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The Suicidal American Empire Is Collapsing Fast, But Its Death Now Would Cause Unacceptable Collateral Damage

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Orlov is one of our favorite essayists on Russia and all sorts of other things. He moved to the US as a child, and lives in the Boston area.

He is one of the better-known thinkers The New Yorker has dubbed ‘The Dystopians’ in an excellent 2009 profile, along with James Howard Kunstler, another regular contributor to RI (archive). These theorists believe that modern society is headed for a jarring and painful crack-up.

He is best known for his 2011 book comparing Soviet and American collapse (he thinks America’s will be worse). He is a prolific author on a wide array of subjects, and you can see his work by searching him on Amazon.

He has a large following on the web, and on Patreon, and we urge you to support him there, as Russia Insider does.

His current project is organizing the production of affordable house boats for living on. He lives on a boat himself.

If you haven’t discovered his work yet, please take a look at his archive of articles on RI. They are a real treasure, full of invaluable insight into both the US and Russia and how they are related.


There are a lot of behaviors being exhibited by those in positions of power in the US that seem disparate and odd. We watch Trump who is imposing sanctions on country after country, dreaming of eradicating his country’s structural trade deficit with the rest of the world. We watch pretty much all of US Congress falling over each other in their attempt to impose the harshest possible sanctions on Russia. People in Turkey, a key NATO country, are literally burning US dollars and smashing iPhones in a fit of pique. Confronted with a new suite of Russian and Chinese weapons systems that largely neutralize the ability of the US to dominate the world militarily, the US is setting new records in the size of its already outrageously bloated yet manifestly ineffectual defense spending. As a backdrop to this military contractor feeding frenzy, the Taliban are making steady gains in Afghanistan, now control over half the territory, and are getting ready to stamp “null and void,” in a repeat of Vietnam, on America’s longest war. A lengthening list of countries are set to ignore or compensate for US sanctions, especially sanctions against Iranian oil exports. In a signal moment, Russia’s finance minister has recently pronounced the US dollar “unreliable.” Meanwhile, US debt keeps galloping upwards, with its largest buyer being reported as a mysterious, possibly entirely nonexistent “Other.”

Although these may seem like manifestations of many different trends in the world, I believe that a case can be made that these are all one thing: the US—the world’s imperial overlord—standing on a ledge and threatening to jump, while its imperial vassals—too many to mention—are standing down below and shouting “Please, don’t jump!” To be sure, most of them would be perfectly happy to watch the overlord plummet and jelly up the sidewalk. But here is the key point: if this were to happen today, it would cause unacceptable levels of political and economic collateral damage around the world. Does this mean that the US is indispensable? No, of course not, nobody is. But dispensing with it will take time and energy, and while that process runs its course the rest of the world is forced to keep it on life support no matter how counterproductive, stupid and demeaning that feels.

What the world needs to do, as quickly as possible, is to dismantle the imperial center, which is in Washington politically and militarily and in New York and London financially, while somehow salvaging the principle of empire. “What?!” you might exclaim, “Isn’t imperialism evil.” Well, sure it is, whatever, but empires make possible efficient, specialized production and efficient, unhindered trade over large distances. Empires do all sorts of evil things—up to and including genocide—but they also provide a level playing field and a method for preventing petty grievances from escalating into tribal conflicts.

The Roman Empire, then Byzantium, then the Tatar/Mongol Golden Horde, then the Ottoman Sublime Porte all provided these two essential services—unhindered trade and security—in exchange for some amount of constant rapine and plunder and a few memorable incidents of genocide. The Tatar/Mongol Empire was by far the most streamlined: it simply demanded “yarlyk”—tribute—and smashed anyone who attempted to rise above a level at which they were easy to smash. The American empire is a bit more nuanced: it uses the US dollar as a weapon for periodically expropriating savings from around the world by exporting inflation while annihilating anyone who tries to wiggle out from under the US dollar system.

