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Chait is right, it would be quite easy for conservatives to condemn the Charleston shootings, acknowledge the obvious motive of racism, and disavow the entire thing without compromising conservative doctrine. This would be the smart political move. That they all haven’t is morally and politically disastrous. So why not do it?

Obviously there’s no one answer and, unlike in the act of violence we’re talking about, it’s difficult to know exactly what these folks are thinking and feeling. Someone like Rick Santorum basically only sees attacks on religious freedom (as he sees it) wherever he looks. That’s his particular hammer, and this is just another nail. Gun nuts are obviously trying to shut down any gun control momentum that might come of this. It’s just become routine for them to argue that the cure for the disease of handgun killings is more guns. For someone like Jeb Bush and other mainstream/establishment conservatives of his ilk, the decision to remain aloof is stranger. The best I can figure is that they, like Santorum and the NRA, are trying to play the angles, either to avoid either getting slammed for being insensitive, or for (even worse) actually having to agree with the liberal left on race in a high-profile case. Not to mention the implications of what that agreement might mean.

I might be wrong, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this winds up being a bit of a turning point. For years we’ve been hearing about the ideological calcification of conservatism, but this is one of the starkest examples yet, one where the ideology and its protectors simply cannot handle what’s going on in the world, and needs to reframe things in comfortable ideological abstractions that make no sense. If even fabulously multicultural Jeb Bush gets mealymouthed over this, then the party’s ability to expand beyond their graying base is going to be even tougher than was previously thought.

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Looks like Denmark is about to swing to the right, continuing the year-plus string of parties of the left just getting hammered around the world. Not that I think this is a portent for 2016 necessarily, and I think it quite likely that general elections in Canada and Spain should counter this trend before the end of the year. Certainly, local elections in both of those countries are just about the only non-awful things on the electoral front for quite some time.
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Now that Jeb! is fully in, it’s worth taking a second to consider the import of his candidacy. I’ve written before that the most similar circumstance to Bush 2016 is Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential run. Obviously, there are major differences: RFK was popular, and his slain brother was universally beloved, and had recently been publicly grieved in a way that was simply unprecedented. Bush is not terribly popular, and his brother was certainly the most disastrous president of the postwar era, and near the bottom overall. But neither went into their contests a frontrunner, and both have surprisingly similar challenges to contend with. Kennedy struggled to deal with his opponents’ efforts to use his brother’s record and family against him in the Democratic primaries. Bush has similarly struggled. Gene McCarthy’s pledge to fire J. Edgar Hoover may be the equivalent of various Republicans’ denunciation of the Iraq War after Bush supported the initial decision. Or maybe it’s not.

There is a perspective which says that RFK’s decision to run was fundamentally selfish. Before he entered the race, there was already a candidate in the race who opposed the Vietnam War: Gene McCarthy. McCarthy was more or less a conventional liberal who strongly opposed the Vietnam War, and unlike RFK, he was willing to take on the seemingly suicidal step of opposing an incumbent president’s renomination. Had he lost, his career would likely have been over. But he wasn’t: McCarthy wound up forcing LBJ out of the race after New Hampshire, at which point Kennedy jumped in. While RFK obviously had a base of Kennedy enthusiasts, this decision introduced yet another split to the Democratic Party, at a time when the party was already severely fractured. It ensured that the antiwar portion of the Democratic base would be divided, while the hawkish and establishment wings would line up nicely behind Vice President Hubert Humphrey. McCarthy supporters felt used and embittered that RFK had effectively encouraged McCarthy to dispatch Johnson and then wanted to dispose of him, in what implicitly could only be read as Bobby’s conviction that a Kennedy man deserved the presidency, after his brother’s death and the Johnson “usurpation” that followed. Obviously, that’s not the only perspective: elements of Kennedy’s aggressive campaign–and in particular, his passionate desire to move forward on civil rights–have earned much deserved praise. But his desire to run because “that’s what Kennedys do, ” as he said, angered and embittered many people in the party, to such an extent that most historians believe that Humphrey would still have won the nomination had Robert Kennedy lived. Remember that his various primary wins mattered much less in the “old” nominating system. Humphrey had the bosses in his hand.

