Sunday, August 29, 2010

Transporting Queens: The Meaning of Movement in the Urban Identity

Writing in 2000, geographer Michael Dear pointed out the importance of movement in constructing an identity and settlement pattern for Los Angeles. Both literally and metaphorically, the importance of movement in defining LA’s identity remains sacrosanct. Transportation systems seemed to always keep the region in motion while also constantly changing. As Dear points out, architect Reynar Banham suggested the city and its outlying regions were a “transportation palimpsest” or as Dear summarizes a “huge tablet of movement,” always under going change by subsequent generations. If railroads first organized the region, they eventually gave way to streetcars, which then receded in favor of automobiles. Each contributed to settlement and neighborhood patterns, though cars more than the other two lent themselves to the decentralized organization: “Streetcars had facilitated, suburbanization primarily along clearly defined corridors; the car, however, permitted urban development in any area where a road could be cleared.”* Subsequently, “freeway rationality” replaced transit oriented planning, as “freeways ultimately created the signature landscape of modernist Los Angeles – a flat totalization, uniting a fragmented mosaic of polarized neighborhoods segregated by race, ethnicity, and class.”**

Despite Los Angeles’s identification with movement and transportation, in many ways, the west coast metropolis remains a latecomer to such identities. For much longer, New York City has served as a hub for movement: physical, social, economic, and even existentially. Though consisting of five boroughs, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn tend to dominate the attentions of the wider public. However, over the course of the past twenty or thirty years, Queens has assumed a new cultural relevance in the popular mind, an identity intertwined with transportation. Physically, Queens serves as the location for two international airports (JFK and LGA), the Long Island Railroad, the Long Island Expressway, significant stretches of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, numerous subways lines (including the famous 7 train), Airtrain (the light rail service to JFK), and even the “Boulevard of Death,” aka Queens Boulevard (so named because of the numerous fatalities that have unfolded as residents have tried to cross its wide expanses on foot). Additionally, when one considers the numerous livery cab services and taxi dispatchers, Queens appears awash in kinetic energy. This transportation nexus facilitates movement within Queens, throughout the boroughs and region, and even to places abroad.

In a more metaphysical conception, the people of Queens also represent this constant movement. More than any of the five boroughs, Queens remains the borough of immigrants. They come from everywhere, whether it be Koreans/Chinese in Flushing, Poles in Ridgewood, Greeks in Astoria, Pakistanis in Jackson Heights, South Americans and Mexicans in Elmhurst, or any other nationality you might seek, Queens serves as the new Ellis Island, facilitated by the very transportation nexus discussed above. Moreover, the county of Queens itself still tops lists ranking diversity by ethnicity and race. The transportation infrastructure brings new peoples in, enabling not only physical, but also economic and social movement.

Rather than wearing down the borough, their movement refurbishes it. Take, for example, Saskia Sassen’s work The Global City, a seminal study of the role of Tokyo, London, and New York as central nodes in the process of globalization. Sassen concluded that in New York, more so than its counterparts London and Tokyo, immigrants have provided a low level gentrification, repairing neighborhoods and communities abandoned by deindustrialization. For years, housing starts and the like in Queens outpaced the other five boroughs. Additionally, the suburban nature of large swaths of Queens represents the “American Dream” to many, a dream that includes groups that have often been excluded. For example, Queens has the highest rate of black homeownership in the five boroughs. Archie Bunker’s next-door neighbor George Jefferson might be a useful representation here. Strivers only need apply.

Even if one finds the reflections of academics dubious, consider the popular culture examples below.

“Where is the only place a King can find a wife? Queens!” – Coming to America (1988)

Think about the social imaginaries of a borough defined by immigrants defined by transportation. Much of the Queens immigrant population is looking to transport themselves to the middle class/homeownership that has driven housing starts in the NY region for years, while simultaneously gentrifying these neighborhoods (in a way a collective if sometimes divisive form of travel as well). One might even suggest that Queens as the transportation/immigration borough remains defined by, consisting of, and dwelling in world movement. Eddie Murphy’s African Prince, soon to be King, comes to Queens to find a suitable woman for his partner in royalty, landing smack dab in the middle of the borough’s poorer immigrant and black communities, while chasing a woman from its established black middle class. Economic, social, and physical travel all rolled into one.

The King of Queens (1998-2007)

A blue collar couple hacking it out in New York’s most residential borough. What does Kevin James’s character do for a living? He’s an “IPS” driver, hoping to move up as he travels throughout the city, transporting goods to all those who so desire them. To this day, Maspeth, Queens houses one of UPS’s main warehouses for delivery, an entire building waiting to be moved. Finally, do not forget UPS ships internationally. Go brown.

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006)

This small independent film featuring Robert Downey Jr. as Queens resident Dito provides a coming of age story in 1980s Queens. Within the film, his character remains defined by movement. When Dito takes a dog-walking job in Manhattan, his friends look askance (“Why leave Queens?”), representing the tensions of a place based identity in borough where for many place seems ethereal. Moreover, in one of the movie’s pivotal scenes a central character dies when he fails to climb off the subway tracks. Transportation can be one way; sometimes it is not beneficial. When Dito escapes Queens after some harrowing experiences for Los Angeles (from one city of movement to another), it traumatizes not only himself, but also all those around him. Again, travel can be traumatic, especially when the sedentary collide with the transitory.

“I am Queens Boulevard – Vince, Entourage (2007)

When the arguable main character of the HBO series makes this announcement, he was attempting to validate his role in an upcoming movie about the borough. Even as he and his “boys” had settled in Los Angeles (again, LA as the counterpoint to Queens), Vince’s whole persona depends on his Queens attachment. Uniquely, the quote works on several levels. For the audience it seems like an overstatement, self-importance coming through as parody. Within the show itself, it validates both Vince’s commitment to the project and his home; a nifty writing job on a show not always know for such sharpness. Of course, one might ask why one identifies with Queens Boulevard (except that it was the name of the movie he was to star in). Still, Vince a native born American ensconces his identity in a physical example of Queens transportation, one that has received attention in recent years for its more morbid character (see above).

John Rocker – former pitcher Atlanta Braves (1999)

On the 7 train and New York “I would retire first. It's the most hectic, nerve-racking city. Imagine having to take the [Number] 7 train to the ballpark, looking like you're [riding through] Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It's depressing."

On New York City itself: "The biggest thing I don't like about New York are the foreigners. I'm not a very big fan of foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there. How the hell did they get in this country?"

