O Superman

On Friday I saw performance artist Laurie Anderson’s latest work, Habeas Corpus. Performed at the Park Avenue Armory, it was a multimedia hodgepodge of lots of things, mostly music. It was broadly “about” Guantanamo. The Armory is huge. It’s a giant vaulted space the size of a 10,000-seat stadium. It was almost completely blacked out. It felt like a physical manifestation of the legal black hole those prisoners inhabit. There were two non-blacked out locations: a giant plaster cast white chair, filled with a generically sculpted, seated human figure, and a stage. Onto this figure was projected a live video feed of Mohammed el Gharani, a former Guantanamo inmate. He was captured aged 14 and served 8 years in the prison before being repatriated to Chad.

Laurie Anderson conducted a brief interview with him, and then played a recorded interview. He talked about his relationship with his prison mentor, Shaker Aamer. He broke down while taking about Aamer, doubled over in psychic pain.

Anderson cut the tape. Then Anderson read Allen Ginsburg’s poem “Song”. It's great. Read it if you like.

A theme of the night was developing. The theme of love. That love is the only thing that sustains us through horror. The love el Gharani felt for Aamer. The love that we all feel for mothers, fathers, friends. The love we felt for others in that space.

The band TuneYards – Meril Garbus and Nate Brenner - took the stage and sang/created (using loops) a strange, Middle East-inspired sound collage. It is strange to completely agree with the philosophical/political intent of a piece of art (“Guantanamo is bad, both for the inmates and for us”) and yet… not enjoy the art. I’m not going to say the sound collage was bad, because I’m not capable of judging the relative merits of avant-garde sound collages. It just wasn’t for me.

Then Laurie Anderson played O Superman.


O Superman is one of my favorite pieces of music. It pulls off the impossible, being at once totally original and totally accessible. It sounds as strange and without precedent as it did 25 years ago, despite decades of electronic music exploring some of the territory it opened. It also meets the definitive criterion for a masterpiece: I feel something different every single time I hear it.

It happened again that night. Superman: the American icon, the pop culture vessel that encapsulates our values. To sing about Superman in the context of Guantanamo felt profound to me. As did singing it in an Armory, a military building, not unlike the military installation of Guantanamo. One line - “they’re American planes” - hit harder than usual. If you like, all the lyrics are here.

I cried, like I always cry when I hear it. It was a gift. It was also very generous of Anderson as an artist to revisit and re-interpret an American classic in this context. It must be hard to "play the hits", and I am grateful.

Then Anderson and TuneYards played another sound collage. It was even more not-for-me than the first sound collage. I gritted my teeth and got through it.

Then they introduced a wedding singer-type dude from Syria called Omar Souleyman, and his beats dude with a keyboard. I felt horrible for him. This was the very definition of a hell gig. Souleyman plays up-tempo fun Arabian party music. This was a giant cavernous room filled with old jews in pleated khakis. He tried his best, and he cranked out the jams, but it was an awkward, stilted moment.

My feet hurt. My back hurt (we were standing the whole time on a concrete floor). I left the space and went to the bar.

I felt bad. I wish I could be all smarty-pants and say “in Guantanamo they have no liberty, so in the ultimate exercise of freedom I left the art performance dungeon to go drink Merlot”. But that would be cute bullshit.

I just felt dispirited. The continued operation of Guantanamo is one of the most awful crimes ever perpetrated by this country. Not in the scale of human suffering. We’ve made far many more people suffer. But in terms of conscious, bipartisan, and at times even joyful violation of the most basic stuff we’re supposed to stand for? There’s few things worse than Guantanamo.

And what can I do about it? Nothing. It’s a military prison, encircled by a military base, encircled by water, encircled by the communist Cuban navy. Through federal income taxes, I pay for it, but there is nothing I can do to close it. The majority of Americans, and two branches of Government, believe it should remain open.

I left the space full of questions. Questions without answers.

How do we make change in a world that refuses to do so? How can individuals (such as me or you) prevent or combat evil, and bend the arc of human events toward justice?

Is the answer “nothing”? I fear it might be.

I paid $50 for the ticket. I’m glad I saw and heard some art and poetry and music. But right now I feel that – as far as human progress toward closing Guantanamo is concerned – it was a total waste of time.

The Merlot was $9.

'Selma' SNUBBED by Oscar

selma3 White person: "I'm so angry Selma didn't get nominated for Oscars!*"

[*Subtext: "I'm not racist but worry constantly that people think I am. So I need non-issues like this to rally around and demonstrate my progressive values."]

Last night I screamed at a racist French magician

Last night I screamed at a racist French magician. I was at an open mic at The Laughing Devil Comedy Club in Long Island City. The guy onstage before me was French: "Eric the Magician". He told some "jokes". One of them was about being happy to return to his village in France, because it contained no black people. Stop! My sides might split!

When I went up, we got to talking. I asked him who his favorite French comedian was. He said Dieudonné M'bala M'bala. Here's a picture of him.


I lost it and called Eric the Magician a racist and other bad things (like unfunny). I'm a little ashamed of myself this morning for losing my cool. But I thought I'd share some information about this horrible French "comic", who at least on paper has the exact same job title as me.

Not many Americans know Dieudonné. He's a political comedian, in that he vocally supports the Palestinian cause, and opposes Zionism and many actions of the Israeli government. Fine. OK. Perfectly defensible views. But these days, he's gone a bit fascist. He's good friends with the leader of France far-right National Front Party (Jean-Marie Le Pen). Le Pen is the godfather of his third child. He has characterized "the Jews" as "slave traders".He has called Holocaust commemorations "memorial pornography". Last year, he was recorded onstage saying of prominent French Jewish journalist Patrick Cohen: "you see, when I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I think to myself: ‘Gas chambers... what a shame'." Asked if he is an antisemite, he once replied "I'm not saying I'd never be one... I leave myself open to that possibility, but for the moment, no." Well, that's crystal clear. Thanks. Oh, he's also an convicted tax cheat, fined over an unpaid tax bill of 800,000 euros ($1 million +) by the French government. Tragic, really. A Jewish accountant would never have let him down like that.

He has created his own hand-gesture, too. It's called the quenelle. Some people call it an "inverted Nazi salute". The comedian describes it as an "anti-authoritarian gesture". It's a gesture that some French people like doing, frequently near explicitly Jewish sites, and even at Holocaust memorials. No antisemitism there, of course. Here is a picture of some French teenagers doing the gesture, with no subtext at all in the background.


Urgh. His supporters are a populist mix of far right youth and members of Muslim immigrant communities. They like to see themselves as "against the system" in France. And there's nothing wrong with that on principle. Except that a lot of them seem to think "the system" (the government, the state, the police etc.) is in league with a Zionist cabal, intent on doing harm to French people somehow. It's the same old schtick: "the banking system and the media are all being manipulated by Jews and it's evil blah blah blah because Israel." About 64 million people live in France. Less than 500,000 of them are believed to be Jewish (hard to say exactly - the secular French government refuses to ask about faith on its census). Less than 1% of the population? Boy, these Jews must be very good and very busy at running conspiracies. They are seriously understaffed.

Why am I sharing this? I don't know. To be honest, Dieudonné scares me. Comedy is a powerful thing. Make people laugh, and they'll follow you, even to horrible places. I hate censorship of all kinds, and I don't think the French government should be able to prosecute him for "hate speech" (which they have done and continue to do). Let him say whatever nonsense he wants. It's everyone else's job to use free speech right back, and tell him he's a ridiculous, antisemitic idiot. So that's what I'm doing now. I'm a ONE MAN ARMY. Thanks for reading.