All empires follow a certain trajectory. Over time they become corrupt, decadent and enfeebled, and then they collapse. When they collapse, there are two ways to go. One is to slog through a millennium-long dark age—as Western Europe did after the Western Roman Empire collapsed. Another is for a different empire, or a cooperating set of empires, to take over, as happened after the Ottoman Empire collapsed. You may think that a third way exists: of small nations cooperating sweetly and collaborating successfully on international infrastructure projects that serve the common good. Such a scheme may be possible, but I tend to take a jaundiced view of our simian natures.

We come equipped with MonkeyBrain 2.0, which has some very useful built-in functions for imperialism, along with some ancillary support for nationalism and organized religion. These we can rely on; everything else would be either a repeat of a failed experiment or an untested innovation. Sure, let’s innovate, but innovation takes time and resources, and those are the exact two things that are currently lacking. What we have in permanent surplus is revolutionaries: if they have their way, look out for a Reign of Terror, followed by the rise of a Bonaparte. That’s what happens every time.

Lest you think that the US isn’t an empire—a collapsing one—consider the following. The US defense budget is larger than that of the next ten countries combined, yet the US can’t prevail even in militarily puny Afghanistan. (That’s because much of its defense budget is trivially stolen.) The US has something like a thousand military bases, essentially garrisoning the entire planet, but to unknown effect. It claims the entire planet as its dominion: no matter where you go, you still have to pay US income taxes and are still subject to US laws. It controls and manipulates governments in numerous countries around the world, always aiming to turn them into satrapies governed from the US embassy compound, but with results that range from unprofitable to embarrassing to lethal. It is now failing at virtually all of these things, threatening the entire planet with its untimely demise.

What we are observing, at every level, is a sort of blackmail: “Do as we say, or no more empire for you!” The US dollar will vanish, international trade will stop and a dark age will descend, forcing everyone to toil in the dirt for a millennium while mired in futile, interminable conflicts with neighboring tribes.

None of the old methods of maintaining imperial dominance are working; all that remains is the threat of falling down and leaving a huge mess for the rest of the world to deal with. The rest of the world is now tasked with rapidly creating a situation where the US empire can be dealt a coup de grâce safely, without causing any collateral damage—and that’s a huge task, so everyone is forced to play for time.

There is a lot of military posturing and there are political provocations happening all the time, but these are sideshows that are becoming an unaffordable luxury: there is nothing to be won through these methods and plenty to be lost. Essentially, all the arguments are over money. There is a lot of money to be lost. The total trade surplus of the BRICS countries with the West (US+EU, essentially) is over a trillion dollars a year. SCO—another grouping of non-Western countries—comes up with almost the same numbers. That’s the amount of products these countries produce for which they currently have no internal market. Should the West evaporate overnight, nobody will buy these products. Russia alone had a 2017 trade surplus of $116 billion, and in 2018 so far it grew by 28.5%. China alone, in its trade just with the US, generated $275 billion in surplus. Throw in another $16 billion for its trade with the EU.

Those are big numbers, but they are nowhere near enough if the project is to build a turnkey global empire to replace US+EU in a timely manner. Also, there are no takers. Russia is rather happy to have shed its former Soviet dependents and is currently invested in building a multilateral, international system of governance based on international institutions such as SCO, BRICS and EAEU. Numerous other countries are very interested in joining together in such organizations: most recently, Turkey has expressed interest in turning BRICS into BRICTS. Essentially, all of the post-colonial nations around the world are now forced to trade away some measure of their recently won independence, essentially snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The job vacancy of Supreme Global Overlord is unlikely to attract any qualified candidates.

What everyone seems to want is a humble, low-budget, cooperative global empire, without all of the corruption and with a lot less life-threatening militarism. It will take time to build, and the resources to build it can only come from one place: from gradually bleeding US+EU dry. In order to do this, the wheels of international commerce must continue to spin. But this is exactly what all of the new tariffs and sanctions, the saber-rattling and the political provocations, are attempting to prevent: a ship laden with soya is now doing circles in the Pacific off the coast of China; steel I-beams are rusting at the dock in Turkey…

But it is doubtful that these attempts will work. The EU has been too slow in recognizing just how pernicious its dependence on Washington has become, and will take even more time to find ways to free itself, but the process has clearly started. For its part, Washington runs on money, and since its current antics will tend to make money grow scarce even faster than it otherwise would, those who stand to lose the most will make the Washingtonians feel their pain and will force a change of course. As a result, everyone will be pushing in the same direction: toward a slow, steady, controllable imperial collapse. All we can hope for is that the rest of the world manages to come together and build at least the scaffolding of a functional imperial replacement in time to avoid collapsing into a new post-imperial dark age.

