Take a look at this photo:

my lincoln copy

After hanging in a prominent local coffee shop for the last few weeks, it was suddenly taken down after one or more customers “complained about the racial content”.

No sour grapes to the coffee shop.  They’re good people, and the coffee is delicious.  The photo’s barely mine to begin with; all I did was formalize and repurpose someone else’s expression (the title of my original posting was “Integral”).  I see no particular point in artistic provocation, and there’s enough in here – graphically, historically, and culturally – for this photo to speak for itself.  Break it down: the artist superimposes a word fiercely, inextricably entwined with black racial identity over an iconograph of American solidarity.  A white one.  And he makes it possessive.

I can’t find anything to complain about.  And in light of the events of recent weeks, it seems to me that censoring any racial discussion which is not itself inflammatory, which does not sanction anger and divisiveness, is symptomatic of the way Americans handle the problems that look – and possibly are – too big to resolve.  Rather than engage in a conversation where one is imminent, we shout down opposition at the first word we don’t like.  We’ve become abysmal listeners, in defense of sensitivities which serve no constructive end.

I’d like to suggest, moreover, that whoever put that face and phrase together turned four hundred years of deceit and oppression into an image of great racial unity, without attempting the cheap shortcut of color blindness.  There aren’t two informed ways to interpret this image.  It means exactly one thing, it’s clear and concise, and it’s plastered on a surface that can be read, without much of a stretch, as graphically emblematic of the division that birthed it.  It’s a division freighted with so much abuse and neglect that at times the single word, all by itself, causes offense – even though it’s used with a purpose co-opted to mean the explicit opposite of its historical precedent.

In a healthier social environment, there would be no need to explain this.  I get the sensitivity.  Like all art, this photograph basically serves itself and offers no redemptive powers.  It cannot be hung in enough coffee shops in America to change the way we confront disparity, bigotry, guilt, shame, or rage.  Coffee, however, is a great thing that heals all weary souls, and if this image, with its vile language unsuitable for children or the unbelievably privileged, taints the acquisition of the all-American drug, my sincere sympathies to the barista who was asked to take it down.

41 thoughts on photography.

Posted in Commentary, Photography on April 24, 2012 by baker

My friend Dana sent me another photographer’s list of photography tips the other day.  It’s a good list – consider the following my own addendum.

1. Use, and understand, whatever camera you have.
2. You’ll take better photos if you tailor them to your camera’s shortcomings. iPhone takes amazing, relatively low-res images.
3. Be satisfied with basic settings. Just because your camera can shoot + or – 1/3 stop doesn’t mean you have to shoot every photo that way.
4. But experiment with advanced settings. Play with color, exposure, auto features. Figure out what gives you interesting results.
5. Shoot on manual settings. f/2.8 isn’t the same as f/5.6. Your camera can’t teach you how photography works.
6. Whenever practical, focus manually.  Your camera can’t make aesthetic choices.
7. Get your focus right.  You can tweak over- and underexposure, but a soft photo is finished.
8. Get the best gear you can afford when you need it, with the intention of upgrading when you’ve outgrown what you have.
9. Better lens glass handles light in more controllable ways.  Crappier glass shows you how good better glass looks.  Get to know both.
10. Experiment with various focal lengths.  Different shoes for different hikes.
11. Get closer and wider.
12. Get further and longer. Put objects between you and your subject.
13. You’re going to miss perfect shots.  Live with it.
14. You’re going to take lousy shots that seemed perfect.
15. You’re going to shoot all day and have nothing good to show for it.
16. You’re going to shoot for five minutes and have three beautiful shots, but not often.
17. You can’t make a bad photo great in Photoshop – but you can make mediocre photos mysterious and beautiful by paring away the blandness to leave one interesting detail.
18. Use Photoshop the way you use your camera: figure out what you like and what tools provide it.
19. The Camera+ app on the iPhone is marvelous. Hipstamatic will suffice until you get it.
20. Look past imagery into intimation, suggestion, and provocation.  Imagery isn’t about its subject, it’s about the way you show the subject. See the whole frame. Your attitude should find a way to speak in your photos: through the way you frame objects in space, where you choose to place your focus, and how both project meaning that was merely latent until you took it.
21. As imagery goes, black and white underscores composition.  Color draws attention to itself.  Learn and use both.
22. Let shadows fall and highlights blow.  Use them as compositional elements – we don’t need to see everything.
23. Don’t show us everything.  Leave something out of your photograph we expect to see.
24. Show us too much.  Include things we don’t expect.
25. Expect your photographs will always be seen in the biggest format your sensor or negative can accommodate.  Compose accordingly.
26. You can imply motion, but you can’t capture it.  Look for fractions of movement that suggest the whole, and discipline yourself to wait for those moments.
27. People make great photographs, but man-made environments suggest a lot about man.  Combine them.
28. Photos taken out of airplane windows tend to thrill me, because I’m terrified of heights.
29. It’s not cheating to photograph your own family and friends, but it’s no excuse for being shy.
30. Photography isn’t self-expression in the same way painting or sketching is.  You’re snatching up an instant of someone else’s life.  Never mock or impugn unless moral judgment demands it.
31. Don’t shy away from morally or aesthetically questionable content, but don’t be flip about it.  Someone else’s misfortune isn’t fair unless they give you the photograph willingly, or there’s a way your photographs can make it better.
32. Let yourself be amused by the world.  Irony plays well in a single frame.
33. Music is a better analog to photography than literature.  Storytelling is not its greatest strength.
34. Your own photos are like your own dreams: they’re not very interesting to others unless they carry untrounceable truth.
35. Just because it’s true doesn’t make it a good photograph.
36. Never photograph a lie, in form or content.
37. Don’t work too hard at a photograph.  Prepare and be ready, but if you miss something, you never had it.
38. If you see a great shot in front of you that you’ve seen before, shoot it once to get the cliche out of your system.  Then find a new angle that’s better, or move on.
39. Never be jealous of someone else’s work.  Admire theirs and you’ll work harder on your own.
40. The moment you see the perfect photograph, photography’s not your bag. Every photo you take will forever seem inadequate.
41. Every photo is inadequate.

Final Four.