While John Rocker may have been a troglodyte, his 1999 remarks represent a perspective shared by significant segments of the US. The idea of traveling on subways with wide swaths of ethnicities, classes, and races, fails to appeal to many Americans. With the current debate on immigration descending into rough calls for American patriotism and Glenn Beckian idiocy, Rocker’s quote represents the fears that transportation can bring. Movement is dynamic, but for some it represents something very scary. Rocker probably has no idea where Beruit is, or the two decade civil war it endured, but this is probably how some people interpret the very movement/transportation Queens enables.

Keep these ideas in mind as you take in Professor’s Cummings work. The tension of being the most residential and transporting borough can bring heartache, tragedy, and anger, but it can also be liberating, inclusive, and joyful. It’s never anyone of these things while at the same times all of them. Perhaps a word or two from the Mountain Goats might help:

“Going to Queens”

the ghostly sing-song

of the children playing double-dutch.
I felt the wind come through the window
I felt it turn around and switch back.
in the second story room in jamaica queens
your hair was dripping wet.
your skin was clean.
and the children skipping rope tripled their speed
you were all I'd ever wanted
you were all I'd ever need.
in new york city

in the middle of july
the air was heavy and wet
the air was heavy,
your body was heavy on mine.

I will know who you are yet.

I will know who you are yet.

* Dear, Michael J. The Postmodern Urban Condition, 107. Notably Dear dismisses streetcar conspiracy theories, instead arguing the ascendance of the automobile resulted from Angelenos distaste for crowded streetcars” … the privacy of the car suited them. This also fits in well with arguments that more than older American cities, Los Angeles celebrates this social privacy.

** Dear, Michael J. The Postmodern Urban Condition, 110.


Is There a Queens Urbanism?

Last September, Joseph Heathcott visited Columbia University to discuss this question with a diverse group of grad students, faculty members, and guests. A Midwestern transplant living in Jackson Heights, Heathcott had been teaching his students at the New School to look carefully at Queens, a borough that has received less scholarly attention than Manhattan or Brooklyn. Historians have written about Times Square and Central Park, Brooklyn Heights and Canarsie, yet Queens has lacked its storytellers – in academia, if not in pop culture, as Ryan Reft highlights in our next piece.*

There is something that just isn’t urban about Queens, at least for many observers. One often does not find the fine-grained density of Manhattan, nor the brownstone elegance of Brooklyn in the borough’s boxy suburbs, or its fa├žade of ticky-tacky retail architecture of the 1960s and 70s: a mishmash of concrete and vinyl, made shabby by time and weather. Even the most architecturally coherent neighborhoods, like Sunnyside, feature a bewildering farrago of periods and materials, wrapped around co-ops, multifamily homes, and standalone structures.

When I used to tell people I lived in Queens, they would often respond, “Oh, in the suburbs.” In his presentation, Heathcott was trying to get beyond this simple characterization. One does not cross the Queensboro Bridge and land in the middle of Levittown. The increasingly gentrified Long Island City offers pricey high-rise living to those who can afford it – a sort of colony of Midtown and the Upper East Side, just across the East River. Housing units may not stretch as high as they do in much of Manhattan or parts of Brooklyn, but the density of residences, shops, restaurants, laundromats and sheer human activity in neighborhoods like Astoria and Woodside challenge any notion of curvilinear suburban conformity. Heathcott suggested that a trip along Roosevelt Avenue introduces us to a kind of urban form that has been little studied – an intermediate zone between classic urban density (itself a relative rarity in the US) and the suburban sprawl that marks most of the American landscape.

What stood out most to me in the discussion last September was a comment by Professor Casey Blake, who pointed out that Queens is more defined by transportation than New York’s other boroughs. Highways, trains, planes, cars, cabs, bike paths – modes of transit have crisscrossed and shaped Queens’s fate in profound ways. Working from this observation, I set out to document the various ways transportation infrastructure pervades the lives of people in Queens – from the taxi dispatchers and auto shops to the railyards and bus depots throughout the borough:

Transportation City

* Steven Gregory’s 1998
Black Corona: Race and the Politics of Place in an Urban Community is a notable exception. See a review here.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Mending Mindanao: Diminishing Insurgent Violence in the Philippines

When President Obama decided to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan many people who supported this decision argued that the military had learned lessons from its difficult war in Iraq and would use its troops in Afghanistan more effectively. The Commander of the military in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, was a fervent proponent of a counterinsurgent strategy and believed that using this strategy in Afghanistan would give the U.S. a better chance of achieving its objectives in Afghanistan. Now McChrystal has been fired and the war is still not going well. The counterinsurgent effort in Afghanistan has been hampered by factors such as massive government corruption, flawed democracy, and the sheer difficulty of employing a counterinsurgency strategy. Despite the difficulties in Afghanistan the U.S. military persists.

Even though the military’s adoption of a counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan is relatively new, the tactic has been employed for a very long time many countries. One of the longest lasting insurgent movements in the world has been taking place in the Mindanao region of the Philippines. Since the 1970s there has been a insurgency in the region by Muslim groups demanding independence from the Philippines. The Philippine government has used several different tactics to combat this insurgency. One these approaches has been counterinsurgency. The government has never permanently stopped the insurgency and even support by the U.S. military has failed to end the rebellion. The Philippines’ effort to end the rebellion can be instructive as to how difficult it is to end an insurgency, even with the military support of a superpower.

Mindanao Region in the Philippines

Since the Philippines gained independence in 1946 the government has had a difficult time exerting influence over all the regions of the country, with Mindanao being the most difficult. The country has also failed to improve its economy consistently or to permanently establish a robust democracy. Historically local and regional areas have often been under the control of strongmen or women, and the reach of the government has often been limited in these areas (Abinales, 2008; Hutchcroft, 2008). The 1950s and 1960s saw an expansion of suffrage and the growth of civil society, which would seem to indicate that the country was becoming more democratic (Hutchcroft, 2008). However this era was also characterized by what Benedict Anderson called “Cacique Democracy”, which is elite leaders rotating power among themselves with very little participation by regular people (Anderson, 1988). This rotation of leaders ended with the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, and during his 17-year reign democracy was not present. The 1986 people’s movement that ended the Marcos regime and brought Corazon Aquino to power was a new era of hope for democrats. The movement that helped to end Marcos’ rule helped to engender a better civil society that was more responsive to the needs of groups that had been marginalized under Marcos (Hutchcroft, 2008).