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Art fakes: Disputed ‘Basquiats’ seized by FBI shake the US art world | Culture

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While New York surrenders once again to the genius of Jean-Michel Basquiat with an exhibition of unpublished work curated by his family, in Orlando (Florida), there is considerably more controversy over the work of the artist who died at the age of 27. An exhibition at the Orlando Museum of Art dedicated to the former close friend of Andy Warhol, entitled Heroes & Monsters, has cost the head of that gallery his job, while the FBI investigates the authenticity of 25 of the works, not to mention the threats made by the director against an expert who had been commissioned to evaluate the authorship.

Although the scandal began to take shape in February, when the exhibition opened, the FBI raid took place last Friday with the seizure of the paintings with a contested attribution to Basquiat. Aaron De Groft, director and chief executive of the museum, has relentlessly defended that these are genuine works, while emphasizing that it is not a museum’s role to certify the authenticity of the works it exhibits. “[The paintings] came to us authenticated by the best Basquiat specialists,” he told the local NBC television station in February.

De Groft had for months championed the importance of the paintings, asserting that they are worth millions of dollars, until an expert showed up who’d been hired by the owners of the paintings and she began to question his version of events. The director was fired on Tuesday, just two business days after agents seized the 25 suspicious works. The museum’s board of trustees met for hours that day, but not before warning employees that anyone who dared to discuss the matter with journalists would suffer the same fate as De Groft. Hence, it is impossible to know the version not only of the former director, but of any worker at the center. Nor can any information be gleaned at the New York exhibition, a mixture of unpublished work and memorabilia, where organizers are fearful of the devaluation caused by the Orlando scandal.

FBI agents during the seizure of the dubious Basquiat paintings at the Orlando Museum of Art on June 24.
FBI agents during the seizure of the dubious Basquiat paintings at the Orlando Museum of Art on June 24.Willie J. Allen Jr. (AP)

“It is important to note that there is still nothing that makes us think that the museum has been or is the subject of an investigation,” Emilia Bourmas-Free told the local chain on behalf of the art gallery. Cynthia Brumback, chairwoman of the museum’s board of trustees, expressed itself in similar terms in a statement, saying that the board of trustees is “extremely concerned about several issues related to the exhibition Heroes & Monsters,” including “the recent revelation of an inappropriate e-mail correspondence sent to academia concerning the authentication of some of the artwork in the exhibition,” as reported by The New York Times.

The statement refers to a disparaging message sent by De Groft to the specialist hired for the expert opinion, cited in the FBI investigation as “Expert 2″ but who the New York Times has confirmed is Jordana Moore Saggese, an associate professor of art at the University of Maryland. This expert, who received $60,000 for a written report, asked the museum not to have her name associated with the exhibition, according to the FBI affidavit. Angry, De Groft threatened to reveal the amount of the payment and share the details with her employer, the university.

“You want us to put out there you got $60,000 to write this?” wrote De Groft, according to the affidavit. “Ok then. Shut up. You took the money. Stop being holier than thou. Do your academic thing and stay in your limited lane.” The board said it has launched an official process to address the matter. The scandal was precipitated a few hours after the closing of the exhibition, which had originally been meant to travel to Italy.

Facade of the Orlando Museum of Art, with the promotional poster of the exhibition dedicated to Basquiat, on June 2.
Facade of the Orlando Museum of Art, with the promotional poster of the exhibition dedicated to Basquiat, on June 2.John Raoux (AP)

The mystery of the cardboard box

But how did the paintings get to the Orlando Museum? The museum and its owners maintain that the paintings were found in a Los Angeles storage unit in 2012. The New York Times reported that questions arose over one of the paintings, made on the back of a cardboard shipping box with FedEx lettering in a typeface that was not used until 1994, six years after Basquiat’s death, according to a designer who worked for the company.