Posted in Commentary on January 30, 2012 by baker

As a non-bleeding heart liberal with slight fiscal conservative leanings but no patience for social conservatism, I’m finding the Republican debates a fascinating display of regressive one-upmanship among three Republican caricatures with few ideological distinctions and a fourth who’s barely a Republican.  On one hand, it’s good that conservatives have so many personalities to choose from, and no one could argue that these four are strung up by the same puppeteer – they’d each make quite different leaders.  On the other hand – and this point is so obvious it barely registers as commentary, and yet it’s so much a feature of the kind of president they’d make that it’s impossible to ignore – they all display (with the usual, but not exclusive, exception of Ron Paul) such flagrant political ambition at the expense of forward momentum that even conservatives, shuffling through the deck for a card to their liking, must find themselves struggling in effort to settle for one set of awkward flaws over another.  In 2008, liberals didn’t really have this problem.  Like him now or not, Obama offered a very different approach to the race than these four exhibit: he was articulate, knew his agenda, wasn’t saddled with a terribly problematic background (his relatively young age and inexperience excepted), and presented voters with a chance to elect someone new and groundbreaking even on a surface level (and if you didn’t like him, you could go for the woman instead).  I have to say, I feel sorry for Republicans this year, for they’re going to have to pick from among four upper-middle to upper class white men, all of them long-term politicians, who’ve settled in recent debates to internecine squabbling and random kamikaze attacks on SS Obama that leaves them wildly scrambling, in their final five seconds of CNN-allotted attack-or-rebuttal time, to pitting themselves against their opponents instead of illustrating Obama’s failures with precision or clarity.  To our great advantage come fall, they don’t seem able.

I may as well limit this to their personas in the debates, as none of the candidates are challenged by their supporters in the field or in detail by the media (or, for that matter, by John King or Wolf Blitzer), and it seems wise to say at this point, Obama having failed to achieve so many of the grand declarations made during his own campaign, that whether a candidate means what he says or not, there’s a much different game to play once in office.  Surely a number of them must know this; why do they still insist that they’ll “repeal Obamacare on day one”?  Does not one of them remember “No new taxes” or “I’ll close Guantanamo Bay”?  The bigger the promise, the bigger the applause, the higher their approval rating the next day; these guys aren’t speaking to voters, they’re speaking to pollsters.  A candidate running for president must learn something right off the bat: the average voter never really listens to you, he listens to the ebb and flow of your campaign.  You win an election these days not by articulating your agenda, but by building such momentum that your voice becomes the only one heard. The rest is predetermined; no matter how many Americans choose to call themselves “independent”, very few who pay attention will find themselves not drawn to one side or the other of the left-right spectrum, somewhere along which we all fall, and in the general election, what a candidate says will inevitably do battle with which side he says he’s on.

Rick Santorum (hysterically unpresidential surname included) doesn’t seem to have graduated far beyond the strategies of a high school class president campaign.  He’s swallowed whole some of the more syrupy American idioms like “standing tall” and “doing the right thing”, but let’s be honest: by the time we reach secondary education, most of us have developed beyond considerations of posture and righteousness.  His favorite tactics are attacking his fellow candidates as untrustworthy liars, followed by declarations that he’ll do whatever they didn’t/can’t/won’t while reminding them what a great country America is.  I imagine his appeal is broad, low, and unreflexive among those who value, without complexity, the lessons of Sunday school, Boy Scouts, and the ten-minute ethics videos shown to new hires at supermarkets: that Christian decency, hard work, and personal commitment to slicing ham are the cornerstones of American greatness.  Santorum is the guy you went to high school with who never left home, works in a paper mill, and believes his nights out drinking with his buddies rank second only to his last four years as a teenager.  Or so he presents himself.  Criminal?  Of course not.  But Presidential?  When Santorum mentions the founding fathers, he sounds like he’s talking about a minister and a football coach.

Mitt Romney lives as much of the American dream as can ever possibly exist.  He’s grotesquely wealthy, by which I mean he is obviously a smart investor and half-decent businessman, not to mention a practitioner of what may be one legitimate core value, among many phony ones, of American culture: longevity of ambition.  Give Romney credit for building tremendous fortune; it’s what most of us are after anyway.  We on the left tend to feel it’s beside the point, that personal and creative ambition is as much its own reward as monetary gain, but we’re not immune to the consequences of a lost paycheck – the whole thing would be much easier if we too made $20.9 million in a year.  Give him further credit that as a businessman, his foundation in politics was not fundamentally political, that as governor of Massachusetts, he helped build a health care plan so close to the one Obama sloughed through Congress that for a while last year it was Romney’s biggest problem running for the oppositional nomination.  There, however, is roughly where his crossover potential as a candidate ends.  He seems frequently to be out of touch not only with his own stated positions, but also with the way his own campaign presents him (on Thursday, he was unable to recall one of his own campaign’s attack ads against Gingrich, even debating the ad’s claim).  He’s nowhere near the graceful speaker Obama is – another, admittedly superficial but not irrelevant, advantage we will have in the general election – but he is a smooth talker, so unbound by consistency of message that he’s casually able to appear conciliatory to nearly any anti-Obama agenda.  The jokes on the left, by the likes of Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, suggest Romney may even wind up a Democrat in office – who the hell knows?  It’s marginal hope, or should be, for liberals: however much he attacks Obama, if he manages to defeat him in the fall he’ll be a moderate at times, a dark and sinister conservative at others, but rarely a danger to the world that Santorum would like us to see him as, or that Gingrich would probably be.  The problem is that, having been elected, he’d be compelled at least for politics’ sake to deconstruct some of Obama’s achievements: health care, military reduction, spending that may have been necessary if distasteful.  And like all conservatives before him, in an effort to cut taxes and government spending, he’d chop right away into the silly left’s flaky stuff: the NEA, Planned Parenthood, civil liberties, and so on.  It can be very difficult to determine just how much of this is Romney to the core, because he rarely lets slip even the smallest unprogrammed emotion; you’re left with the impression of a candidate commitment to winning the goddamned thing at all costs.  Such a businessman-like quality; it’s clearly his truest side.

