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I have less than no use for Ted Cruz, but this mainly just shows how silly the “natural born” requirement is to be president. Seriously, we’re going to let 14th century English law settle who our president is going to be? It might or might not mean born within the United States exclusively, but could this language, in all its absurdity, be used to keep someone delivered by C-section from becoming president? It seems as though it could be read that way–recall that Macbeth was done in by a similar loophole. The phrase is ambiguous at best, and deliberately obscure at worst, and given what I know of lawyers and how they draft documents, obscure terms are only used if obscurity is the objective. Given that my basic take on the Founding Fathers is that, among other things, they came up with as many ways as possible to subvert the democratic will of the people as they could, inserting some vague language may well have been such a feature to be used later, if needed. Who knows? But it seems less than useless at this point.

In any event, I’m still waiting for a solid argument as to why someone who undergoes the severe vetting of a presidential campaign and is able to convince most Americans (or so) to vote for them should not be able to become president if that person was born in another country, as opposed to governor of a state or a Supreme Court Justice. There’s just no argument there.

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So nobody seems to have noticed this fairly significant milestone. Reading this contemporary article about the war vote is quite interesting. For one thing, it’s surprising to see just how close Desert Storm came to not happening. The Senate vote was 52-47, a surprising squeaker of a vote. Under today’s filibuster norms, the filibuster would not have been broken. It’s sort of mindblowing, really, in so many ways. Nowadays, presidents just decide to have a war, and Congress doesn’t vote. It seems an eternity since that wasn’t the case, though it wasn’t all that long ago in the grand scheme.

I don’t really blame Bush 41 for the hell that broke loose later on after the taboo on use of force had officially been lifted–the guy truly did believe in restraint, to the unrelenting fury of the neocons who went on to make that trait radioactive in Republican foreign policy, but who ironically made the strongest case for it when their Iraq misadventure backfired. It’s probably overstating the case to say that the Gulf War and the collapse of the USSR at the end of the same year together were what moved America into its present hypermilitaristic state–it’s not as though the military-industrial complex went away after 1972 and Reagan in particular was as interventionist as he could be, regularly attempting to circumvent Congressional bans on helping right-wing militias topple left-wing governments and such, though rarely was he able to use brute force. But certainly those two events were pivotal steps down the path to 1997, which was the year when our it became apparent our elites had decided we’d had enough peace already–that was the year when President Clinton replaced non-hawk Warren Christopher with ultra-hawk Madeleine Albright at the State Department, who along with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair (first elected the same year) did much to get Bill Clinton to become even more involved in complicated international messes than he had before, including Iraq. That was also the year that the Project for a New American Century opened its doors–its brand of shoot-first hawkery had all but conquered the GOP by the end of the decade, with most of the holdouts (Colin Powell, Chuck Hagel, Dick Lugar, Linc Chafee) reduced to waging impotent opposition at best before leaving office early. By the next year, elites had already begun trying to sell us on a new era of conflict in ways that are in retrospect obvious–it’s no coincidence that Tom Brokaw published his insult to everyone born after 1925 in 1998–“greatest” is a comparison term, after all, and if the WWII Generation was the greatest because they fought the war, what does that make everyone else, and why? But that book and Kristol’s WWII obsession give away the game: it’s on some level about Baby Boomers who want their own WWII. Rather than being thankful that we don’t have to fight one, these folks seemingly can’t live their lives without the thought of being involved in a similar conflict. So we got “islamofascism” and “Axis of Evil” and endless Churchill at Munich analogies, which are not only silly but deeply pathetic, an attempt to hijack the glory of that “good” war. But President Obama is correct–the Middle East poses security problems to the West, but no existential threat on par with the Nazis. Dangerous and damaging as they are, the Bill Kristols of the world seem simply pathetic, desperate to live in a historical moment that they have the luxury not to live in. And the effective use of American military power on a large scale in the Gulf War undoubtedly did much to goad this along, not only breaking the taboo and changing public attitudes toward military force, but burnishing the Republican Party’s durable foreign policy advantage in the 1990s, which was certainly part of why Bush 43 was trusted to mess with Iraq. Again, not Bush 41’s fault per se. But historically speaking, something we would have been better off not doing.

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Pretty impressive Iowa rise:

I have to admit I didn’t quite expect this. I’ve long expected Bernie to win New Hampshire, but an Iowa win too would be really impressive. Not that it changes his odds of winning the nomination necessarily if he were to win both, as unlike those states, white liberals do not make up a majority of the national party. But hard to get is the best approach to use when it comes to the Clintons–the fear of losing Appalachia was greater than the fear of losing LGBT and black voters, so he signed antigay legislation and that notorious crime bill. And maybe Bernie just might…well, you never know.

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R.I.P.

David Bowie is someone whose work has meant quite a lot to me. He was a true artist: few of his songs are as simple as they seem, and it was far from uncommon for his songs to touch into politics, psychology, and spirituality, as well as tons of other subjects, often with surprising depth to them. Everyone’s going to tell you to listen to the hits today, and it’s not like you can go wrong by putting on Suffragette City. But here are a few that I think best illustrate the man’s artistry.