Both De Groft and the owners of the paintings maintain that they were made in 1982 and that Basquiat sold them for $5,000 to a famous television screenwriter, now deceased, who deposited them in a storage unit and forgot about them.

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Ramón Estévez regrets his name change to Martin Sheen | Culture

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At the beginning of the sixties, Ramón Estévez was desperate. His first steps as a television actor had gone well, but he felt stuck in that medium and wanted to get into theater and film. However, at the time, his name held him back: there were few successful Latinos in the United States. “Whenever I called for a position, whether for work or for an apartment, they answered me hesitantly when I gave my name, and when I arrived, I found the position already filled.” He said in 2003. And so, Ramón decided to create an artistic name by merging the name of Robert Dale Martin, the CBS network’s casting director, who had helped him in those essential appearances on the small screen, and that of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who, as Estévez’s little sister Carmen recalls, “regularly appeared on TV.”

This is how Martin Sheen came about, and owing to his great talent, he triumphed first in theater and, later as an actor in the movies, notably: Badlands, Apocalypse Now, The Departed, and Wall Street. However, the identity of Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez did not disappear: this name remains in all of Sheen’s official documents (passport, driver’s license and marriage license)… and in the actor’s soul. Last week, in an interview with Closer magazine, he confessed that one of the great regrets of his life was his change of name. He speaks with pride of the obstinacy of his son Emilio, who kept it despite “his agent’s advice to change it”. In relation to his own decision, he reflects: “Sometimes they convince you, when you don’t have enough insight or even enough courage to stand up for what you believe in, and you pay for it later.”

Martin Sheen in 'The West Wing' reunion, last October.
Martin Sheen in ‘The West Wing’ reunion, last October.

Over time, Sheen recovered his Galician roots, the land where his father, Francisco Estévez Martínez, was born. His father was an immigrant who left Parderrubias, in Salceda de Caselas (Pontevedra), for Cuba at the age of 18 in 1916. He left with no Spanish, a language he learned on the Caribbean Island. In the early 1930s, he emigrated to the United States to a modest Irish neighborhood in Dayton (Ohio), where he married another immigrant, Mary-Ann Phelan.

Martin Sheen’s life has been profoundly marked by his childhood. His father worked at NCR Corporation, an industrial conglomerate that began manufacturing cash registers. Shortly after his marriage, the company sent him to the Bermuda Islands where his first children were born. Sheen was the seventh of ten children (nine boys and one girl), and the first to be born in Dayton, in 1940, after the family moved to the US. His left arm was clasped by forceps during birth, leaving it three inches shorter than his right arm. As a result of this, the character that Sheen interprets in the series The West Wing of the White House, President Josiah Bartlet, puts on his jacket with a strange twist of the body. As a child, he suffered from polio which kept him bedridden for a year, and at the age of 11 his mother died. Thanks to the support of a catholic charity and his own father’s efforts, the family remained united against the distribition of children to orphanages or foster homes, a common practice at the time.

Martin Sheen abd Francis Ford Coppola during the recording of 'Apocalypse Now'.
Martin Sheen abd Francis Ford Coppola during the recording of ‘Apocalypse Now’.

He was the eccentric of the family: he decided to go into acting. Against his father’s objections, Ramón, the most reserved son only enjoyed the theater and decided to study acting. “You don’t know how to sing or dance!”, his father told him, to which his son replied: “You love westerns and in those nobody sings or dances”. “But you don’t ride a horse either!” was his father’s comeback. Despite this discouragement, he moved to New York, following in the footsteps of his idol, James Dean.

In the mythical episode Two Cathedrals of The West Wing, he explains how the character President Bartlet reflects the experiences of his own childhood and adolescence. Estévez/Sheen: a practicing Catholic and relentless campaigner against global warming, a man in favor of civil and immigrant rights, he was arrested several times during demonstrations outside the White House. His activism began when he was just 14 years old in a golf club where he worked. He led a strike of caddies, protesting against the club members’ use of bad language in front of children.