Paul never tries to hide his: he’s an ideological upset from top to bottom, a man given as a principle of his candidacy to sweeping aside the party line in favor of blunt geopolitics unfettered by mass appeal.  As the clear fourth-string candidate, with no hope short of triple homicide to win the nomination – both as a result of and a part of his strategy – Paul goes straight for the messy guts in the Strait of Hormuz (“I think we’re looking for trouble because we put these horrendous sanctions on Iran”), health care (he’s in favor of repealing Obama’s mandate that all Americans must purchase government-approved insurance as unconstitutional), and Occupy Wall Street (praising the movement for centering on the ultrawealthy but cautioning that they “have to be protected. We shouldn’t be jealous or envious of those people”).  But he’s also bound to a strict code of ethics derived from his background as a physician, wherein respect for life trumps all; his position on abortion treats all fetuses as worthy human beings.  And although this position makes as much sense for a Republican as his pro-military stance on American defense, the latter strikes an uneasy chord in a candidate so able and willing to see the folly of military intervention.  But this, too, is typical of Paul: he’s a muddled speaker, unable to separate individual concepts into clear soundbites, often seeming to contradict himself in single sentences.  To the liberal mind, this isn’t really confusing; he’s able to see how nearly everything coexists and complicates everything else.  Presidents, perhaps, should be clearer, but all of us should be this insightful.  An Obama-Paul runoff, in whatever unknown galaxy in which it could ever conceivably occur, would be a more revealing display of American political warfare than anything as clear-cut as Obama-Romney.  Or Obama-Gingrich.

It is in this liberal spectator’s opinion, for a spectator is all we can be and everything Gingrich wants us to be at this point, that Newt Gingrich embodies the most cynical, caustic, and geopolitically disastrous tendencies of the American right, and he does it with stunning zeal and amoral self-confidence.  He’s one hell of a baby oil-slick showman.  To witness a candidate whose ethics violations ended his tenure as Speaker of the House of Representatives, and whose focus on family values has always been a key feature of his candidacy, turn around a question at the head of the South Carolina debate about his wife’s accusations of infidelity and highly irregular family values and use it to attack the media, was breathtaking: “Every person in here knows personal pain….To take an ex-wife, and make it two days before the primary a significant question in the presidential campaign, is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”  It was an outlandishly ballsy thing to say, totally untethered to his own political past, and the crowd’s enthusiasm – and John King’s embarrassing failure to point out the hypocrisy – underlined the one single aspect of American politics that Gingrich’s whole campaign rides upon: that the left is weak, and the way [back, in every possible way] to American greatness is to boldly declare one’s own greatness with no concern whatever for any extrapersonal perspective.  And yet…rational thought defies this, but it did happen…the crowd adored Gingrich, as much for the deflection as for its deeper implication: that our failings as individuals can be erased with one swift rejection of their basis, that we need never accept personal responsibility when presented with the opportunity to reframe morality through indignation.  Bush Jr. perfected this strategy post-9/11, but never in two terms took such raging satisfaction in positioning himself, America, or American troops on the moral high ground.  Forget Gingrich’s policies; they’re mostly boilerplate conservative social regression in favor of decidedly American fiscal growth.  It’s his unbelievable arrogance as a person that should give even the staunchest Republican pause – and, by many accounts, does.  Washington insiders (which this former member of the House of Representatives for Georgia, former House Minority Whip, and former Speaker of the House under Clinton, still denies he is one) suggest he’s not only unelectable next to Romney, but unworthy of the nomination by his own fellow conservatives.  But an Obama-Gingrich runoff, while not likely to elect President Gingrich, would carry with it a terrifying possibility: that that man, that disgusting exemplar of naive Western egotism, devoid of moral integrity or a definable ability to view the universe from outside his own large, indelibly white body, might succeed Obama as America’s representative to the world.

Or at least, so it seems.  The problem with watching candidates in debates is that they’re so self-consciously painting an image of the president they want you to believe they’ll be that you’re never sure how much of that president they can be.  As those of us who melted at Obama’s speeches in 2008 now realize, the job doesn’t come easily to the most charismatic, most outwardly progressive, or just plain best talkers.  Obama couldn’t close Guantanamo, despite the embarrassment of foreign policy and indefensible rebuke to American exceptionalism that it is.  He got a neutered version of his health care plan passed, with a stipulation that we all have to buy some form of it even without a public insurance option.  The economy has been rebuilding slowly – unemployment is down to 8.5% – but too slowly to appease Americans’ impatience and mounting annoyance.  I still count myself among his supporters, and for the predetermined inclinations in me, would never vote for one of these four Republicans over him.  I believe government exists for the people, not in spite of them, and that it is the government’s job to make it easier for those without, even if it annoys those with.  We are too diverse a culture to be placing inevitably unfair competition over the welfare of our citizens.  But Obama’s promises and his ability as President to achieve them haven’t correlated very well – and he was saying the best shit I’d ever heard out of a presidential candidate.  So where does it leave those of us who try to pay attention, who want to work with facts instead of ideology because we know ideology is intrinsically empty (and still feel the sting of Obama’s rhetoric, as painful now as it was glorious then)?  Do we reach a point in the development of our political awareness where we must accept that only candidates who say exactly what we want to hear will rise high enough to never pull it off?  Is that the end of the line, and is there any room left there for idealism?  If not, what are we voting for?

Well, perhaps as a permanent species flaw, we have idealism anyway.  The late evening of November 4, 2008, watching Obama win and accept the election – with sentimentally-satisfying Joe Biden beside him – was a supremely exciting moment, replete with the possibility of strange and wonderful change.  If I’ve got sympathy for conservatives this year, it’s because there’s no one in their pack who’s projecting a real capability to live up to their ideals.  But it’s worth remembering that no president does all things well or all things poorly, and not all significantly change the world.  Elections are essentially sporting events, where we pick a side and invest the team with impossibly high standards and expectations, condemning their failures and embracing their achievements as though they are our own.  The fun is in watching the sport, feeling that it’s real and engaging in its conflict-ness.  But you don’t get to play, not personally (and the network-run debates don’t help; at this point Santorum and Paul tend to look a lot like Gingrich’s and Romney’s silent bodyguards on stage).  Democracy’s a magnificent bummer.

Theo Angelopoulos: 1935-2012.

Posted in Commentary on January 26, 2012 by baker

“Theo Angelopoulos, a renowned director whose films explored the human condition in general and the condition of modern Greece in particular through haunting imagery rooted in myth and epic, died on Tuesday of injuries suffered in a traffic accident near Piraeus, Greece. He was 76. Mr. Angelopoulos was struck by a motorcycle earlier that day while crossing the street, police and hospital officials told The Associated Press. He was on location near Piraeus, the port of Athens. The driver of the motorcycle, who was injured in the accident, was later identified as an off-duty police officer.” – New York Times, January 26, 2012.

