Michael Mechanic

Michael Mechanic

Senior Editor

Michael has been a senior editor at Mother Jones for eight years, after spending the previous six as an award-winning features editor at the weekly East Bay Express. In addition to editing stories for print and web, he is in charge of the magazine's Mixed Media section. His writing has appeared in a range of newspapers and magazines including Wired, The Industry Standard, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, two kids, three chickens, striped cat, and too many musical instruments to master.

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Michael has been a senior editor at Mother Jones for eight years, after spending the previous six as an award-winning features editor at the weekly East Bay Express. In addition to editing stories for print and web, he is in charge of the magazine's Mixed Media section. His writing has appeared in a range of newspapers and magazines including Wired, The Industry Standard, and the Los Angeles Times. He originally set out to be a scientist, and as an undergrad spent a year in an organic chemistry lab at UC-Berkeley, where he was a biochemistry major, trying to synthesize tropical frog poisons. He also earned a masters degree in cellular and developmental biology from Harvard University and a masters in journalism from Cal. In 2009, he was named a finalist for a National Magazine Award for his contribution to MoJo's "Torture Hits Home" package. (His contribution, "Voluntary Confinement," involved a reality TV show that held contestants in isolation.) He also won a 2014 Society for Professional Journalists award for "It Was Kind of Like Slavery," a photoessay with photographer Nina Berman. Michael lives with his family in Oakland, California, where he sits on his front porch and attempts to play the fiddle.

Film: Restrepo, South of the Border

RestrepoCourtesy Cinema Libre Studios

Restrepo

In 2007, journalist Sebastian Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington climbed aboard a military helicopter headed to Afghanistan's remote Korengal Valley to report on frontline life. Over the next 15 months, they returned 10 times to the distant Army outpost, getting an unparalleled glimpse of the mix of boredom, fear, and adrenaline that made up the soldiers' lives.

The result is Restrepo, a harrowing documentary that tracks the deployment of a scrappy 15-man platoon from the 173rd Airborne through its life cycle, from naive bloodlust to fatigue and disillusionment. The filmmakers avert their gazes from the worst violence—such as when a soldier is shot in the head. The faces of the survivors are perhaps more disturbing. In introspective interviews conducted after the deployment is over, the symptoms of PTSD begin to emerge.

Restrepo is not intended as an anti-war film; it is singlemindedly faithful to the experiences of the soldiers it portrays. But it's hard to conceive of a more effective piece of propaganda against sending teenagers into the wilderness to watch one another die. —Jascha Hoffman

 

South of the Border Courtesy Outpost Films

South of the Border

Taking a break from Hollywood, Oliver Stone presents a glossy portrait of the Bolivarian revolution that swept South America during the last decade. He schmoozes with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Bolivia's Evo Morales, among others—casting them as champions of the poor who courageously stood up to the United States and the IMF.

South of the Border does give a good sense of our nation's meddling and its subjects' humanity. But softball questions (along with a stage-managed scene of Chávez tottering on a kid's bike in his childhood backyard) make for an uncritical, top-down approach to understanding a populist movement. —Michael Mechanic

Robert Byrd, the Fiddling Senator

Last week, upon the passing of West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, MoJo correspondent James Ridgeway posted this video on his blog, Unsilent Generation. The fact that Byrd was an accomplished old-time fiddler was no secret to his West Virginia constituents. Old-time mountain music is mighty popular with Appalachian voters, even now. But like me and Ridgeway, most Americans probably had no idea the man had musical talents. Byrd recorded this album, Mountain Fiddler, back in 1978, by which point he was already a senator. It was released by County Records, an old-time and bluegrass label in Floyd, Virginia, active since the 1960s.

I emailed Alan Jabbour, retired director of the American Folklife Center, who wrote the liner notes, hoping to learn a bit about how it came about. "I knew Senator Byrd pretty well and recorded him for the Library of Congress," Jabbour wrote back. "And yes, he both fiddles and sings on the record. My friend Barry Poss recorded the actual LP record tracks and assembled the excellent back-up band of bluegrass musicians who accompanied Senator Byrd." 