Unfortunately, these institutional improvements were not matched by governments that could effectively end insurgencies or administer far off state provinces. The four presidents following Marcos exerted varying degrees of power, but none successfully supplanted the political and social strength of various the clans and families that administer many of the villages and towns of the Philippine provinces (Abinales, 2008).

Several rebel groups formed in Mindanao to resist Philippine rule and declare independence from the archipelago nation but no widespread separatist movement emerged. This absence of a fully organized resistance movement in Mindanao ended in 1972 with the formation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). In response to the formation of the MNLF, Fernando Marcos, the president of the Philippines, declared martial law in Mindanao. This declaration of martial law was the catalyst for the spread of the Muslim rebellion to the entire island which included acts of violence in the south from 1972 through 1974 that resulted in the deaths of thousands of people (Yegar, 2002; Tigno, 2006). Unlike previous rebel groups in Mindanao, the MNLF was very well organized and made up of students who had well-defined grievances against the Philippine government. The Marcos government devoted many resources to fighting the MNLF and there were periods of intense violence in Mindanao. The failure of the government to stop the MNLF or to grant Mindanao autonomy/independence increased the prevalence of separatist movements and violence within the region.

In 1978, Hashim Salamat formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Unhappy with the corruption and deviations from Islam of the MNLF , the former MNLF leader organized this new movement (Yegar, 2002). The MILF was more overtly Islamic than the MNLF and actively recruited Muslims from other countries. Despite the differences between the two organizations, they both waged guerilla campaigns against the Marcos government in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Both groups supported the presidency of Corazon Aquino during the 1986 presidential election in which she promised that Mindanao would gain more autonomy under her government. The Philippine government signed a peace agreement with the MNLF in 1996, but there was no agreement made with MILF, thus, violence by this group continued throughout the 1990s. Joseph Estrada, the president of the Philippines from 1998-2001 declared war against MILF and pledged not to negotiate with them (Walter, 2009). These aggressive tactics by the Estrada administration were a change from previous Philippine governments that had been willing to negotiate with rebel groups in Mindanao. Estrada’s policy was unsuccessful. Some militants were killed, but MILF was not fundamentally weakened. The most consequential effect of the campaign was the displacement of nearly 100,000 civilians in Mindanao (Trager and Zagorcheva, 2005). Estrada proved to be a corrupt and unpopular president resulting in his controversial removal from office by a popular uprising in 2001.

When Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took power, since she was not an elected leader, she made it a priority to legitimize her rule. She also pledged to make the Philippines a “strong republic” in her July 2002 State of the Nation address (Macapagal as qtd. in Abinales and Amoroso, 2005). In order to strengthen her rule, using her knowledge of local languages, Macapagal appealed directly to voters in the provinces. However, her attempts to make the Philippines a strong state required more nuance than simply appealing to the populist impulses of citizens. Strengthening the institutions of the Philippine state and stamping out corruption has proven to be difficult. After Macapagal-Arroyo’s July 2002 State of the Nation address she attempted to assert the government’s regulatory control over the provinces by accusing some businessmen of overcharging for electricity and also trying to bring the corrupt bureaucracy of the Bureau of Customs and the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) under control (Abinales and Amoroso, 2005). The limitations of the capacity of the Philippine state became clear when many bureaucrats in the BIR refused to abide by the reforms, therefore, resisting more oversight by the government. Two years later, when Macapagal-Arroyo was re-elected president, the BIR was still perceived as corrupt and collection of tax revenues had not improved (Abinales and Amoroso, 2005). Macapagal-Arroyo’s goal to create a strong presidency and a strong republic have been hampered by the corruption within the Philippine democracy and the difficulty the government has always had in exerting authority over the provinces.

One other example of Macapagal-Arroyo’s attempt to strengthen her presidency while simultaneously reassuring her 2004 re-election was her effort to gain the support of provincial governors and local leaders through the distribution of tax revenues (Abinales, 2008). Previous Philippine presidents withheld tax revenues from the local provinces, releasing them at elections to garner the support of these local leaders. Macapagal-Arroyo changed this practice by facilitating a constant flow of government revenue goes to provincial authorities (Abinales, 2008). This practice ensured the support of these local leaders who use the money to fund local projects, which helped the local leaders remain popular and in power. Macapagal-Arroyo’s use of this tactic enabled her to win re-election in 2004 and helped her to become a more powerful president. However, her personal strength has not necessarily translated into effective administration of the provinces or a strong democracy. Macapagal-Arroyo won re-election relatively easily in 2004, but there was evidence local leaders in the nation’s more remote regions manipulated election results to ensure the incumbent’s victory. (Abinales, 2008; Hutchcroft, 2008). Macapagal-Arroyo is probably the strongest president since Marcos, but her methods of governing have not necessarily improved the capacity of the Philippine state.

International Terrorism and Local Insurgents

Macapagal-Arroyo’s attempts to assert power over the entire Philippine state, and strengthen her role coincided with a renewed focus on international terrorism by the United States. The Philippines was able to use the United States’ desire to quell Islamic movements as a means to use more force against long-time insurgent groups in Mindanao. Almost immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks Macapagal-Arroyo pledged to allow U.S. planes to fly in its airspace while also offering the use of two Philippine Naval bases. Additionally, she offered to send Philippine troops to Afghanistan contingent upon approval of the Philippine Congress (Banlaoi, 2002). Six months after September 11, George W. Bush thanked Macapagal-Arroyo by name for the Philippines’ help in the war against terrorism. Moreover, the U.S. pledged nearly $100 million for equipment and support for the Philippine military (Banlaoi, 2002). This cooperation between the United States and the Philippines stemmed from the mutual desire of both countries to combat the insurgent groups on Mindanao. These rebel groups had ties to international terrorist organizations. In this way, the U.S. considered Philippines an important front in the campaign against terrorism. Since the Philippines had never been successful in stopping the violence in Mindanao the government could use the increased interest of the United States in the conflict in Mindanao as a means to make strides in finally ending the insurgent movements. The cooperation between the Philippines and the United States regarding Mindanao was not a new development; the U.S. had been giving support to the Philippines since the 1990s. However, the level of cooperation between the two countries that began in 2001 was unprecedented.