“Theo who? Exactly. Because his output has been little seen other than at festivals or, just occasionally, on television, the sixty-year-old writer-director hasn’t received anything like the recognition he deserves. Prejudices about Greek movies haven’t helped; nor, probably, have his concerns – the spiritual, moral, and political condition of modern Greece and Europe, filtered in part through allusions to ancient myth – or his style, whereby naturalism, Brechtian theatricality, and wordless reverie are seamlessly integrated by means of long, fluid takes whose complexity, elegance, and audacity outdo even the celebrated travelling shot that opened Welles’s Touch of Evil.” – Geoff Andrew, “Homer’s Where the Heart Is: Ulysses’ Gaze”, 1996.

“Too few students, or even film teachers and scholars, care passionately about movies. My…fear is that all the significant movies have already been made, but then I’ll see a film like Kusturica’s Underground (1995) or Angelopoulos’s Ulysses’ Gaze (1995), and I’ll know the medium is still powerful and alive.” – Ted Perry, My Reel Story, 2001.

“If this is what you have to give me, I have nothing to say.” – Theo Angelopoulos, winning the Grand Prize of the Jury but losing the Palme d’Or to Underground at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival.

“Because it is a noble epic set amid the ruins of the Russian empire and the genocide of what was Yugoslavia, there is a temptation to give “Ulysses’ Gaze” the benefit of the doubt: To praise it for its vision, its daring, its courage, its great length. But I would not be able to look you in the eye if you went to see it, because how could I deny that it is a numbing bore?….What arrogance and self-importance this film reveals.” – Roger Ebert, review of “Ulysses’ Gaze”, Chicago Sun-Times, 1995.

“This filmmaker’s eloquent, abstract, trance-inducing work so eschews the mundane that it can barely be watched in any earthbound way. So at the screening I attended, a man who had shown signs of vigor as he entered the theater began conspicuously fighting sleep as the film got under way. Take that as an indication of the film’s method, not its merit: Mr. Angelopoulos’s meditation on the meaning of one man’s life is genuinely hypnotic in its way of transcending ordinary narrative. The camera casts a spell as it wanders gravely through the central character’s most essential thoughts” – Janet Maslin, review of “Eternity and a Day”, New York Times, 1999.

“When Angelopoulos moves, he is sailing in time as well as space….This is engrossing cinema, not fast or fluent….It is hard for anyone to study Angelopoulos properly. The films deserve large screens – but one would settle for wretched video versions. Film culture has come a long way since the days when it was impossible to see “old” films in any form. Nevertheless, it is the case that many people who take the medium seriously have scarcely heard of, let alone encountered, the work of a master. And there are so few masters left now.” – David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2004.

“My cinema is not psychological, it is epic; the individual in it is not pyscholanalyzed but placed within a historical context. My characters assume all the elements of epic cinema or, if I may say so, those of epic poetry, typically featuring clear-cut persona….Cutting real time into small time pieces, focusing only on the climax of each piece and eliminating the breath at the beginning and the end of each shot, this, in my eyes, was a bit like raping your audience, forcing yourself on it. The logical explanation for this preference of mine came later, but I could feel it in my bones already then….I am a melancholic. And according to Aristotle, melancholia is the source of the creative spirit. I must also say I do not feel that all the record-breaking blockbusters succeeding each other should worry us overmuch. Some films may be tremendously successful but are soon forgotten; others are seen by only a few and yet they leave their mark on the history of cinema….I am not a missionary. I don’t want to educate people; I try to find a way from chaos to light. We live in confused times where values do not exist any longer. Melancholy goes along with confusion and disorientation….I am equally pessimistic and optimistic about our abilities to find ways out of the confusion of time. But I deeply wish that people would learn to dream again. Nothing is more real than our dreams.” – Theo Angelopoulos, Interviews, 1999.

Burn-A-Koran Day

Posted in Commentary on September 9, 2010 by baker

“It is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems not just here but everywhere in the world we are engaged with the Islamic community.” – General David Petraeus

“If they burn our holy Koran it means war between Muslims and non-Muslims…Afghanistan will not be the only country to react, but all Islamic countries all over the world will stand and fight against non-Islamic countries.” – Enayatullah Balegh, Ulema Council of Islamic Scholars, Afghanistan

“This is a recruitment bonanza for Al Qaeda.  This could increase the recruitment of individuals who’d be willing to blow themselves up in American cities, or European cities.” – Barack Obama

“Book burning is antithetical to American ideals. People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation – much like building a mosque at Ground Zero.” – Sarah Palin

“Where’s the money coming from for these extremists? Who’s funding these radical Christian clerics?” – Jon Stewart

“Our burning of the Koran is to call the attention that something is wrong.  It is possibly time for us in a new way to stand up and confront terrorism. … As of this time, we have no intention of canceling.” – Pastor Terry Jones

Feeding the Faith with Hate.

Posted in Commentary on August 20, 2010 by baker

“The proposed community center in Lower Manhattan will serve as a platform for multi-faith dialogue. It will strive to promote inter-community peace, tolerance and understanding locally in New York City, nationally in America, and globally.” – Cordoba Initiative

“O mankind!  Truly we have created you male and female and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another.  Indeed the noblest of you in the sight of God is the best in conduct.” – Qur’an, XLIX:13

“And Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. 2 Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. 3 Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’” – Bible, 1 Samuel 15:1

I’m not sure what freedoms our soldiers are fighting for when we object to our Muslim citizens putting a community center near Ground Zero.  Is it the freedom to act on fear – the one that Muslims are inherently terrorists, or even that the 9/11 hijackers were themselves Muslims?  They were not, any more than the Klan are Christians.  The argument I have yet to hear is the one that declares the Ground Zero center insensitive, and then carefully divides terrorists and followers of Islam instead of lumping them into the same villainous category.  The provincial worldview that refuses to do this – out of spite, hatred, or pure ignorance – has no business weighing in on an issue so clouded by shades of gray already, by the fears Muslims have that this facility could incite acts of violence against it, or become a haven for extremists.  What good is a reactionary, uninformed perspective?

