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In case it’s not clear in my review of the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, I did enjoy it. The event’s crowd control was nonexistent and the AV was inadequate, so my group opted to watch it from the cozy confines of Elephant & Castle on nearby Pennsylvania Avenue.  The pub had all of the energy of the Mall, but with better seating and refreshments.

“We live now in hard times, not end times”, declared Jon Stewart to an overflowing crowd of some 200,000 ironic-sign-toting fans on the National Mall in Washington, DC. “We can have animus and not be enemies.”

Stewart, the smart and popular host of “The Daily Show”, a satirical news programme, was addressing the many who had come for his October 30th “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear”, which he co-hosted with Stephen Colbert, the star of the faux conservative spin-off show, “The Colbert Report”. But despite such a grand assembly ahead of Tuesday’s midterm elections, the event was surprisingly apolitical. After hours of entertainingly neglecting the concerns held by most voters, Stewart finally turned serious. His target? The media.

“The country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems. But its existence makes solving them that much harder,” he announced.

Amid Stewart’s scorn for punditry, he managed to squander an opportunity to address the problems he claims the media spin-cycle distorts. The result was a “Rally to Shift the Blame“, laments David Carr of the New York Times, who went on to write that “media bias and hyperbole seem like pretty small targets when unemployment is near 10 percent, vast amounts of unregulated cash are being spent in the election’s closing days, and no American governing institution—not the Senate, not the House of Representatives, not even the Supreme Court—seems to be above petty partisan bickering.” In a rally dedicated to restoring sanity, Stewart let himself be distracted by a symptom instead of a root cause of America’s current bout of manic depression.

As someone hosting a rally of hundreds of thousands of people in the nation’s capital, Stewart had the platform and even the obligation to say more than he did.

Click here to read the rest of my rally review (with a real T-Paine reference!) on More Intelligent Life or to make a comment.

Photo credit: lizstless (via Flickr)

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I was originally just going to note on my blog how prescient my talk with Selena turn out to be, but I ran it by my editor at MIL and she was interested in seeing a polished write up. Below is what I threw together. Really, I never cease to be amazed by the dark, absurd comedy of modern politics.

When I interviewed Selena McMahan, a professional clown, for More Intelligent Life a few months ago, she suggested that governments could benefit from having more clowns around. Not the troupes of oblivious blowhards found caucusing in many nations’ capitals, but actual self-aware performers. “The clowns that are in government don’t know that they’re clowns,” McMahan laughed. “If there were professional clowns whose job it was to give some perspective, I think that could be really interesting and could possibly make government more effective.” Voters and politicians have since put her ideas to the test.

In Brazil’s federal elections on October 3rd, a clown won the most votes of any candidate elected to the lower house of Congress this year, and the second most ever. Francisco Oliveira Silva, better known by his stage name “Tiririca” (which means “grumpy” in Portuguese slang), is a 45-year-old political novice who grew up in the poor north-eastern state of Ceará. He began selling cotton candy in the circus at age eight and eventually worked his way up to hosting a nationally televised comedy show. As Tiririca, Silva clowned around in many colourful campaign ads.

Will Tiririca expose the hypocrisy and corruption in Brazil’s congress? It’s unlikely. Despite the 1.3m votes he tallied, it is not clear whether Silva is even eligible for congress. A recent article in the Brazilian magazine Epoca cast doubt on the candidate’s ability to read, which is a legal prerequisite for holding office in a country where 10% of the population is illiterate. Even if Silva’s victory survives the electoral court proceedings, his time in office may amount to little more than a bad joke. As Reuters ominously notes, “his candidacy may not have been as spontaneous or innocent as it might appear.” Given that Tiririca benefited from a well-financed campaign, it is safe to assume he will be as beholden to special interests as the other clowns in Brasilia

A more incisive use of clowning took place on Capitol Hill in September, when Stephen Colbert testified before a House judiciary subcommittee meeting on immigrant reform.