The rebel group in Mindanao that the United States was most concerned about was the Abu Sayyaf Group. Abu Sayyaf had ties to al-Qaeda going back to the 1980s. This gave Abu Sayyaf special prominence in U.S. circles, thus, American policy focused on this group over other rebel groups operating in Mindanao. From January 2002 to June of 2002 U.S. Marines and Philippine troops participated in Operation Balikatan against Abu Sayyaf. This campaign involved about 1,300 U.S. troops and 3,000 Philippine soldiers. The goal of the operation was to neutralize Abu Sayyaf and free three hostages (Cruz de Castro, 2004; Trager and Zagorcheva, 2005). This campaign killed several hundred Abu Sayyaf members, but the leadership of the group was largely unchanged. Once Operation Balikatan formally ended, U.S. and Philippine troops continued to conduct exercises together that would prepare Philippine troops to engage in anti-terrorist activities. Since 2002 the U.S. has engaged in several more joint-exercises with the Philippine military and has continued to provide financial assistance to the military. In 2005 the U.S. and Philippine military engaged in another campaign against Abu Sayyaf (Trager and Zagorcheva, 2005). One year later, the U.S. conducted about 40 joint exercises with the Philippine military and in 2006 and 2007 the U.S. gave nearly $10 million to the Philippines through the United States’ Antiterrorism Assistance Program (Bhattacharji, 2009). The United States has taken an active role in Mindanao in order to stop the terrorist activities of Abu Sayyaf, but has also taken steps to combat the activities of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, another rebel group operating in Mindanao.

The combined efforts of the two nations have employed different tactics in trying to stop the activities of MILF than have been used in trying to combat Abu Sayyaf. The U.S. and the Philippine government have practiced a deterrence strategy against MILF that reflects the fact that the organization is regarded as primarily a domestic actor lacking strong connections to international terrorism (Trager and Zagorcheva, 2005). There is evidence that MILF has some ties to al Qaeda and to Jemma Islamiyah, but lacks their international agendas (Tragar and Zagorcheva, 2005). The Philippine government, under Macapagal-Arroyo has been negotiating with MILF since 2001 in talks that have enjoyed moderate success. As a result of the progress made during these negotiations, and because the U.S. considers MILF to be primarily a domestic group, the United States has never put MILF on the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list, a list the U.S. uses to sanction foreign terrorist organizations. The U.S. has threatened to put MILF on this list if the rebel group does not completely cut its ties to international terrorist organizations, but these threats are used primarily as an incentive to encourage MILF to help the U.S. fight the international terrorist groups that the superpower considers more of a threat to its interests (Tragar and Zagorcheva, 2005). In 2002 MILF agreed to help local authorities arrest over 1000 local members of al-Qaeda and Jemma Islamiyah (Trager and Zagorcheva, 2005). The United States is less concerned with the activities of MILF than it is with Abu Sayyaf, but the Philippine government continues to negotiate with MILF in an attempt to end the violence that has killed over 100,000 people in Mindanao.

Macapagal-Arroyo was not the first Philippine president to attempt to negotiate with the MILF. However, since her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, had refused to negotiate with the organization, violence had increased in Mindanao. Within two months of taking office Macapagal-Arroyo declared a unilateral ceasefire with MILF and dropped criminal charges against their leaders (Walter, 2009). Macapagal-Arroyo stated at a February 2001 press conference that “building peace would be less expensive than supporting an all-out war” (Macapagal-Arroyo qtd. in Walter, 2009). There seems to have been a general sense within the government that the fighting in Mindanao had exacted too large of a toll on the Philippines and that the government was failing to adequately deal with the guerilla warfare tactics of MILF (Bacani, 2005). Macapagal-Arroyo’s decision to negotiate with MILF is an indication that, despite the inherent force advantage, state costs of a military campaign remained prohibitive.

Negotiations between the government and MILF took place intermittently between 2001 and 2003 at which point they collapsed. The negotiations resumed later in 2003 and continued periodically until 2008. During the negotiations MILF engaged in violent acts against citizens, but the talks continued. MILF wants the Philippine government to acknowledge that Mindanao is the ancestral home of Muslims. It hopes to gain some measure of autonomy for the island. In 2008, after years of negotiations, the government and MILF signed a memorandum of agreement that expanded the autonomous Muslim region on Mindanao. However, Christians in Mindanao, who are a majority of the population, were unhappy with the agreement because they feared that they would lose land to Muslims. There had been conflict between Christians and Muslims in Mindanao since the Philippines became an independent state. [Editors note: Historically, the US encouraged this conflict through its long imperial occupation of the Phillippines. See Blood of Government by Paul Kramer for greater detail)

After independence, the Philippine government began encouraging settlement in Mindanao by Christians that lived in other parts of the Philippines (Tan, 2000). Between 1948 and 1960 approximately 1.2 million people migrated to Mindanao and in the 1960s and 1970s another 360,000 people migrated to Mindanao (Tigno, 2006). Overall from the 1950s to the 1970s there were 42 government-assisted migration projects that moved over 50,000 families to three-fourth of a million hectares in Mindanao (Tigno, 2006). The effect of this migration into Mindanao was that by the end of the 20th century 25% of the population of Mindanao was Muslim and 75% was non-Muslim (Tigno, 2006; Yegar, 2002). This demographic change in Mindanao is important because there is a perception by Moros that the Philippine government encouraged migration to Mindanao in order to marginalize the Muslim population of Mindanao. This sense of injustice in one of the factors that led to the creation of rebel groups and that fueled an insurgency in Mindanao.

The 2008 agreement fell apart after Christians in Mindanao used the Philippine justice system to fight the agreement between the government and MILF. Subsequently, the Philippine Supreme Court declared the agreement unconstitutional. The talks fell apart and violence began again. Over 200,000 people were displaced and hundreds of rebels were killed. However, the Philippine government continued to press MILF to continue the talks, refraining from military engagement. This lack of a military strategy by the government reflects Macapagal-Arroyo’s belief that negotiation with MILF is a better strategy, further illustrating that the government believes that MILF would be willing to negotiate in order to meet its political goals. The government and MILF signed a cease-fire in mid-2009 and it has held. The two sides have begun negotiating again and the Philippine government hopes to reach an agreement before Macapagal-Arroyo leaves office in late 2010.

The actions of the Philippines to combat insurgent violence provide us with a good case study for when deterrence strategies might work. MILF is fundamentally a domestic insurgent group with specific political goals. Deterrence theory argues that these types of groups can be negotiated with if governments are willing to consider some of their demands. Negotiating with MILF has proven difficult for the Philippine government because MILF has not always followed through on its commitments, occasionally reverting to violence when it perceives the failure of the government live up to its commitments. Such negotiation setbacks are an indication of the difficulties that both sides have in trusting each other when there are power asymmetries and lack of information about the strengths and motivations of the adversaries. It also is an indication that it can be dangerous for governments to give legitimacy to groups that carry out violent acts. Nevertheless, the success that the Philippines has had in keeping the negotiations going and getting MILF back to the bargaining table could be an example for other governments that have domestic insurgencies with specific political goals.

