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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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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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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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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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That Vince Vaughn is a gun nut is of no particular interest to me, but that he’s decided to use his platform to trot out some of the hoariest gun nut talking points moves me to make a point. Not a huge point, but it’s time to push back on the “we need guns to protect us from government tyranny” line. This takes the idolatry of the imagery of the American Revolution too far. Some people (stupid people, basically) think that America beat the British by guerrilla warfare when, in fact, American victories that mattered happened in conventional battles like Saratoga (which led to the French coming in) and Yorktown (which essentially ended the war), and the guerrilla stuff was largely a sideshow meant to sap morale from British forces. George Washington’s army was a well-trained, conventional fighting force, not a rag-tag guerilla force. That’s what they started as, not what they ended as, and if they hadn’t gotten better they would have lost. Washington’s Army fought its battles in the same way that contemporary European armies did. Ultimate victory occurred in large part due to our French alliance and the distraction of Britain’s global focus at the time, not by backwoodsmen with flintlocks, a la The motherfucking Patriot. It’s difficult to overstate how much of gun nuttery depends upon this point, but it’s little more than self-serving, distorted history. Also, assuming that a (from their point of view) tyrannical government took power and used it in such a way that required them to fight back, it seems obvious to me that private gun ownership is hopeless as a deterrent: private citizens are not allowed to own tanks, jets, and the like. And what’s more, the asymmetries of something like the Vietnam War would not be applicable here, since the government would have access to people who know the land and understand the region. The cultural differences would be by contrast trivial, which was so much of the problem in Vietnam. Such a resistance–which would not include all conservatives, and probably not even all gun nuts–would be doomed from the start. It’s the new “the South will rise again” ultimately–an impotent howl of resistance, and should be recognized as such.

And then there’s this. Guns aren’t a check or balance that is necessary to protect democracy, as plenty of democracies persist that strictly curtail the right to bear arms. The United Kingdom virtually bans them, famously. Japan may even be stricter. Not all countries are like that, but the UK has had democratic elements in place for longer than the existence of the United States without the need for periodic armed uprisings to keep things from getting out of line. Jefferson’s quote about the tree of liberty and the blood of tyrants notwithstanding (which may be the stupidest thing he ever said), there’s no real political or historical argument to be made here.

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Why is this guy running? I mean, he opposed the Iraq War, but so did candidates Sanders and Webb. Unlike Sanders, he doesn’t have a strong progressive record. Unlike Webb, his party switch was entirely opportunistic, and he has never actually been nominated by Democrats to any office. It’s true that if you’re looking for a candidate like Jim Webb who lacks the history of misogyny and general angry asshole machismo until at least some point in the early aughts, Chafee might be the candidate for you. But come on, nobody’s looking for that. Even on executive experience he’s not unique, as Martin O’Malley has even more than he does.

TNR has an article trying to figure out the reasoning here:

Chafee’s reasons for running are confounding, even to those closest to him. In his announcement, he presented a handful of issues motivating his run, including the fact that he voted against the Iraq war, that he is against torture and capital punishment, and that he is in favor of … the metric system.

All of which are perfectly fine stances to take, but even Ted Kennedy had a better answer for why he’s running for president. It makes it seem as though the real reason is because he’s a career politician and this is what’s left, after being forced from the Senate and effectively forced from the governorship.

One of my rules of thumb is that moderate Republicans–a species Chafee long belonged to, and only reluctantly left–are utter narcissists. John McCain isn’t much of a moderate anymore, but he’s long been one of the most famous senators despite a shockingly small ratio of service to accomplishment. But you can see him any Sunday morning. Susan Collins constantly gets media attention, although the only thing I know her from is advocating to work truck drivers to death and op-eds about the glories of bipartisanship that I’ve written about too many times. And so on. Generally speaking, the other moderate Republicans of recent years have been uninspiring in terms of getting things done–former Sens. Olympia Snowe and Scott Brown did little other than mark time and empower reactionaries by keeping those seats, while Collins and Mark Kirk are outright phony moderates on but a few issues. But these folks are constantly covered and lauded by the media, celebrated for their independence. (As are moderate and conservative Democrats, of course, but there are more of them so there is less attention to go around.) Chafee was long one of them, of course. Given his state and issue profile he probably should have been a Democrat, but the attention was unbeatable for a guy who would have been utterly anonymous as a Democrat. Ultimately, his remaining relevant required him to leave the GOP and eventually join the Democrats. Nobody cared. So what else can a politician do to get some attention? I think the answer is obvious.

After braving Left Behind (the non-Cage one) and Fireproof, our intrepid author ventures further into the Cameron canon with his newest film, Mercy Rule. Which refers to a Little League Baseball regulation that prohibits more than six runs per inning for a team, a concept that has nothing to do literally or metaphorically with the content of the movie.