This foreign fellow sees essentially the same dilemma in ideological tolerance as the rest of us.  There is no tolerating things like Nazism (or as he puts it, “Nazi-ism”.  If that sort of correction seems elitist to you – one of those is a word, the other merely believed to be one – I hope you now understand the grounds on which we differ).  But nowhere in his rant does he separate terrorists from Muslims; he actually goes way out of his way to broadly skewer Islam as a whole: “Apparently it is not enough that nearly 3,000 innocent people had to lose their lives in a hideous act of religious mass murder, but now their memory has to be insulted as well, and the religion that murdered them allowed to build a towering, triumphalist mosque on the ground where they died.”  This is all very eloquent in its way, but at its core is a venomous tunnel vision profoundly terrifying for those of us who would actually prefer to see peace one day in the world (however unreasonable we may know that to be).  This is not a complex argument seasoned with reason and the kinds of inexplicable contradictions one encounters in the world.  In speeches like this, it’s easy to see how Africans became slaves, how the Nazis murdered 11 million, how the Khmer Rouge murdered 2 million, how Stalin murdered 15 million – and for that matter, how Hussein and bin Laden can order the murder of innocents.  When you eliminate from your thinking perspectives other than your own, you make global math brutally simple.

The counterargument propagated by guys like Bill O’Reilly – that liberals, “that crew [who] is so hateful, so harmful to the nation”, are actually contributing to the problem by failing to embrace the obvious truth that Muslims enacted 9/11 – is almost amusingly childlike in its flagrant simplicity.  “Let’s get right down to it,” O’Reilly declares. “There are thousands of Americans who lost loved ones on 9/11.  Many of these people feel a Muslim display so near the attack zone is hurtful, because fanatical Muslims [his emphasis] killed their family and friends.  So.  Where is the tolerance toward the 9/11 families?  Where is the understanding and respect for their feelings?”  The actual argument here is that irrational bigotry should be respected because people died.  And yes, one is inherently a bigot to judge a group.  Note the definition: “a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance” (Merriam-Webster).  This is also, by the way, the same argument used to convince Americans that our soldiers need to be dying for us: that the 9/11 deaths not only justify our intolerance, but demand a simpler worldview in order to enact revenge without shame.  It’s much easier to kill a group if there’s no sense that a group is composed of individuals, with free will – which is, to my understanding, the thing we’re ostensibly defending in Iraq and Afghanistan (it’s recognized that Iraqis and Afghans are Muslims, right?).  Or was it our freedom we’re fighting for?  I don’t remember.  Do opponents of the Cordoba Initiative?

Fortunately, we’re endowed with a wonderful principle called logic, and when all else fails, there’s no evading its authority.  You just can’t be after freedom for all mankind if you’re going to dictate the terms of that freedom.  Bush made it clear that freedom was not his priority when he ditched Afghanistan for his private war in Iraq, and the nine languishing years of war, in a country with no real sense of itself as a unified nation, show no sign of easing into an all-encompassing freedom for all.  Allegiances are tribal.  The Taliban has grown powerful again, and grows geometrically stronger with each new region it controls.  And rejecting America’s stated reasons and objectives in these two wars cannot, as is so frequently the case, be smoothly conflated with supporting terrorism.  It is a small and malnourished mind that would make that leap so cleanly, in blind patriotic zeal – a mind not well suited to receiving and processing the infinite color that lends the world its magnificent and dangerous peculiarities.

Critics of the Ground Zero center point straight to the project’s founder and chairman, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, and his comments relating American foreign policy with the 9/11 attacks.  It’s not a new or original suggestion, that America may have indirectly provided the means and the motivation for terrorists to strike us.  America put weapons and training into Afghanistan for more than five years during the Soviet occupation – not to mention into Iraq against Iran – and then, following the Taliban takeover in 1996, was one of few nations to briefly legitimize the Taliban is an official government.  We helped to provide a platform for organization for these people because they were fighting a common enemy, not because we agreed with their politics or religion.  Could we have predicted it would have spawned such extremist violence?  You can’t hand a gun to a guy you don’t trust and absolve yourself of any responsibility when he uses it against you.  Nor can he suggest you compelled him to shoot you.  He’s responsible for his own actions, and deserves repercussions.  The two truths coexist – does pointing it out make someone a terrorist sympathizer, or a rational thinker?

My own feelings about 9/11 are complicated.  There is shock and indignance on the one hand – recent reports that the Taliban lined up nine doctors, including several Americans, and executed them in the woods for “spreading Christianity” remind me how monolithic and monochromatic a perspective you’ve got to have to act with such cruelty.  Then there’s bewildered amazement that a plan so brawny and simple worked, and so effectively.  There was a mix of grief, fear, and fury in the days and weeks afterward – grief for the dead, fear that another attack could be on its way, fury at the whole goddamned thing – that brought out two distinct sides in us: the introspection and the vengeance.  Mortality never felt so concrete.  The skies above Vermont were never so quiet.  Anxiety was never quite so pervasive, and separate from me.  And then there was the overwhelming urge to annihilate the motherfuckers who did this, for killing indiscriminately in my country and for making me afraid.  But what I didn’t feel then, have never felt since, and, in light of having left America to visit some of the cultures from which fundamentalist Islamic terrorism sprung, don’t ever expect to feel, is a sense that Muslims did it.

Dawood and Mustapha. Northern Afghanistan.

If I thus far seem far-left shallow and repetitive to you, I ask you: what do I do with my Muslim friends, in Bahrain and Afghanistan, the ones who overlooked my faith in favor of my humanity, and in some cases safeguarded me against their own countrymen?  How should I regard Dawood, who carried a handgun through the heavily Pashtun areas north of the Salang Pass for our protection?  What about Hassan, who drove us around Bahrain for five weeks with his five-year-old?  Mohammed?  Ahmed?  Mustapha?  Shatha?  Am I supposed to condemn these people because they’re Muslims, or to treat their faith as the cause of our suffering and unworthy of our respect?  How do I do that?  Because they’re “them”, not “us”?  Isn’t that the attitude that gives rise to such atrocities?  And to the conservative who can’t reconcile that, or simply thinks I’m wrong, I ask this: why are the 9/11 victims heroes?  Because they were there?  Police, fire, and rescue aside, most of them did nothing that day but die, horribly, for absolutely nothing.  We are working backwards, lionizing our dead in order to justify our cause, so the cause self-perpetuates on the glorification of its victims.  Then why are our soldiers heroes?  Because we sent them there in our stead?  Because they speak for us, and fight for us, get wounded and die for us in order to spread our glorious freedom and democracy in a barbarous world so badly in need of our moral wisdom?  Or are they still just avenging our fallen, and it’s a battle between opposing faiths in groups: our faith in our guys, their faith in theirs?  In which case, the point seems to be that faith finally lies in nationality, and my Muslim friends are my enemy because they are not my countrymen.  Is that the limit of our social and cultural empathy?  Lines on a map?  Can I make an exception, then, for my Muslim friends living in America – Shahan, from Pakistan, or Usman, from Saudi Arabia?  What about the Muslims serving in the U.S. military?  Are they shit out of luck because a band of assassins identified themselves, without humility, with the same religion?