As result of the long standing negotiations and continuing sporadic violence that has killed thousands, it remains difficult to argue that a final peace agreement with MILF would be a total success. More research could be done on how states with weak governing capacity such as the Philippines could administer far off provinces in ways that would make the beginning of insurgent movements less likely. Finally, since the U.S. identified the Philippines as an important front in the campaign against terrorism it was an opportunity for the country to end the violence perpetuated by an international terrorist organization. As a unique moment in recent history and that of the 21st century, more research needs to be conducted regarding whether it is possible for weaker states to fight international terrorist organizations on their own or whether they must rely on outside powers such as the United States.

Shane Updike holds degrees from Seattle University, New York University and the University of Washington. He currently is working for the Highline School District near Seattle, doing data analysis and administering the district's Title 1 program. Prior to moving to Seattle to attend graduate school he was a high school history teacher in New York City. He also frequently wins trivia nights at local Seattle bars.

Monday, August 16, 2010

“Some Woman in Michigan Didn’t Like It”: Married... with Children and Its Times

Hawthorne may have said families are always rising and falling in America, but he never knew the Bundys. Crawling from the depths of suburban Chicago in the late 1980s, the underachieving family seemed to represent the nadir of Western civilization – the inverse of the happy 1950s sitcom family. Father clearly did not know best. Conservatives might have applauded the fact that Peg Bundy stayed home with the kids, but she only did so in order to eat bon-bons and watch Oprah, neglecting both her children and her husband. Daughter Kelly was basically a bubble-headed bimbo – so under-served by the educational system that brother Bud could convince her that Thomas Jefferson wrote the lyrics to
The Jeffersons’ theme song on the back of the Declaration of Independence.

Life peaked early for Al Bundy, the great high school football player, and the future only offered a long slog of handling the feet of overweight women who insisted they were a size 6, because they had always been a size 6. For these obese harpies, as for Al, life remained stuck in a delusion of past glory – a fine metaphor for the illusions of the Reagan Era.

What did this grotesque and depressing family mean for American culture in the late twentieth century? At bottom, it represented an attempt by the fledgling Fox network to get a foothold in the public consciousness with a gross-out comedy that refused to flinch in its cynicism, unlike the supposedly cynical
Simpsons, which reliably turned to sitcom sentimentality in each episode.

This dark edge was uncommon, not just for its selfish, amoral characters – it predated the similarly bankrupt
Seinfeld by two years – but also for its portrayal of a downscale working class life. This was not the lunchpail working class of the 1950s or 1960s. This was the low-wage, non-union service job that replaced industrial labor for many white, male high school grads of Al’s generation – and for his son Bud, the only Bundy to go to college, who might have ended up working at the Gap even he managed to get a degree. (See Reality Bites, and the Class of 2009.)

All in the Family, Married... with Children was a show about class conflict. Whereas Archie Bunker feuded with his businessman neighbor, George Jefferson, and college-educated son-in-law, Meathead, Al Bundy’s nemeses were his white-collar neighbors – Marcy, Steve, and Jefferson. (Unlike All in the Family, the show seemed to avoid race – perhaps it was easier or even safer to turn its jaundiced eye on class dynamics than race relations?) Steve was a banker – condescending toward the less-educated Al, but also henpecked by his wife Marcy (Amanda Bearse), who was Al’s true nemesis. A career woman and feminist, she enjoyed ridiculing her dim-witted neighbor.

Married... with Children inverted sexual politics in a number of ways. For instance, Al and his ne’er-do-well son Bud seemed conquered by women and their sexuality. Al’s sexual destruction seemed to have reached the point where his character’s only sexual thoughts involved his dread about having sex with Peg; few episodes exist in which Al expresses sexual interest anyone. If anything, Peg occupied what some might suggest is a traditional masculine role, i.e. the horny aggressive male. Peg consistently belittled Al’s sexual prowess, but expressed a desire for it nonetheless.

Like their parents, the Bundy children embodied two very different kinds of sexuality. Oversexed and unattractive, Bud found little luck with the ladies. The few sexual encounters he experienced on the show usually involved some level of deceit; of course, one might argue the majority of sexual interactions worldwide involve some mistruth, but for our purposes, Bud was not a ladies man. In contrast, Kelly’s character was defined by her stupidity and promiscuity. Kelly’s success with men inversely rivaled that of Bud’s with the ladies – in a sense, both Kelly and her mother were predatory and sexually threatening, in contrast to the inept or impotent men in their lives.

What of the white-collar folks next door? Intimations of lesbianism were common for Marcy – a reflection of stereotypes in an era when gay characters were still hard to find on television. With her short hair, assertive personality and feminist politics, Marcy provided an easy target for Al's (and possibly the writers') misogyny. It is possible that the writers used her character to mock stereotypes at the same time they indulged them, but we don’t want to read progressive intent into a show where it was not really intended. Marcy was both a Republican and a supporter of environmentalism, among other causes; she was, in short, a yuppie know-it-all who liked to lord her superiority over her crude neighbors.

Marcy’s second husband, Jefferson, was her opposite: a vain pretty boy with a polished coif and little ambition beyond the occasional con. Most of the time, he lived on her earnings – another flip to the gender dynamics of traditional sitcoms. (Actor Ted McGinley has perfected this character since Married, most notably in the Nixon satire Dick.) In a sense, Jefferson also seemed like the inverse of Al. Whereas Al dutifully trudged through his day job and put next to no effort into his own appearance, Jefferson sailed through life on his good looks. In the spectrum of sitcom respectability, he would place well behind Homer Simpson, Archie Bunker, and even Al Bundy himself.