Click here to read the rest of the post, see Colbert’s surreal testimony, or make a comment.

Photo credit: axelsrose (via Flickr)

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My blogroll-ed friend Ted Reinert badgered me into going to this show and I’m glad he did. I had seen the Arcade Fire and their awesome openers Spoon twice each and didn’t expect much from either this time around. Both bands put on better shows than I thought were possible.

UPDATE: After many, many posts and articles for MIL, this is my first piece to rise to the top of the Most Popular list! Literary folks love the Arcade Fire.

“How are the people on the hill doing?” asked Win Butler, Arcade Fire’s lead vocalist, of the fans crammed onto the sprawling lawn behind the Merriweather Post Pavilion amphitheatre in Maryland. “That’s where I’d be,” he announced proudly. Before launching into the encore, he shared a story from his suburban Houston childhood: as an usher at an outdoor venue in Texas (not unlike the 16,500-person space he was now headlining), he would turn a blind eye to eager fans from the cheap seats sneaking down to the stage.

Experiences like these colour the band’s third album, “The Suburbs”. Most of Arcade Fire is native to cosmopolitan Montreal—the adopted hometown of Win Butler and his bandmate and brother William—yet the new record sounds like it came straight out of the American rust belt: “Some cities make you lose your head/Endless suburbs stretched out thin and dead/And what was that line you said/Wishing you were anywhere but here/You watch the life you’re living disappear.” Butler delivers these lines on “Wasted Hours”, a song that echoes the Midwestern malaise of The Replacements, who first proclaimed that “Anywhere’s Better Than Here”.

Even the stage was set up to evoke the claustrophobic sprawl of middle America: a lone streetlight was visible in the rear left of the backdrop, with an image of cracked pavement and a bridge overpass enveloping all eight members of the touring band. A giant billboard, which doubled as a video screen and lighting display, rose out of the rear centre of the stage, tying the suburban motif together.

I first saw the Arcade Fire six years ago in the Midwest.

Click here to continue reading the MIL blog post or to make a comment.

Photo credit: NRK P3 (via Flickr)

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I lived on the same dormitory floor as Selena during my freshman year of college. Although we didn’t see each other as much as we did when we lived on either side of the floor’s co-ed bathroom, we remained friendly enough during the next three years that Selena made a point of adding me to an email list she wrote to during the year she spent after graduation literally clowning around. With periodic intermissions, she has kept clowning–and emailing me–ever since. After her most recent adventures, I asked my editor if I could interview her for MIL. The  product of our two-hour-long conversation is below.

Selena McMahan’s life as an international clown began when she won the liberal-arts equivalent of an internship at Goldman Sachs: the Watson Fellowship, a no-strings-attached $25,000 grant to travel the world for a year pursuing, well, whatever. Soon after graduating from Bowdoin College in the summer of 2005, McMahan used her award to tour nine countries on four continents—putting on clown shows at every stop. (The Watson may offer little in terms of future earning power, but every year it gives some 40 students from America’s elite small colleges a lifetime’s worth of stories.)

Her Watson year marked the beginning of what has become a one-woman circus. Upon returning to New York City, where McMahan had lived before college, she began volunteering with the American chapter of Clowns Without Borders (CWB). McMahan’s first trip with the organisation was to the FEMA trailer parks of hurricane-devastated New Orleans in 2007. Most recently, she took her clown show on tour in Ethiopia. Shortly after returning from CWB’s annual meeting of international chapters in Berlin, McMahan spoke with More Intelligent Life from her apartment in France, where she first studied the art of the clown and where she lives now. We discussed the perception and politics of clowning around the world.

More Intelligent Life: Is there a difference between the way clowns are viewed in America and Europe?

Selena McMahan: Clowning is something that is more respected in European theatre traditionally. In the States, it’s starting to change now. It didn’t used to be that way in the States. If you look at Charlie Chaplin, “I Love Lucy”—there’s been huge clowns in the US. But recently clowning has become more circus clown and birthday clown—something not very valued or artistic. In Europe that hasn’t happened, or not to the same extent.