It hasn’t exactly risen to the surface yet, but you see signs that Republicans may resent Jeb Bush’s run as well. You see it in his nonexistent list of endorsements outside of Florida. You saw it in the anvils he was being thrown after he said…well, all the stuff he said about Iraq. Bush seems to be running, essentially, because “that’s what Bushes do,” even though neither previous Bush president ended his tenure with particularly rosy approval ratings. So why does Jeb Bush sign up for a tough race where he’s not heavily favored in either the primaries or the general, and intends to run in the former with a highly dubious message of strength in the latter? Why even bother, when someone like John Kasich or Marco Rubio is more or less an easy substitution? Why not just spend time with the grandkids, instead of getting back into the political scrum a decade after leaving it, where everything from the issues to the media to the technology has changed radically?

This is where we get into speculation, but I find it hard to believe that his thinking on this isn’t family-centric, about not letting the slings and arrows of Dubya define this generation of Bushes, and about not allowing the Bush family to slip into the obscurity/irrelevancy of the modern-day Roosevelts, say. If not Jeb, then we must wait for George P. Bush, who is a decade away at least from that kind of prominence. Will there be anything left of the Bush brand by that point? One can see why Jeb Bush, and the Bush family, and Bushworld in general would find this compelling. But nobody else really cares. And as we saw with the recent dustup over Iraq, another Bush run means digging into decades’ worth of baggage that many Republicans are no doubt tired of rehashing. Not to mention the party’s new generation of talent that really doesn’t want to have to take a back seat for another 4-8 years while Jeb Bush replenishes the family honor. Also, there’s Bush’s comfort with multiculturalism, which extends beyond his immigration stance and colors his personal life, family, social life, etc., is going to be inherently offputting to certain sectors of the party. Jeb isn’t going to intentionally mispronounce “nuclear” to show that he’s folksy. He’s not going to speak Spanish with the mother of all anglo accents. He is, by all accounts, proud of his multicultural family and his beliefs follow from that. I do think that Bush genuinely understands that a GOP that shuns ethnic minorities is one destined to be a political minority. But the party he desires to lead is one that more than any time in recent memory rejects this formula. I should say that I do still think Bush wins the nomination–Walker still seems like an amateur, Rubio just hasn’t shown the ruthlessness he’d need to destroy his old mentor, and after that it gets much dicier. I still think he wins. But if he gets the nomination in such a way that it breeds resentment and division in the party–which might very well be the only way he can do it, by shredding Walker and taking on the right wing–then it may not be worth all that much.

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Sounds like the speech was great
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cbgbDid America really need another exploration of CBGB? Going by box office returns, it seems like it didn’t. The subject has been covered, in both books and film, many, many times, meaning that at this point a movie about the defunct nightclub would have to bring a fresh angle to the proceedings. That seems hard to do. Having just read the 33 1/3 book about Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, the Dead Kennedys album, I came away thinking what an awesome movie could be made out of San Francisco punk. The riots after Dan White’s acquittal would make for a thrilling, terrifying climax, and while New York punk rock had little interest in the politics or broader life of New York City during the 1970s, in San Francisco it was very much the opposite, in which the punk scene was deeply connected to political activism in the city. Punks rioted when the Twinkie defense worked. They protested when poor elderly people were evicted from their homes. They did their best to stymie Dianne Feinstein’s work to turn San Francisco into the slick business center her entire career was built on making it into. Hell, one of the biggest members of the SF scene actually ran for public office. And made an impact on the race! After reading about all this, most of which I was unfamiliar with, the notion of watching CBGB and watching the familiar acts portrayed by lookalikes lip-syncing to studio tracks of their greatest hits just seemed incomparably lame. And not for nothing, but there were other clubs in New York where punk acts played. Why not do something about Mercer’s? Or the Mudd Club? Unfortunately, they failed to brand themselves quite as effectively, or stick around so long, as CBGB. Now, was that a good thing? Watching the movie, you’d never know that CBGB, which opened business the same year as Saturday Night Live hit the airwaves, wound up following an almost identical trajectory. An astonishingly fruitful first few years, then a period of decline where people just wondered why the hell this thing still existed, before it just sort of became an institution that kept going because, to quote Noah Cross, it lasted long enough, and ultimately abandoning the wild, anarchic tendencies it initially stood for. The only difference is that CBGB closed over a decade ago, while SNL remains on the air, its sketches structured much as they were in 1987.