While many conservatives have attacked the show for its immorality, a few have made a different case. For example, John Derbyshire of the National Review argued in 2003:
Married…with Children was a funny show because it showed us the Sancho Panza side of our natures in all its aspects, male and female, sexual and gluttonous, irreverent and work-shy. It showed it in proper social context, though... Al hates his work, but he goes to work every day none the less. The Bundys’ marriage is stale, but they stay married anyway. The kids are slaves to their own libidos, but it's hard to imagine them doing anything unkind or seriously illegal, or turning into dope addicts. You might even stretch a point and say that the show was a celebration of marriage, as that institution has been experienced by most Western people through most of history.
Derbyshire acknowledged the derision the show had received at the hands of his peers, who objected to the nuclear family as a comedic punching bag but also believed that “[i]t promoted parental irresponsibility and teenage promiscuity . . . The Bundys were crude, antisocial, and occasionally criminal in a mild way. The show held up to ridicule all that we hold dear, etc., etc.” Moreover, Derbyshire connected the Bundys’ painful continued matrimony to the marriage culture of the English working class of the past, pointing out that for much of the twentieth century no culture of divorce existed for such folks. This fits well with what Derbyshire identifies as the show’s “underlying principle”: responsibility or, more accurately, duty. “It would be too much to say that the show actually celebrated it, but it was there anyway — the principle of duty. This is not a very fashionable principle in an age like ours, an essentially hedonistic age.”

What of its legacy?
Married… with Children predated another portrait of working-class life in the Midwest, Roseanne, by a year, which directly spawned a series of copy-shows such as Thea (the black Roseanne) and Grace Under Fire (the single-mom Roseanne). Another Fox show of the early 90s, Roc, attempted to portray black working-class life; its main character, played by Charles S. Dutton, was a sanitation worker in Baltimore. (Notably, a running gag on Married was Al’s inability to pass the test necessary to become a garbageman.)

Of course, such programs might be more the children of Roseanne or Reaganomics, but Married… with Children’s success speaks for itself. It lasted over a decade. And for a trashy show on a fourth-rate network, it led to a surprising degree of career success for Christina Applegate (Samantha Who), Katey Sagal (Futurama, LOST), and Ed O’Neill (most recently appearing as the gruff but affluent patriarch in Modern Family). In fact, when one considers the range of difference between Married and Modern Family, Ed O’Neill’s actorly patriarchal impulses run deep and wide. One might even consider how much ideas of marriage and gender roles have changed by contrasting the two shows. Stylistically, the two sitcoms sit world’s apart, as Married seemed to almost enjoy wallowing in its low production values and traditional half hour set up.

Few shows have gone on to present the stress and strain of economic struggle in much the same way, even if Married’s style was silly and hyperbolic. One of the most recent examples of a white working class family on TV was Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006). The parents on Malcolm struggled to raise a large family on two small incomes, with dad toiling as a low-level office worker, and mom, a grocery store clerk. They resented their bosses and screamed at their unruly children. Stylistically, the show fell somewhere between the over-the-top absurdity of Married and the quasi-realism of Roseanne. The much-loved and too-soon-departed Everybody Hates Chris (2005-2009) employed a somewhat similar formula that of surrealism mixed with kitchen-sink turmoil.

As in the Chris Rock sitcom, the penny-pinching family in Malcolm could hope for something better, as at least one promising child might look forward to upward mobility. Darlene on Roseanne had literary and artistic talent that she pursued in art school, and even Bud went to college on the otherwise nihilistic Married… with Children. Such shows offered even the hardest-hit families a faint glimmer of hope for something better.

But where would the Bundys be today? A few years back, Roseanne Barr commented about the destiny of her own sitcom family, and the assessment was not pretty: “I've always said now that if they were on TV, DJ would have been killed in Iraq and [the Conners] would have lost their house.” Like the shrill proponents of family values, who crusaded against the Bundys’ vulgarity back in the day, economic inequality remains a fixture of the American political and cultural landscape – albeit one that remains more familiar off-screen than on.

AC and RR

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Madlib wars

I think the principal lesson I would draw from that was perhaps twofold. One was that it is not really possible, no matter what the skill, nor the size, nor the effectiveness of he American forces, to fight a war that does not have the understanding of the American people and the support of the American people. And I think another perhaps subsidiary lesson from that would be that we cannot and should not enter a war that it is not vital for our national security to enter, and we should never enter a war that we don not intend to win or in which we do not expend every single effort of every weapon and every facility that we have to win.

If we have to be in a war, then it has to be, in my opinion serious enough and severe enough for our national survival so that we should not be asked to fight – none of the men involved should be asked to fight – under any circumstances than the maximum employment of every strength that we have as a Nation.

And I think that was one of the problems we had… We went into it on kind of a dragged in sort of basis over the years. We never had a formal kind of declaration. For a long time… we attempted to fight a major war without admitting it and without any of the civilian sacrifices that are necessary for a major war…

It was not the kind of situation we should be in again because it was not the kind of struggle that was essential for our national survival, and we did not enter that war with any intention apparently of winning it. And that to my mind is a very serious indictment of what was done because of the effect on the man and women who were asked to participate in that kind of conflict. We lost thousands of lives, and we at no time made clear to the American people, the vital necessity of it or the fact that because we were participating, it was a war that we did have to win, in which we were willing to expend all of our efforts and all of our skills and all of our resources. And that I would hope would never happen again.

A sober assessment of our situation in Afghanistan. Or was it Iraq? In any case, these dovish and defeatist statement were clearly written by a liberal Democrat or Huffington Post blogger.

In fact, these words were spoken by Caspar Weinberger, as he reflected on Vietnam during 1981 Congressional hearings over his nomination as Defense Secretary in the Reagan administration. Once upon a time there were Republicans who spoke candidly and did not belong to the Defeat-at-Any-Cost camp. Such lucidity does not absolve "Cap" of his involvement in the Iran-Contra and Star Wars fiascos, but his plain talk would be nice to hear nowadays, as our new Vietnams play out in slow motion, out of sight and out of mind for much of the American population.


Monday, August 9, 2010

Pavement Redux

it's got more stars than the sky
it's still forbidden to excuse
that little look in your eye
i was busted in my gut that time
that time i said 'i know it's true'
why didn't i ask? why didn't i ask?
why didn't i ask? why didn't i ask?

-- “Kennel District” Wowee Zowee

In December of 2008, the hipster music site Pitchfork reviewed a reissue of Pavement’s Brighten the Corners. “For a band that often seemed be on the verge of a commercial breakthrough, Pavement made all the right moves-- they just did them in the wrong order,” Stuart Berman observed, reflecting on the oddity of Pavement’s career arc. For Berman and many others, Brighten the Corners should have been the follow up to their “indie hit” Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Instead, Pavement followed their 1994 breakout with Wowee Zowee, which Berman described as “slapdash … an album beloved by the band's diehard fans, but one that effectively squandered any crossover potential Crooked Rain might have built up.” Undoubtedly, Wowee Zowee failed to expand their base, but on the other hand the album features several classic songs, such as “Grounded”, “We Dance”, and the above “Kennel District.” Whatever one’s opinion of Pavement or Wowee Zowee, the excitement over their reunion tour this summer remains palpable.