MIL: You recently completed a two-year diploma programme in physical theatre. I get the sense that you do not have a very high opinion of the amateur clowns one might find at a children’s birthday party.

SM: Right. In America a lot of what’s happened with birthday clowning is really big make-up that’s designed to be seen in a circus tent of 7,000 people or more. People started dressing up like clowns in a circus, but in a birthday party in someone’s living room. A circus clown in a living room is scary. The make-up is not meant for that environment. I think that’s why a lot of people are afraid of clowns and we have a bad reputation now. It’s about finding a costume that goes with the clown suitable for that environment.

MIL: Like the blog that grew out of it, your Watson Fellowship project was called the Contemporary Clown Circuit. Can you explain what that phrase means?

SM: It felt to me that in this day and age the interesting place for clowns is in a real-life setting. It’s not in the theatre. It’s not on movies and TV. It’s in the world. The role of the clown is to be the person who can question the authority, who can question the status quo. That’s childlike but at the same time is extremely wise. By this balance of being extremely naïve and wise but with a different kind of logic, clowns have permission to do things that other people never could. A typical example is that a court jester can make fun of the king.

MIL: Can you give a contemporary example of clowns questioning authority or satirising political power?

Click here to leave a comment and read Selena’s answer about staging shows in the military state of Myanmar, clowns in government, and being an artist in Europe.

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I hope this wasn’t lost in my critique: I really did enjoy the Newseum. But more as Disneyland for news junkies than as a museum. I do recommend it, with the caveats listed in the More Intelligent Life article.

One of Washington, DC’s most popular attractions is also its most unwittingly moribund

Walking up historic Pennsylvania Avenue, one cannot help but notice the massive 74-foot-tall tablet adorning the otherwise futuristic facade of the Newseum, a seven-storey, steel and glass museum dedicated to journalism. Like a massively oversized version of one of Moses’s ten commandments, the 50-ton slab of Tennessee marble is inscribed with a similarly venerated text: the first amendment to the Constitution, which ensures the right of Americans to free speech. Under the tablet is a dynamic display of the county’s free press, featuring the front pages of daily newspapers from America and around the world.

This juxtaposition of old and new is echoed throughout the Newseum, with often impressive results. A mangled piece of the broadcast tower that once stood atop the World Trade Centre is the centrepiece of a powerful multimedia exhibit about the challenges journalists faced in covering the attacks of September 11th 2001 (pictured below). A collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs is brought to life by interviews with both the photographers and their subjects. An antique transistor radio shares display space with Apple’s iPad.

But after playing in the interactive newsroom and interacting with the dozens of touch-screens scattered throughout the museum, I was left wondering where all this technology is leading journalism. The Newseum, which is highly popular, manages to avoid many of the big and difficult questions facing the industry. Instead it is devoted to the heroic history and rosy future of journalism, told from the perspective of the big media titans who helped finance the museum. Facts that contradict this narrative are downplayed or ignored.

I brought this up with Joe Urschel, executive director of the museum. “Facts? You don’t want facts, do you?” he jokes as I sit down in his spacious office, with views of the Capitol and National Mall. Three flat-screen televisions suspended near his desk broadcast news from ESPN, MSNBC and CNN. As a longtime editor at USA Today and the Detroit Free Press before joining the Newseum, Urschel understands the way facts can get in the way of a good story.

Click here to read the rest of the MIL article or to make a comment.

Photo credit: James P. Blair/Newseum

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Green is the new Gold

My editor chose not to feature the video that inspired this MIL post, so I’ve linked to it at the bottom. Environmentalism, sports, and art–what’s not to like? Leave any comments here.

Despite having hosted the Winter Olympics twice before, only on Sunday did Canada succeed in winning a gold medal on its own snow-covered soil. The medal itself, earned by Alexandre Bilodeau, a champion mogul skier, also represented a unique environmental achievement in Olympic history, as it was made in part from recycled materials. Specifically, the medal included metal salvaged from the circuit boards of electronic devices, otherwise known as e-waste.