Jabbour pointed me to West Virginia's Dominion Post, which had interviewed him. (He didn't feel like repeating himself.) Byrd, the paper reported, took up fiddle when he was young, and would break it out and play a few tunes on campaign stops now and again. "I think music was dear to his heart," Jabbour told the DP. "You don’t get to playing a fiddle like that just because it’s useful in politics. You only get there because you played the fiddle when you were young and threw your heart and soul into it."

There are plenty of hot fiddlers in Appalachia. How good was Byrd? "He wouldn’t have said he was a great fiddler," he'd told the DP. "But there is a level of fiddling that you can fiddle at and everyone would say that is good. That’s where he was."

His singing wasn't too bad, either.

Click here for more Music Monday features from Mother Jones.

Is the Washington Post Shilling for the Pentagon?

If you need evidence of media complicity in support of what author Andrew Bacevich calls the "Washington Rules"—aka the national security consensus that justifies our militarism around the globe—look no further than today's Washington Post.

Here you'll find a fawning A-1 article by Laura Blumenfeld—apparently a big fan of 24—about the brave men and women of the Obama administration who stay up nights keeping America safe. Here's her summary:

With two wars, multiple crises abroad and growing terrorism activity at home, these national security officials do not sleep in peace. For them, the night is a public vigil. It is also a time of private reckoning with their own tensions and doubts. They read the highest classification of intelligence. They pursue the details of plots that realize the nation's vague, yet primal, fears.

Now check out this bit on Robert M. Gates—human being—who sacrifices his peace of mind for our safety:

The secretary of defense must be reachable at all hours. He transmits orders from the White House to the Pentagon in an era when troops operate in every time zone. If North Korea tests a nuclear weapon or Iran tests a new missile, Gates needs to know now. "I don't feel like I'm ever really off," he said earlier. "I have security and communications people in the basement of my house. They come up and rap on the basement door."

Next to his bedroom at home, he confers in a sound-proof, vault-lock space. He calls it "The Batcave."

Gates smiles. He radiates control: individual white hairs lie combed into place; a crack in his lips is smoothed repeatedly by ChapStick. But even this confident cabinet secretary—the slightly feared Republican, whose status others covet by day—slips, at night, into the shadows of doubt.

At his compound in Washington, he'll change into jeans and a baseball cap and take a walk after 11 p.m. He'll count the number of surveillance cameras watching him and look out into the dark and reflect on the "persistent threat. You know, and you wonder, what more can you be doing? What have we missed?"

The Coolest CD Ever, and Less Than Two Bits!

Hey, look what arrived in the mail!

Look closely: This isn't a CD. It's actual circuitry embedded in a jewel case. Awesome! If you're a musical artist struggling to grab the notice of busy reviewers, here's one way to do it—so long as the postal authorities don't mistake your thing for a bomb.

Now I must admit to having a small issue—literally—with the actual music. There are severe limitations when you're composing 1-bit ditties. By necessity, it's pretty cold, spare stuff: nitrous music for robot videos. (What's nitrous music? It's what I call stuff like this.)

Sure, 1-bit is kinda neat—even nostalgic for those of us who once ran out and bought the 8-bit Casiotone-VL1. (Here's a blurry 15-year-old me holding one—wish I still had it.) But despite the brief success of German band Trio, even 8-bit doesn't encourage repeat listening—and 1-bit can be downright harsh. Just compare Fischerspooner's original "Just Let Go" with Tristan Perich's 1-bit rendition. (You might want to lower the volume just a tad.)

I do love the concept, though. Perich has been experimenting with the form for a number of years now. This particular—uh, what to call it?—circuit is billed "1-bit Symphony." It will be offered in August by Cantaloupe Music, a New York label that puts out what was once called "experimental" and has been rebranded "new music": acts like Matmos, which plays on found objects including—wow—cow uteruses. (Where does one even find a cow uterus?)

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