Here at T of M, we have a podcast interview for you featuring one Stephen Malkmus. Its not our podcast, mind you, but rather that of Chicago music critics Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis, Sound Opinions, who do a great job of getting SM to talk about his days in Pavement – or, if you believe the interview, the days when he WAS pavement. Malkmus expounds on all things indie, namedropping the Replacements several times, all while quite honestly taking a lot of the credit for Pavement (just to be contrarian, “Kennel District" is the work of Scott Kannberg aka Spiral Stairs basically the only other member of the band Malkmus seems to consider a possible equal). In the interest of synergy, we here at Tropics of Meta are performing an unauthorized collaboration with NPR’s Sound Opinions. In this new spirit of cooperation, we offer previously posted pieces relating to the above subject matter:

Cherish Your Memorized Weakness: The Politics of Pavement – some thoughts on the meaning of Pavement their 1994 opus Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain

Rethinking the Replacements: The Production of Cultural Memory in the Aughts – an early piece from T of M, looking at cultural memory and how we think about a major influence on Pavement, Minneapolis brats the Replacements.


Monday, August 2, 2010

Deciphering 21st Century Celluloid Domesticity: The Nuclear Family in "The Kids Are All Right"

Whenever friends visit my temporary home of sunny San Diego, they marvel at the weather and incredulously ask me what my misanthropic problem is as I bemoan my SoCal discomfort. New Yorkers are the worst, prattling on about lack of congestion, clear blue skies and expansive five lane highways, a far cry from the BQE at rush hour or really at any time. However, I always stop to remind them that constant sunshine can be just as oppressive as endless Alaskan darkness, frigid Midwestern winters, or the sticky East coast summers that leave you dirty even after showering. Sometimes the brightest exteriors mask more complex inner workings, even when clothed in allegedly alternative trappings.

In 1979, shortly after drummer Keith Moon’s death, the Who released The Kids Are Alright, a collection of concert and video footage that illustrated their growth from rock group to artistic endeavor. Even if one found Pete Townsend’s burgeoning artiness off-putting or pretentious, clearly the Who developed into more than simply a band. A maturation of not insignificant proportions (in the long narrative of classic rock family trees they are perpetually grouped with the Stones, Led Zeppelin and the like though the Who’s progeny seem to be connected more often with the punk movement of the 1970s while the Stones and Zeppellin can be thanked for countless numbers of hair bands from Hanoi Rocks to White Lion to Kingdom Come), a coming of age if you will. Yet, in the end whatever their artistic intentions (and even internally the band battled over the extent to which it expressed them) or the radical musicians they influenced, the Who remains a standard bearer of classic rock, a staple of AOR radio, hardly a challenge to the status quo.

This summer’s similarly (though not identically) titled The Kids Are All Right, directed by Lisa Cholodenko, explores the lives of what Chicago Reader critic J.R. Jones describes as an “atypical family in Los Angeles—a lesbian couple and their teenage son and daughter, each child conceived by a different mother but from the same sperm donor—and finds them to be fairly typical after all.” Exactly. The surface appears to be fundamentally different, but when one digs deeper, this family seems more typical than most, as Jones continues pointing to their children’s true lack of wonder regarding their moms’ sexuality, “they're almost comically unimpressed by their mothers' alternative lifestyle; the most important thing they've picked up from their parents is that love and devotion are more important than sex, a thoroughly traditional notion.” It’s still a summer movie, after all.

First, regardless of what one think of the movie’s “radical” premise nearly all the performances emanate from the talents of the cast. Annette Benning (Nic) and Julianne Moore (Jules) balance each other’s characters excellently coming off as a quite traditional couple; the performances by Mia Wasikowska who plays the daughter Joni and Josh Hutcherson as the son Lazer (yes that’s right Lazer, perhaps the only truly unconventional aspect of the film, though one any SoCal resident might find disturbingly normal) probably couldn’t be any better. Finally, as several critics have gushed, Mark Ruffalo’s return to form as a feckless, wandering, somewhat adolescent adult (reminiscent of his work in You Can Count on Me) who nearly two decades earlier donated the sperm that impregnated Nic and Jules respectively.

The narrative that has developed around the movie seems to be one of recognition; recognition that we’ve changed as a society, perhaps for the better. Take Jones’s observation: “Plenty of movies strive for topicality, but occasionally something like The Kids Are All Right slaps you in the face with the world you're actually living in. The first sperm bank in the U.S. opened in the early 70s—almost two generations ago—but this is the first movie I can think of that's treated artificial insemination not as some sort of gimmick for comedy or melodrama but as an established fact of American life.” Or A.O. Scott’s argument that “The Kids Are All Right starts from the premise that gay marriage, an issue of ideological contention and cultural strife, is also an established social fact. Nic and Jules, a couple with two children, a Volvo and a tidy, spacious house in a pleasant suburban stretch of Southern California, are a picture of normalcy.” Much like Rachel Getting Married assumed multiculturalism, The Kids Are All Right never even acknowledges that there might be controversy over such a familial structure. One might even argue that the smugness that some observers critiqued in Rachel Getting Married emerges once again. [Author’s note: T of M was one of them, but both authors would also like to point out that each thoroughly enjoyed “Rachel” despite such flaws -- RR/AC.] After all, Nic is a successful OB-GYN, Jules has a wrist tattoo and her own newly established landscaping design business, and Joni has a prestigious science scholarship to college (one can only assume she’s attending the flagship California university, UC Berkeley). The couple engages in the average marital drama squabbling over the idiosyncracies of the other and their various domestic roles. Even Paul (Ruffalo) has his own organic style restaurant – American creative, of course – that uses only locally grown organic food. Paul, as he tells the couple and their two children at a BBQ, is a “doer,” but college never panned out for him. All very bohemian, all very Southern California.