This cannot be a war against Islam.  We will lose.  They will lose.  That war would never end, and could never bring anything we could use to build a safer, freer planet.  Nor can this be about our soldiers, except in ensuring they come home safely – they must remain our flesh-and-blood tool, putting their lives on hold and taking shrapnel in the face for our righteousness.  How many Taliban, al Qaeda, or insurgents are they supposed to kill for us?  At what point will we be sated – when 30,000 are dead?  100,000?  What’s the equation?  Unless you have a goal you can meet, you’re left by default with one you can never meet – and we will never kill them all.  Why are we surprised when our bombs kill Afghan villagers whose relatives subsequently join the opposition against us?  Doesn’t that illustrate just how neatly vengeance fails to resolve the conflict?  This cannot, then, be about honoring the dead of 9/11, except in striving to build a world where extremism has no force.  What brought it about was intolerance to begin with; reflecting it with intolerance of our own, hatred of our own, and shortsightedness of our own does nothing but inflame the fight.  And then we are hypocrites, transparently manufacturing an indefensible double standard that can’t handle the contradictions of both “them” and “us”.

What is available to us is the last decade of deeper knowledge, the ability to have learned from our mistakes and try something new.  Bullets don’t kill an insurgency any more than intolerance kills extremism.  Even the word “tolerance” is wrong.  It implies judgment, an assessment that although we are better, we must put up with the other guy’s inferiority.  The world is a messy, messy place, littered with human whim of far-reaching implications.  The stated goals of the Cordoba Initiative are absolutely a step in the right direction, a conciliatory gesture toward understanding that the men who tarnished the West’s perception of Islam played no part in carrying out its greater teachings.  How many untold buckets of global goodwill have we spilled since 2001?  Our current objectives in the Muslim world are muddy as hell, and we do no service to the Muslims who legitimately want peace by holding their religion – not the individuals who hid behind it – responsible for 9/11.  Ignorance is no excuse for bad faith.

The 400 Blows: More voodoo, please.

Posted in Commentary, Film Reviews with tags , , on December 4, 2009 by baker

I just caught the last hour of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) on TCM, and as the film pedaled along toward its beautiful conclusion I found it filling me with oddly unbearable nostalgia.  And as I sat here just now, thinking where to go next after the first sentence, it dawned on me why.  I had a dream about college last night.  Pouring rain, so dense I couldn’t quite see the buildings across the lawn.  I stood under the eaves of a low brick dorm, thinking that I was going to have to learn to navigate through the rain.  I’ve had plenty of college dreams in the seven years since graduating – often involving the terrible panic of showing up for final exams for a lit class I skipped all semester (did I do that?  I can’t be sure) – and the geography of the place, in my dreams, always feels the same, if not always looking the same: stony, fluctuating between cramped and widespread, buildings plunked in the middle of misty fields, indistinct in their architecture but tunnely and familiar.

In a healthy way, I think, I walked away from college with a sense of how little in life I’d undertaken.  A sense of my anxieties and potential limits, maybe.  Not condemning, but part of my fiber.  I’m unlikely to be a world-changer, with my easily frustrated, antagonizable nerves.  I don’t want to defeat anyone, but I might want to be better than some.  A better man, a better filmmaker.  In high school I tried everything – track, clubs, orchestra, honor societies, choral groups – but in college I pared away what interested me less and focused almost exclusively on what I loved most.  For four years I watched everything I thought I should: Scorsese, Coppola, Lynch, Malick, Altman, Allen, Welles, Lumet, Kubrick, Stone, Mann, Cimino, Nichols, Polanski, Bertolucci, Truffaut, Resnais, Renoir, Kurosawa, Ozu, Imamura, Yimou, Angelopoulos, Herzog, Morris, McElwee.  Afterward, free of academic integrity, I caught up with the others: Sokurov, Tarkovsky, Fellini, Antonioni, Kiarostami, Bergman, Haneke, Kieslowski, Wenders, von Trier, Leigh, Peckinpah, Greenaway, Lanzmann, Soderbergh, Anderson, van Sant, the Coens, the Dardennes, Leone, Kar-Wai, Tarr.  The lists look mighty cursory.

I never loved Godard, Mizoguchi, de Palma, Hitchcock, Spielberg, or Chaplin.  And I have yet to get my hands on Satyajit Ray, Parajanov, or Fassbinder.  I adore The Leopard (1963) but have never seen another Visconti film, and my exposure to de Sica is still limited to The Bicycle Thief (1948) and his suave performance in Ophüls’ The Earrings of Madame de…(1953).  But I felt an overwhelming warmth watching The 400 Blows this morning.  It’s a film dropped on me early in college, an example of, ahem, cinematography in Film Form & Film Sense (Middlebury’s all-purpose Movies 101).  It’s impossible to separate my experience of the film now from Leger Grindon’s effervescent lectures or recollections of my own essay (the man-made wall receding in the background on the beach, as Antoine jogs toward the surf, symbolizes his futile attempt to free himself from the restrictions of the adult world).  The film is so clear in its meaning, so carefully modulated by Truffaut with so much dry-eyed affection for his little protagonist, that there is something brittle and magnificent about the thing to begin with.  Films are simply not made this way anymore – or, possibly, I’m just cynical of films that are.  Because, and far more to the point, I can only have one 400 Blows: the first of hundreds I began to watch with conscious thought to what I could actively take from it, rather than what it could give to me in my passive, guzzling repose.