God Knows I’m Good and Letter To Hermione, from Space Oddity (1969)

Space Oddity is not the greatest David Bowie album, but it’s definitely a very interesting one. There’s a lot of acoustic guitar and a folkier feel than what he’d soon become known for. (In the case of over-9 minutes of Cygnet Committee, maybe more of a folk flavor than we wanted.) But it’s more personal than many of the rest too: Letter To Hermione is a love song that is as earnest and lovely as can be, as emotionally transparent as Bowie ever got, while God Knows I’m Good is an utterly brilliant piece of psychospiritual analysis that rings true to this product of a religious right exurb. Of course, one doesn’t need religion to be an amoral asshole. But a belief in a loving, understanding God often just makes it easier for people to rationalize their actions, which is something that people in general don’t have much of a hard time doing. Religious hypocrisy may have been a fresher topic in the late 1960s than it is today, but I struggle to think of a better expression of this basic conundrum anywhere.

Repetition from Lodger (1979)

Bowie has always had this glitter rock image: a flamboyant, omnisexual, ultracool force of nature, which he certainly was. But he wasn’t just that. I’ve always liked this song from the end of his legendary Berlin era, about a cycle of domestic abuse set to a repeated, droning bass and electric guitar riff. As with God Knows I’m Good, the song gets into other stuff too: poverty and how economic hardship plays out, but without becoming a screed of any sort. The album it’s from is definitely a mixed bag: you can feel the divergence of visions as Bowie tries his hand at all these sorts of world music that he doesn’t entirely assimilate into his musical vision, while main collaborator Brian Eno was shortly to move on to other artists that would be more receptive to this direction. Still, there are more than a few that work well here, and this is one.

Under The God from Tin Machine (1989)

It’s not like Robert Christgau was wrong when he lampooned Bowie on this album for channeling all the anger a millionaire can feel. But it was at least a little unfashionable to make a song denouncing right-wing extremism in the 1980s, and you have to give him some credit for that. Tin Machine was sort of a big risk that didn’t entirely pay off–college rock had not yet become alternative rock–but it has some great stuff in it, and this definitely counts. It has (sadly) aged quite well: a line about “beating on blacks with a baseball bat” no doubt went right over the heads of people in the late 1980s, but now that sort of thing is something we hear about and think about quite often. The bit about leaving a swastika over the door is at this point an exaggeration, though only a slight one considering the re-mainstreaming of fascist ideas. By recording and releasing the song at a point where this was far from peoples’ minds–the year after the Willie Horton ads–the song underlines the persistence of these attitudes regardless of the attention paid to them.

Fall Dog Bombs The Moon from Reality (2003)

This one is a pretty neat trick–a pretty, almost soothing melody over a lacerating series of lyrics pretty obviously aimed at the Bush Administration and its Iraq misadventures. But there’s more to it–I find myself thinking about the bit where he talks about these dark years, with no height nor depth, no underground. Is this connecting the war to the obviousness and shallowness of culture during the aughts, or to the plight of the people the speaker is bombing? Probably both.

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I find this to be a convincing argument.
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Ed Kilgore finds a Jeb! Bush comeback highly unlikely:

Yes, it’s always possible that Bush could benefit from Trump and Rubio and Cruz and Christie and Kasich all taking each other down several notches, but Jeb’s not a sure thing to beat Carly Fiorina with his current levels of popularity. The odds of him boosting his numbers by 600 percent or 700 percent (what he’d need to become genuinely competitive) as everyone else declines are not very good, and seem to become vanishingly small if you remember how Bush got into this situation in the first place. Jeb apparently calculated that a few positions that weren’t terribly popular with the GOP’s conservative base wouldn’t hurt him in a nomination contest, and might even give him some electability points. He picked the worst year in living memory to accentuate his independence on hot-button right-wing issues, and to make his success as governor of Florida some time ago his calling card, along with a last name that connotes “betrayal” to conservative activists. If he now executes a comeback, it will be in defiance of just about everything we’ve learned during the invisible primary.

Bush’s candidacy having failed as ferociously as it has cannot help but be immensely satisfying for those of us who have contested the media’s perpetual narrative that the Republican Party is finally coming to its senses, and is preparing itself to put the grown-up technocrati back in charge. The only explanation for Jeb!’s poor campaign is that the man deeply believed that this had happened, and would continue to happen, and the bulk of the party’s money also bought into this myth and saw Bush as the most obviously grown-up of the field. But there was never any particular reason to believe this narrative other than for self-serving image reasons on the part of Republicans: it has never been all that convincing, particularly as it was pushed in 2014 amidst the Republican establishment “grown-ups” embracing the likes of Joni Ernst, maintaining nominal control as they lost all power. The whole thing amounts to one of the biggest misreadings of the political terrain by the establishment of a political party arguably since the Whigs before the Civil War, and now the contest has veered wildly out of control, partly because Bush’s financial backers are stumbling all over the sunk cost fallacy. It’s all quite satisfying.