The movie’s title alone encourages one to stop and think. New York Magazine reviewer David Edelstein acknowledged this noting “The title, like Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give, is one that trails you out of the theater and gives you something to brood on. (It has nothing to do with the Who—who spelled all right wrong anyway.)” This point deserves some unpacking. First, Edelstein’s wrong about the Who reference. If Nic and Jules are not manifestations of boomer culture, the same boomer culture that the Who rode to prominence in, no one is. For example, the daughter Joni gets her namesake from the artist Joni Mitchell while Paul and Nic exchange a dinner time rendition of Blue. So it's certainly possible that Chodolenko (who also wrote the script) was aware of the connection. Second, the title reinforces the boomer idea that in some way, their generation changed the world from tolerant multiculutralism (i.e. Rachel Getting Married) to newfound acceptance of human sexuality and alternative familial spaces (or as Nayan Shah might suggest “queer domesticities”). Yes, as Matthew Lillard’s capitalist sell out father (“I didn’t sell out, I bought in.”) relates to his 1980s punk crazed son in SLC Punk, “We ended that God Damn war in Vietnam!” Well yeah, you and the Vietnamese -- you might want to give the latter a little more credit.

Undoubtedly, critical push back has occurred. The
New Yorker dismissed the film for such conceits: “All of this is made so much worse by everyone’s aching need to be holier, and hipper, than thou. The California that we get in this film is a greener, gayer update of the California that Woody Allen took such perfect potshots at, more than thirty years ago, in Annie Hall, the difference being that Cholodenko doesn’t always know that it is funny.” While some might suggest a New Yorker critic making such claims amounts to the kettle calling the pot black, it's not altogether inaccurate. California did prominently BAN gay marriage two years ago through its allegedly “awesome” referendum system -- a touch of irony, no?

Yet maybe, thinking about the title in terms of the parents is exactly the problem. Recent studies suggest that Lazer and Joni’s generation, warped by prosperity, technology, and social networking (and anyone whose gone to a film this summer has seen the preview for the Facebook biopic The Social Network – a movie that appears surprisingly unsocial), lack the kind of empathy that make us human. Here, clearly, that’s not the case as both children appear grounded and good natured, if afflicted with typical teenage angst. Granted, one might still connect this to the parents, who after all raised them, but perhaps Cholodenko wants everyone to know, we are all OK.

Other critics like New York Press’s Armond White, savaged those who present Kids as some sort of modern movie elixir, instead holding up Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime as a superior equivalent: “Solondz’s satire cuts very close to the bone, correcting such complacency as in The Kids Are All Right— which a critic foolishly claimed 'shows how we live today' when its PC propaganda actually does the opposite.” For White, “Kids lacks the painful authenticity of life that Solondz seems to have perfected.” White rips apart Cyrus (another summer movie about non-traditional family relationships) and Greenberg as “mawkish”. Still, one might counter that Solondz remains Hollywood’s premier misanthrope, a director who can find fault and tragedy in an ice cream cone on a hot summer day. Welcome to the Dollhouse for all its excellence adopted perhaps the harshest view of junior high ever committed to film, an interpretation that while at times accurate also proves overtly dark. Though White suggests that Solondz's “situations are funny, shocking and tough [but] never sarcastic”, unless he’s reserving that observation for Life During Wartime alone, it seems a difficult argument to sustain.

Other critics found in Kids a crushing traditionalism. Both children seem to yearn or at least wonder about the possibility of a masculine role model. In relation, Jules’s marital infidelity with Paul smacks of the bored, unappreciated spouse stepping out on their dutiful other as a means to mitigate feelings of invisibility. Jules’s actions seem not unlike those of the frigid Betty in Mad Men or countless other examples, man and woman. The implied reconciliation of the couple, reinforces the idea of marriage as a troubled but reliable institution, one that Jules describes as a “marathon” in a mea culpa that Keith Uhlich of Time Out New York described as “particularly unfortunate—an Oscar clip trying desperately to mask its award-grubbiness, the kind of faux-profound summation that would make Aesop cringe.” Moreover, others found the movie’s treatment of the family’s sperm donor problematic. Paul’s ostracization, though admittedly deserved, troubled the New Yorker:
What Cholodenko, at her sneakiest, is doing here is to ask what occurs when a moral elasticity encounters sturdier, more traditional forms of living. Paul, for example, may only be a makeshift father figure, but under his influence Joni begins to stand up for herself against the brittle Nic, and Laser is inspired to drop an unsuitable friend—something that his mothers have long been urging him to do, without success. As for Jules, she gets laid by a man, which, if nothing else, makes a change, the problem being that the small, tolerant world of these prosperous folk can’t handle a change that extreme. Just as the California sunshine somehow loses its relaxing suffusion and hardens into a cruel noontide, so, by an irony that Cholodenko may not fully have intended, the climax of The Kids Are All Right grows suddenly humorless, and close to vengeful, in its moralizing glare.
The implication that a lesbian couple should be more forgiving of infidelity than more hidebound traditional heterosexual pairings seems confusing. Isn’t marriage, whether hetero or same sex, essentially about devotion to the other? Why would being gay change the rules of that game? Moreover, Paul’s ostracization may not be a political act in the least, but rather a human one. When Uhlich chastises the movie for its treatment of the lazily handsome Ruffalo, “there’s something suspect in the way the film disposes of him, as if his very real complications (the paternal love he shows alongside his libidinous flaws) have no place in the unconvincingly traditionalist family portrait Cholodenko is painting,” there seems to be a lack of acknowledgment of the “grubbiness” of reality. He bedded Nic’s wife; yes, he also loves the two kids, but how would that not cause friction and alienation? Again, are homosexuals supposed to be more tolerant of infidelity than straights? Why? Homosexual does not mean promiscuous, does it?

To be fair, critics who enjoyed the film, like the aforementioned Jones, pointed out that for some Kids will seem a lefty polemic: “Of course, redefining the family according to this love and devotion rather than any rigid gender roles is a cherished goal of lifestyle liberals, and though The Kids Are All Right sometimes smacks of political correctness, Cholodenko succeeds brilliantly in making her little clan seem completely run-of-the-mill.” Though one wonders just how absent said gender roles are when Nic and Jules engage in a semi-public argument in which Jules accuses Nic of being controlling and wanting a “wife”. Much like Townsend and Roger Daltrey battled for the Who’s vision of masculinity (Daltrey refused to sing on several songs, complaining about Townsend’s arty, less masculine interpretations), so too do Nic and Jules struggle to define their own roles internally and externally. Modern life, Generation X’s perpetual adolescence, and Boomer self satisfaction (lined with continuing self doubts about their alleged cultural accomplishments) combine to ferment in a challenging stew of human confusion. Who are we? What are our roles? God, have I become my parents? In the end, the
New Yorker’s negative review actually suggests the very reason Kids is worth watching: “Danger shrinks back, and the kids are all right again, although you have to wonder who the real kids are: Joni and Laser, wise and wry, or their messed-up moms and feckless dad, who have so much more to learn?” Maybe we all are.