Actor Martin Sheen takes part in a "Fire Drill Fridays" protest calling attention to climate change at the U.S. Capitol in Washington
Actor Martin Sheen takes part in a “Fire Drill Fridays” protest calling attention to climate change at the U.S. Capitol in WashingtonJOSHUA ROBERTS (Reuters)

And then there’s the Spanish context. Francisco Estévez did not teach his children Spanish, but the Estévez family went back to their roots. Francisco was able to return to his hometown in Galicia in 1967 (just as Sheen landed his first big role in In the Custody of Strangers), where he began building a house, while making regular trips back to Dayton. He would never see this house finished. He died in Dayton in 1974, and was buried with his wife and son Manuel, who had died in 1968. His only daughter, Carmen, ended up working as an English teacher at a school in Madrid, where she married. For years people in Madrid have bumped into Sheen during his visits to his sister. Carmen finished building her father’s house and inaugurated a river promenade dedicated to his memory. Indeed, she has kept the memory of the Estévez alive in Salceda de Caselas.

The Camino de Santiago, a dream come true

In the early years of the 2000s, Sheen, his son Emilio Estévez and his grandson, Taylor, walked the Camino de Santiago. In Burgos, the grandson met a girl, and at the end of the walk he decided not to return to Los Angeles, but to remain in the Castilian city, where he got married. Influenced by that experience, Sheen and Estévez made the film El camino (2010), in which both co-starred and the latter directed. A few months ago, Sheen spoke proudly of El camino, a great success, and a faithful portrayal of his spirituality. During filming, at a lunch under huge pergolas at the back of Burgos cathedral, Sheen explained: “I am a Catholic, and a lot of that spirituality is in this movie. I have had an extremely happy life, with the normal highs and lows of a career. I have survived disease and my family is wonderful [his four children, including Charlie Sheen, are actors]… I believe in a church that does incredible work in the Third World. Other things, like some of the pronouncements from the Pope [at that time, Benedict XVI], are more difficult for me. I live my faith, and it is between God and I.” A few meters from Sheen and the journalist, at the long tables, was a strange group that didn’t not look like actors: “That’s my wife, that’s my sister and her husband, that my best childhood friend… I’ve invited them to come and have a good time with Emilio, Taylor [who worked as an assistant] and me”. Taylor Estévez currently works as a stunt coordinator in California.

Martin Sheen at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral with his sister Carmen, 2009.
Martin Sheen at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral with his sister Carmen, 2009. Andres Fraga

Carmen Estévez says that for decades the family did not understand their father’s deeply Galician sense of humor, until they realized that for much of the time he was not being serious. This sarcasm was inherited by his son Ramón/Martin, and he made a display of this in Burgos. In response to a question about his career, he said: “With my resume full of bad movie titles, what can I say. I’m an actor and that’s how I’ve supported my family. But I’ve been in about 10 films that I can be proud of…” at which point he dropped his cup of coffee and blurted out: “See? For gloating over my career. Divine punishment”.

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Buzz Lightyear: To Lesbians and Beyond | Culture

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Buzz Lightyear and Alisha Hawthorne in a still of 'Lightyear' (Disney/Pixar, 2022).
Buzz Lightyear and Alisha Hawthorne in a still of ‘Lightyear’ (Disney/Pixar, 2022).Pixar (AP)

The first homosexual kiss in a Disney movie has been more than expected. Many of us wanted to see it in Frozen: some interpret the ice princess’s song “Let it Go” as a reference to being gay. Lots of people awaited it in Luca, where the love between protagonists Luca and Alberto was at times more obvious even than that of the cowboys in Brokeback Mountain. We longed for a legendary, effervescent kiss, the fruit of a rebellious and passionate love. It was going to be a vindictive kiss, full of fireworks. It would be one of those kisses that precede the mythical The End, when the screen fades to black behind the lover’s mouths. It was a kiss that was going to take everything over. Above all, it was going to be the great kiss of the 21st century, undoubtedly the century of homosexual visibility and the century of the gender revolution, the moment when women fall in love and kiss for the first time and do all of it on the big screen. (Well, not all of it.)