Truth be told, the film wasn’t as painful as I feared. I’ll start with the strengths, or really strength, though it is a big one: Alan Rickman. Rickman turns in a fully engaged, pitch-perfect performance as CBGB owner Hilly Kristal, a twice-failed bar owner who gets lucky the third time, quite by accident. Rickman has to carry so much of the movie since the movie is very much a valentine to Kristal, depicted as near-saintly despite his moderate depravity. The movie goes very easy on him, the main fault it gets across is that he’s so generous that he neglected to mind the business effectively, which is like in a job interview where you say that your greatest weakness is that you care too much. But Rickman is very much a delight here, just the right blend of smartass and mentor, cynic and true-believer. Ironically, for a film titled CBGB, the material with him is much stronger than the stuff about music. Anyway, it’s commonly known that Kristal thought that country and bluegrass were going to be the future of music, which gave the club the first three letters of its acrostic (blues being the other one). But, to his credit, Kristal wasn’t too hot on actually enforcing the name of the establishment in terms of his program, which before long was hosting all sorts of left-field acts, some of which would change music indelibly, and nearly all of those get a scene or two so to fill out the soundtrack with famous songs before leaving the film abruptly. Let’s be honest: this movie is not at all interested in the also-rans who played at CBGB on the days when a future world-famous act wasn’t there, or in how the big-name acts developed musically, which one would figure would be the meat of this movie. Talking Heads gets one scene that features no real character or thematic content. Television and Blondie get two apiece, both of which depict them starting as the much-slicker, later incarnations of those bands that it would take them years to grow into. Iggy Pop ahistorically plays the club too–he should have been hanging out with David Bowie in Berlin at this time, either doing dope with him, or trying to get off the dope with him. Patti Smith’s scene is a real low point, in which she delivers some awful-sounding poetry sans accompaniment before going into her biggest hit, “Because The Night.” That song was written long after she rose to fame and was hobnobbing with superstars like Bruce Springsteen, who co-wrote the song. But what’s one wildly botched story or two for a movie that seems intent to misinform at every turn? The only real one of these that I enjoyed were the two scenes of The Ramones, which acknowledged the gloriously shambolic mess that that band was, and also because the songs they played were a bit off the beaten path. I didn’t even recognize one of them, though admittedly I’m not a Ramones diehard. In those scenes, you get a sense of what this movie could have been if the primary focus had been less on thumbnail personality sketches and Hilly doing drugs, and more on the specific charm of the locale and the music.

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I still think that this Pitchfork review of Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile is one of the funniest bits of music writing ever.
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There are all manner of things Dick Cheney doesn’t understand, I’m sure, but ultimately I think this paranoia is widely shared on the right. He doesn’t know what makes Obama tick? Well, that’s understandable, given that the president has only written two books (and, unlike Cheney, he didn’t use a second author on either), not to mention thousands of delivered speeches by this point, and he has as well as an actual record in office as president. That’s clearly not enough material to form a working understanding of how the man thinks and works. Now, granted, if you assume that all that is just for public consumption and that the real Obama is some kind of insidious bad guy with a plot to impose radical change on America, then it’s a lot harder to know what makes him tick, because he constantly seems to do things that undermine that strategy and make it hard to build a general theory. For example, by bailing out the banks and doing nothing for the public, Obama inadvertently empowered the increasingly ascendant Elizabeth Warren contingent, highly critical of finance. His troubled push for TTIP Fast Track is being viewed so skeptically partly because of bad trade deals the public has in memory, but then again, it may be that Obama himself has inked one too many deals too favorable to Republicans that liberal Democrats simply don’t trust him on this sort of thing anymore, spurring a more procedurally radical Democratic Party. Man, that guy is so sneaky. What appears to be giving away the farm and not being aggressive enough is actually a long-term radical plot. Who knew?

It is pretty fascinating how conservatives misunderstand liberals in ways that are simply not reciprocated. It’s fair to say that the left may exaggerate the extent of certain right-wing ideas from time to time (despite the visibility of the detestable Duggars, Quiverfull is a fairly modest movement), or it may be less than charitable in various interpretation of things, but there’s simply no equivalent to the sorts of things that conservatives pull out of their butts when it comes to trying to understand liberals. There’s simply no liberal Jade Helm. Stuff that may be similar in bugnuttitude, like the antivaxxers or 9/11 Truthers (which is hardly an exclusively left phenomenon) exists at the margins, and hardly get large cross-sections like the silly Texas stuff did/does. I do sort of wonder why this is. Residue from McCarthy perhaps? An intentional conservative media operation? Something else? At this point, given how easy it is to find actual liberals’ thinking online, it seems less acceptable than ever for this kind of ignorance to exist. And while turning liberals into cartoon villains may fire up the base, it’s going to make it very hard to actually defeat them in the near future.

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