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Been travelling, couldn’t post. Travelling is when I catch up on the big-budget Hollywood movies that I rarely see in theaters or for home viewing–often they’re free on planes, and my concentration is better suited to those while on the move. So here are a few things I watched recently:

  • Bridge Of Spies. I’ve enjoyed the recent period of Steven Spielberg’s career, which has seen his movies take on political dimensions that weren’t really there in his early work. It hasn’t always worked out well: Munich was a masterwork, but the political material in Lincoln and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (!) ranged from laughable to inappropriate. But this movie is definitely in the first category–it makes a very simple case for liberalism as not only the idealistic way, but also (ultimately) the strongest and smartest way. Tom Hanks plays a New York lawyer who spends the first half of the movie valiantly but unsuccessfully defending a Soviet spy, and in the second half has to oversee his client’s exchange for some American captives. Both halves have Hanks pushing to do the right thing, and taking on substantial risk to do it, against a variety of bureaucrats who continually pressure him to take the easy way and compromise his convictions. This isn’t necessarily a top-five Spielberg film or anything like that, but there are some quite nice sequences and strong character work, and a very nice ending. The message is also quite pertinent. It would be facile to say that the Soviets posed less of a threat to American freedom than did national security bureaucrats and illiberal politicians (though it’s hardly facile to say they pose more of a threat to freedom than ISIS or al-Qaeda), but the film makes the case that the harder way of scrupulous following of legal procedures is ultimately the only way to go.
  • Ant-Man. Ant-Man most assuredly follows the usual Marvel formula of origin story, training/learning, and climactic battle that these films always have, down to the final battle in which the protagonist has to fight the bad guy with a bigger/more powerful suit than they have, by this time a cliche that those folks really, really need to retire. But within the formula the film does manage the (in a Marvel context) extraordinary feat of keeping things light and not taking itself too seriously, something that the Thor series pretends it does, right up until they unleash that blue laser pointing into the sky and pan over Natalie Portman’s ashen face. It’s a little strange because this is so clearly a Marvel movie, something that means nothing to me–I see the films of theirs that interest me and ignore the various television offerings and such–and it has that baggage, but it does also have a looseness to it, and genuine humor as well. Part of that comes from the ace casting of Paul Rudd in the title role, as well as a generally strong cast. But I think it mostly comes from filmmakers that understand that you can’t really take a character named Ant-Man all that seriously. It’s easy to imagine this as the first movie where Marvel really ate it. That it avoided that fate–and in fact, is a cut above their usual fare–speaks to the quality here, and taking a (slightly) different direction from the usual thing. Certainly a hell of a lot better than that snooze of an Ultron movie.
  • Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Say what you want about Marvel, but the conventions that their artists must obey are nothing compared to the hyperconservatism of this franchise. I should say at the outset that this is basically a successful film that accomplishes what it wants to and is watchable. But the series has become an exercise in rearranging the same elements as little as possible, such that the result can still technically be a new movie. You can (and people have) described the plot of each movie in one sentence with all the same words, just rearranged, though this one swaps out the usual arms dealer baddie for new evil organization The Syndicate (which is from the TV series, bonus for continuity). It all plays out much as you might expect–globetrotting investigations and action setpieces all around, with the characterization and other fictional elements being mainly window dressing for the genuinely impressive stunts–but I found myself wishing that the next film would just have Ethan Hunt get a mission and the movie would be his team accomplishing it, with no traitors, people going rogue, etc. There’s a lot to be said for a straightlaced spy thriller, you know, and the reliance on the same tropes over and over again has become wearisome and lazy.

    What’s interesting is just how similar this movie is to the recent Bond film Spectre, including the protagonist’s organization merging with a larger one that is hostile to it; that organization insisting that MI6/IMF are obsolete, irrelevant fossils in a world of techno-spying; the protagonist’s discovery of a hugely powerful and insidious organization that nobody else believes in; the protagonist being entirely on his own, with no support or backup, as his agency is closed down. Hell, both films even spend a substantial part of their running time in Morocco, though in the case of Mission it’s hilariously inaccurate in its portrayal of Casablanca as a rural backwater rather than as a Western-looking big city with public transit and everything. At least Bond put away the dusty “Mexico” sets and shot for real in Mexico City. Spectre is hands-down the better film–it doesn’t quite sell the romance between Bond and Madeleine Swann as well as it could have, but there’s at least some attempt at political commentary and character work, and you get the sense that the setpieces and the scenes between the setpieces are taken equally seriously. The Mission: Impossible series is more like 24 at its most ludicrous, but thankfully without the torture fetishization and right-wing politics. In fact, there are no politics here at all, which would be more than fine if there was any substance here at all, or even any new style. That this franchise is entering its third decade with Ethan Hunt not registering as a character in the public consciousness says something–Tom Cruise might as well just drop the pseudonym and just get it over with (why he wasn’t Jim Phelps in the first movie, and Jon Voight being someone else, I’ll never know, but that’s another discussion). It all begs the question of whether this even counts as a new movie–the only real change here from the last one is that the film trades in IMF team member Paula Patton for femme fatale Rebecca Ferguson, which is not necessarily a trade I’d make, but whatever. My point is that you can do more interesting stuff even within the confines of a big mainstream movie. It’s a matter of interest, I suppose.

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