The first lesbian kiss in Disney history appears in the recently released Lightyear, and it has sadly led to the censorship of the film in 14 countries in the Middle East and Asia. The kiss takes place in 1995, that is, 27 years ago. The first homosexual kiss of the Disney Pixar factory recognizes that it is years late. It is a 90′s kiss. It comes not from the 21st century, but the 20th. How? The film starts with the following premise: in 1995 Andy, the protagonist of Toy Story, went to the cinema to see Lightyear. This is the movie he saw then. Lightyear, therefore, is not the end of the saga but its prequel. In addition, the controversial kiss does not happen between a young protagonist and her girlfriend, but between two mature women who have been married for years. We are not facing a rebellious kiss, much less a political or ideological one. This kiss is not intended to be a novelty or to make anything visible. It is an absolutely conventional gesture. Thank you, Disney Pixar for going beyond my wildest dreams when it comes to normalizing visibility. And thank you for listening to your workers and refusing to remove the scene. In the long run, it will be more profitable to sacrifice box-office earnings than dignity.

In addition to being between two women, the kiss happens between two mothers, on the day that they celebrate their son’s birthday. It is not the classic Disney kiss, a culmination of the romantic love between the leading couple, but a stolen moment of quotidian happiness. It is a fleeting kiss, insignificant in the history of lovers. It lasts just seconds. It is not charged with any special meaning in the love story. It speaks of a way of building affections and meaning different from that imposed by the traditional heterosexual canon: seemingly unimportant gestures of are everything. It represents a kind of love where kisses do not represent a turning point in the lovers’ lives, but rather small anchor points in their story history. In this gesture, romantic love is not ultimately the center of life but part of it. In Lightyear, we witness the anodyne kiss on the lips between space explorer Alisha Hawthorne and her wife, and we realize that partners are not at the center of any story, but rather one of those fragments that give meaning to life. It is a sapphic kiss in the sense that it is another way of building love, more horizontal, quieter and healthier.

Alisha—a female, lesbian and black—does not have as much screentime as Buzz Lightyear—male, white and the story’s protagonist. She is the protagonist’s friend, confidante and inspiration. Together they are trapped on an uninhabitable planet due to a mistake he made. From that moment on their lives run parallel but radically different–almost like the story of lesbian and heterosexual love. She adapts to the circumstances and begins to live the life that has befallen her, without rejecting its difficulties. The conditions are not the best, but Alisha falls in love–with a woman–and celebrates her luck. Together they have a son. Along the way, she takes care of those she loves, she has a granddaughter, she fights and she investigates. She fills her life with meaning, and she dies. Buzz, on the other hand, insists on “finishing the mission,” “being important,” “saving the world,” “succeeding,” “being a hero,” “doing things alone” and “being the first.” Buzz, who will never know love, embodies many of the traditional values of heteronormative love, starting with the desire for protagonism and the sense of a linear life narrated through love or milestones, leading only to deep, intimate failure.

Lightyear attempts to travel into space to escape from the planet where he is trapped, failing over and over again. Additionally, though, time is altered every time he subjects his ship to hyperspeed. Every time he returns, a few minutes have passed for him and a few years–four, ten or twenty–for Alisha. He burns through life, while she lives it. In one of the final moments, Buzz Lightyear explains to Alisha’s granddaughter why he and her grandmother became space rangers. “We just wanted to be important,” he says. “Trust me, she was,” she says. And the hero understands that his whole life has been a huge misunderstanding. He will have to return home, knowing that his home is the one he has tried to flee all his life.

The film is a masterpiece, full of action, emotion, humor and imagination. Its commitment to diversity includes a warrior over seventy years old, a rebel whose role is essential in saving the world. No one is talking about the old woman for the simple reason that old age remains invisible even when it occupies the center of the scene. The film also gives us Sox, an adorable robotic cat that demonstrates how the only technology that works is that which helps people, not that which attempts to change them. It is truly one of the great Pixar movies, much more than action and stars.

At this point, it had gotten hard to explain why we humans want to keep going to infinity and beyond. But there is a moment, at the end of the film, when we understand: when the elite protectors of the universe excitedly observe the bronze statue of Alisha, a black lesbian woman, the source of meaning for humanity, because she is the one who knew how to live a small life with greatness.

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