Maybe that’s more passive, to drink what’s offered rather than to scarf with lust.  A great film doesn’t give you everything you want (or think you need).  It leaves room for you to invest yourself – in pieces, never all at once.  It’s hard to escape the fact that you’re looking at nothing but pictures, not real life, so even if you choose to take, whatever you walk away with is entirely up to you.  But if you can take a whole film in, completely and on your own terms, it can become your own, a brick in your facade, a shingle on your roof.  A shoe on your foot or an umbrella in the rain.  The goddamn things perform some inscrutable psychic voodoo that I can no more reject than deny, so I’m happy to just need them.

And for another reason, now.  At 1500 feet into my next film – the first of seven shoot days, one scene done of thirteen – the prospect of failure looms over the four cans of unseen footage and the work that still lies ahead.  The lab could damage the negative, or the sound guy could give me a boom shadow.  I could misframe a shot, misdirect an actor, skew the rhythm or obscure the meaning.  Or worse: the script might not translate into motion picture.  Pretension could take the place of sound expression.  The ability to recognize a good film does not produce the ability to make one, and so the necessary concerns of feeding, clothing, and maintaining myself against the quotidian dreamscape of missed college classes pales beside the horrible, debilitating specter of personal inadequacy.

But Truffaut didn’t capture perfection in The 400 Blows.  It’s a jittery film, graceful in design but riddled with human error: shaky shots, hairs on the negative, the shadow of camera and crew, awkward performance beats, obvious dramatic structure, unsubtle music cues.  None of which kills anything at all.  Truffaut’s fingerprints are everywhere.  Good to remember.

Beautifully put, Bill.

Posted in Commentary on September 11, 2009 by baker

I urge anyone with a moral conscience to listen to Bill O’Reilly from time to time.  He appears to believe so fully in his self-proclaimed nonpartisan objectivity that, on the topic of, say, Obamacare, he helps to shed light on the elusive (and vaguely contradictory) perspective of the catchphrasing conservatives.  No one so deaf to hypocrisy could fail, eventually, to reveal their underlying concerns.

On last night’s Talking Points, he says this about the immediate ramifications of Obamacare:

“They key here is quality control.  The President believes the Feds can impose a more efficient system and hold private insurance companies accountable for misbehavior.  Which is unfortunately rampant, as you may know, if you’ve had to spar with the insurance people to get reimbursement – I have.  Talking Points believes strict oversight is possible, but tough guys would have to be hired, and that would mean a large expansion of the federal bureaucracy, something conservative Americans loathe. The strength of Obama’s vision is controlling costs and eliminating the chaos that comes from forty million  uninsured Americans potentially using hospital emergency rooms for medical care.  The weakness in Obamacare is the massive spending involved, and the specter of rationing health care. Because there will not be enough doctors to handle all the patients, so we’re gonna have to wait. At this point the President is basically dodging those two realities.”

Dr. Abdullah, the Lion’s Politician

Posted in Commentary on August 13, 2009 by baker

We first met this man for an hour one day before lunch, at his office in Kabul.  He is a slight diversion in our film about photographer Reza, but they are old friends from their years with Massoud.  Despite prior communication with his staff, it took the better part of an earlier hour to get inside, so we sat on the curb and waited, the bustling late morning traffic at curious shrugworthy odds with the lackadaisical pedestrians hunched nearby.  Dr. Abdullah’s armed guards patrolled the front gate, a nondescript alleyway between a fitness shop and, well, some other shop, as forgettable as those of any city block.

The thing about security in Kabul is that, when told not to film in one direction or another, you must simply wait until no one’s around to say no – or, just as good, until you’ve made friends with the people who’ve told you no.  One end of the street bordered an administrative building of some kind, heralded by a red-and-white enclosure , so, with Reza wired for sound, we filmed his impromptu conversation with the lemon vendor parked in the opposite direction to kill time.  Soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs – a sight so common throughout Afghanistan that their relative absence in provincial villages began to parody their abundance elsewhere – patrolled a razor-wired gate across the street, beyond a cart loaded with watermelons whose caretaker dozed in the dry heat.  We snuck off shots of the soldiers, between cars, when we guessed they weren’t looking.

bicyclesBetween mixing Reza’s lavalier, I took pictures of the watermelon vendor, the men passing time on the sidewalks, a pair of bicycles chained to a tree.  And then suddenly we were beckoned in, granted permission by a cadre of invisible higher powers working immediately below Dr. Abdullah – the Lion of Panjshir Ahmed Shah Massoud’s ally and chief political advisor during the Soviet war; former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Northern Alliance during the war against the Taliban, reappointed during the interim administration in December 2001, and confirmed the next year to serve under the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan; a trained opthalmologist; and candidate for the presidency of Afghanistan, having formally registered the day we arrived in Kabul on May 6, 2009.

His gate patrol was friendly and polite, no doubt treating us as friends of Reza instead of Americans or media; they glanced at my shotgun mic and searched my mixer bag as a matter of course – the airport guards would ransack my bags two weeks later as I was on my way out of the country as though I were smuggling their burka-clad women.  Behind the gate sat a small office building with a front desk and a single hallway branching off into the various meeting rooms, where quiet bearded men sat in comfortable chairs around glass tables laden with dishes of dried fruit and sugar-coated almonds.  Hallways are our lobbies; whatever takes place behind the frequently open doors is never far away, and the pertinent door is never entirely clear.

I had a picture of Dr. Abdullah before we arrived.  I knew little about him, except that we was a medical doctor and a confidante of Massoud’s.  I imagined him as an older man, looking serene and wise in a robe and long beard, well-trimmed as befitting a politician but humbler in dress, as befits a freedom fighter.  Dr. Abdullah is full-on politician.  He dresses – in Kabul – in fine suits, wearing a short beard and groomed gray hair.  He is average height and carries a middle-aged belly, and a face that, on the stage of geopolitics to which he aspires, is entirely unnoteworthy.  It did occur to me then that there should be no practical reason why Massoud’s most trusted associates should have distinguished features, but given Massoud’s own striking face and unmistakable scarecrow physicality, I envisioned a Dr. Abdullah who would first and foremost impress in appearance alone.  He does not.