Bilodeau’s medal—along with the other 614 Olympic medals and 399 to be awarded at the subsequent Paralympic Games—helps to both highlight and combat the growing environmental problem posed by e-waste. Electronic devices that were once considered luxury items are becoming as commonplace and personal as toothbrushes. Because they contain toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and beryllium—as well as recyclable metal and plastic components—safely disposing this flood of phones, computers and televisions when they break or become obsolete is a challenge.

By teaming up with Teck Resources, a Canadian mining company, the creators of this year’s Olympic medals—Omer Arbel and Corrine Hunt, both Canadian designers—have brought new attention to the issue and prevented 6.8 metric tonnes of e-waste from ending up in landfills.

London, the site of the 2012 summer games, is expected to feature green medals modelled on Vancouver’s example. Organisers of the London games are spinning their entire “One Planet Olympics” around the idea of global sustainability (which is evidently the the third “pillar” of the Olympic Movement, along with sport and culture).

But Vancouver’s medals still leave room for improvement. Weighing in between 500 and 576 grams each, the medals are the heaviest in Olympic history. Less than 2% of each medal’s weight is derived from gold, silver and copper recycled from electronic devices. London’s medals could certainly do better (could this be another Olympic competition?), but this is a winning start.

To learn more about the aesthetic and environmental design of the Vancouver Winter Olympic medals, check out this video from Dell–which is apparently happy to see that some of the e-waste it produces is being put to good use.

Photo credit: RobMan170 (via Flickr)

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Yup, that's me

Just add snow—the more, the messier. A few wet, white flakes in the Washington metro area are all it takes to wash away the veneer of efficiency local politicians try to maintain. When faced with nearly 30 inches of snow, as it was last weekend, America’s seat of government freezes up.

As the virulent debate over health care has made clear, America’s legislative process already moves at a glacial pace. The near record-setting snowstorm has not only suspended the city’s semi-reliable buses and commuter trains, but has halted all congressional momentum (such as it was) for two days straight. Only the centre lanes of most important thoroughfares have been ploughed, leaving Congressmen, lobbyists and well-paid bureaucrats stranded in the suburbs. Cars that ventured out on unploughed roads packed the snow between the wheel ruts into block-long medians. Wet snow snapped branches off magnolia trees and stately pines; broken boughs still clutter the sidewalks in many neighbourhoods.

In defence of Adrian Fenty, the city’s mayor, administrators everywhere struggle to cope with extreme weather. In Britain any break from the despairing rain causes officials to panic. Closer to the DC, the governments of Maryland and Virginia exhausted their snow-removal budgets even before this latest storm had hit. They could take a page from the government of New York City, which stretches its municipal dollars by hooking ploughs to the front of its biodiesel garbage trucks.

The threat of the coming snowstorm caused a run on area supermarkets. In its aftermath, some fashionable shops dug themselves out and lured discharged workers with snow-day sales. Most bus stops still sit behind a fortress of thigh-high snow, but entrances to smart shops soon sparkled in the afternoon sun with puddles and salt crystals. I noticed the Banana Republic near my office was mobbed with shoppers yesterday when I attempted to buy lunch at the closed food court across the street.

Washingtonians seem to be making the best of the snow, despite the municipal ineptitude. Massive organised snowball fights have been staged across multiple neighbourhoods. Even the president, who spent many winters in America’s snowy Midwest before moving into the White House, took a moment to poke fun at his adopted city’s inability to process precipitation. At an event over the weekend, he thanked his party faithful for being “willing to brave a blizzard—Snowmaggedon right here in DC”.

But the collective amusement may wear off soon: an additional six to 16 inches are expected in the area later today.

Click here to see the original MIL blog post or to make a comment.

Photo credit: The Pumpernickel (via Tumblr)

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