There are, in the bad movie game, certain tipoffs that a movie will be bad. You know, your rapping grannies and the like. But one of the rarest but surest is when the lead of the movie feels the need to shoot a direct-to-camera prologue to sell you on the concept of the movie. Mercy Rule begins with one that apparently needs to sell the audience for a Kirk Cameron film on the concept of family entertainment. It’s not entirely dissimilar from Philip Michael Thomas’s incredible introduction of Death Drug:

After this, we get our little scenario. Cameron is the proprietor of a recycling business he inherited from his father. He runs it with his brother, who vaguely resembles the comedian Brian Posehn. And of course he has a family, including a wife played (rather poorly) by his real life wife, and a son and daughter, the latter of whom is essentially a non-character just there to support the male cast members on their journeys. The movie focuses on Cameron’s travails to save his business (from a nasty eco-lobbyist trying to extort him out of business), as well as his son’s efforts to be good at little league baseball. It focuses on them with equal time and emotional intensity, which is an odd choice given the massively different stakes involved in those plotlines. This winds up being something of a blessing, though, since Cameron’s character is to put it mildly problematically developed, and mostly just sulks and looks at pictures of his dad before the script requires him to spring into action, at which point he encounters essentially no obstacles he has to overcome in order to save the business–in the most dramatically inert way possible, via a poorly-written and -delivered speech to the city council, which at the very least manages some campy entertainment when the council president informs him that, yes, now would be the right time to drop the mic.

MV5BMTQ3OTkxNjEyNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTk2NzA4MjE@._V1_SY317_CR12,0,214,317_AL_I will give the film this. One of my general complaints about this type of movie is the lack of style or visual flair they have. Watch something like Fireproof, and it seems almost as though they think the concept of style itself is sinful, as though using anything other than the most boring, flat shots possible would somehow be betraying the message. Mercy Rule, to its credit, ditches this particular idea, and its director is very interested in providing the audience with a cinematic experience (though the frequent close-ups expose the limitations of the cheap cameras the production chose to use). In fact, the movie goes way too far with its style, leading to numerous questionable choices. Just for starters, if there’s one sport that never, ever needs to be shown in slow-motion, it’s baseball. The director is fond of constantly cutting between scenes–frequently between the son’s game and a meeting the father is taking–even when the rationale of linking the two scenes is entirely unapparent, and the cuts are done in such a way as to render the two scenes much more difficult to follow than would otherwise have been the case. Virtually every shot seems to have been applied a digital color filter in post-processing, something that was annoying back when Battlestar Galactica overused it a decade ago and is used even less well here. There are the obvious Terence Malick-influenced nature shots, a technique which has never been staler on film, as well as moments that seem to be intentionally aping a David Lynch vibe, such as when the kid’s coach rants for roughly three minutes at the kid, the latter of whom shows absolutely no reaction. (Also worth noting, the eco-lobbyist guy is a dead-ringer for Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks). Rather than style applied like a couple of dashes of salt, in this movie it comes out like someone unscrewed the top of the shaker and just poured it out. Though I will admit that, while the movie does this stuff not all that well, I appreciated that the director seemed to actually want to make a movie, rather than some drab filmed didactic skit.

What of the rest of it? Cameron delivers basically the same performance as Fireproof, wearied patriarch though less angry this time, but with an even more worthless, unlikable character. Cameron seems intent on accepting his limitations, and despite his screen time he barely stands out among a group of performers that (his wife excluded) leave a stronger impression than the cast of Fireproof. I will say that Cameron’s brother and the coach each have some genuinely funny moments, but only during the portions where they’re obviously improvising. The script’s humor is generally pretty flat. And in general, the movie is pretty weak just conceptually, not quite able to decide whether this is going to be a “let’s save this business from big developers” 80’s film, or a Sandlot style coming of age through baseball movie. Neither of these stories has much in the way of drama–the kid’s big moment when he finally gets to pitch comes halfway through the movie, after which point it’s unclear what the audience is supposed to care about with this story, while Cameron’s much more important foibles are essentially dismissed during a scene with his wife where he lays his worries on the line, and she actively dismisses them in a way that is intended to show spousal support, but instead evaporates the tension. After all, if she doesn’t care about the possibility of losing everything, why should we? To quote the folks over at Red Letter Media, is it because she read the script?

I will say that this is by far my most enjoyable visit yet to the Cameron Canon. There’s not much of a movie here: everything is so geared toward being family friendly and gentle that it winds up having no real substance or point to it. But at the same time, it also makes the experience much easier to take than the sledgehammer messaging of Fireproof. Also, for a Kirk Cameron joint, there is surprisingly little explicit religious talk, just a couple of dogwhistles and such. The film is easily among the better acted Christian films I’ve seen, and actually sports some intentionally funny moments. It’s probably the least Puritan/Quaker like of all these movies in that it doesn’t seem to hate everything that gives people pleasure. All in all, the effect is not that different from a poor man’s version of The Room, which is a hell of a lot better than the previous Cameron Canon had led me to expect.

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