What does strangely impress is his quiet way of speaking, his immediacy of presence.  We filmed his initial greeting with Reza before meeting him ourselves, and there is no doubt that as a politician – as a meeter of people, as a social entity, as a potential leader – he wields considerable gravitas.  But as is often the case with politicians, you’re simply not aware of it until afterward, when upon reflection his stature begins to stack up against the people around him.  With Reza, he is familiar, even intimate.  They speak closely and softly from four or five feet away in opposing chairs, both conscious of our cameras and completely complicit in each other’s faint posturing.  They are men of self-aware prestige, and have finessed the art of pose.  It’s not unnatural, really, nor false, not among equals.  They both know their weight in their relative fields, and care, passionately, that they do not appear insincere.

Their conversation is slight, somewhat rigid.  They have not met in some time, and their personal ease mixes awkwardly with their need to say something important for our camera.  Even as a sound guy, there are times when I’m more absorbed by a person’s behavior and the environment than by his words; Reza and Dr. Abdullah speak skirtingly of the need for proper leadership in Afghanistan, its brittle future, its chunky past, but I examine the open laptop in front of the fireplace; the tight organization of the couches and chairs in the room and our cameramen’s attempts to manuever them; the carefully framed position of Reza’s and Dr. Abdullah’s chairs, so clearly arranged for two conversing men to be photographed.  The windows just behind them are tightly curtained, so the room is oddly dark, illuminated only by the sunlight coming in from the glass doors across the room that somehow fails to bounce off the yellow walls.  Dr. Abdullah’s men stand silently in the front of the room near the door, a handful of suits without personalities.  The job of a politician’s henchman can’t be a glorious one, especially when your man is so obviously risking his life to run for the presidency, and these guys took it with a humbling seriousness.  When the meeting was over, they shuffled us out of the room with little more than the usual pomp, reserved mostly for Reza, and we were out of the building in a minute or two.

The next day we were on our way out of Kabul for the Panjshir Valley, and within the week met Dr. Adbullah twice in the valley.  As a Northern Alliance mujahideen, he would be greeted in Panjshir a virtual hero.  Ostensibly he was there to run for president, but his office and our crew were in irregular communication along the way, and the possibility of appearing in a National Geographic documentary couldn’t hurt him.  We ran into him – or rather, his convey overran ours – on the rutty, unpaved road heading north through the valley.  His SUVs passed ours and stopped in the village ahead of us as Reza tried to hurry our driver to catch up.  The doors on his vehicles opened with military precision and his armed guards flanked the road ahead and behind the convoy, ignoring us as we pulled to a stop just behind the last SUV.  Their AK-47s felt excessive here, among their strongest supporters in the entire country; that Dr. Abdullah did not appear, and his convoy suddenly packed in and raced ahead before Reza could get his attention, seemed indicative of the show of effortless force a presidential candidate probably feels he has to exhibit to convince the Afghan populace he’s worth voting for.

Dr AbdullahOur vehicles caught up with Dr. Abdullah’s a few miles up the valley, in a tiny village.  The local elders were all there, and Abdullah was dressed in a traditional white kurta instead of a suit.  We joined them in the second story of the only building in sight, in a room barely long enough, we would discover that night, for four men to sleep head-to-foot, as a giant meal – entirely out of scale with our rural environs – appeared on the floor before us.  A small, wizened man at the head of the room dominated the conversation by status and reputation alone, it would seem, as he uttered only a few words among the roomwide banter but drew rapt attention for each of them.  He commanded substantial respect from both Dr. Abdullah and Reza, and the hierarchical configuration of tribal Afghan society was never clearer to me than it was during this lunch.  The tone among leaders is one of lighthearted mutual respect, reminiscing on old times with a ponderous, vaguely self-conscious solemnity that, from time to time, can veer into emotional displays embarrassing for those of us without the cultural background to grasp its purpose.  The past is something to acknowledge and revere with feeling.  Our foreign selves excluded, every man in this room shared viscerally in that past.

Dinner wound to a close, and before Dr. Abdullah left, he and Reza repeated their conversation in Kabul, but this time with patience and greater openness, discussing the current trajectory of Afghanistan and Afghans as it seemed to them rather than as it played well for a camera crew.  They sat side by side on pillows in front of the window and spoke in low, intimate tones, so low that at times I had opened up their microphone channels all the way on my mixer, magnifying every foot shift and murmur from the other men in the room.  Dr. Abdullah speaks as a gunless general leading troops to bloodless battle, calm in his self-assurance and confident of his mission, and Reza listens as an old friend, trading Abdullah’s candor for unqualified support for his candidacy.  They strike me now as a pair of veterans, corraling their vast experience and complicated knowledge toward a sincere plan for the country’s future.  They understand Afghans’ fierce national pride and their collective shortcomings, and Dr. Abdullah voices more than once the inherent personal danger in running for Afghanistan’s presidency, of the almost certain voter fraud and, let’s say, extranational coersion that he feels will surely put Hamid Karzai back in office on August 20.

* * * * *

We ran into Dr. Abdullah once more, outside a mosque in Panjshir where he and his retinue had stopped for noon prayer.  He emerged from the mosque into the gathering supportive crowd, shadowed by his Kalashnikoved guards and hounded by our enormous camera, appearing at ease and in his element.  Our trip ended on May 21, and he has continued his abbreviated run for president since.  He holds second in the polls only to Karzai, who’s reviled in Afghanistan as a feckless Western appointee but who may win, perhaps on those very grounds.  Abdullah has traversed the country, addressing crowds in places, like Kandahar, where many of his opponents are afraid to appear; on July 28 gunmen wounded one of his campaign managers in western Afghanistan in an attack that killed the car’s driver.

Even if he wins the election, Abdullah would face the Taliban in the west and south of the country, growing insurgency against the American occupation throughout the country, and a pervasive cultural attitude that does not yet grasp the dynamics of democracy as we understand it.  He will be expected, like Obama, to fix the frustrating failures of the last administration with inordinate speed, and to bring peace to a country at current war with its former conqueror and on the verge of a second war with a current ally.

He seems to know he will lose to Karzai; his late arrival to the race suggests a near half-heartedness to his candidacy, but then, there is something unpredictable about the country’s mood anyway.  Afghanistan is pie-sliced from top to bottom: broken in the east, on fire in the south, and barely healing in the north, in terrible need of a unified direction thus far eluding its factions, tribes, and national politicians.  Yet Abdullah runs, with a heedless, unreasonably bold assurance Afghans should recognize.  The approach may or may not put Afghanistan back on a progressive, self-sustaining track, but for the last 30 years, nothing else has.