Richard Dawkins:

“I opposed Scottish independence,” Mr Dawkins said on Twitter. “But if I were Scottish today I’d want to leave the nasty little backwater that England is becoming.”

Look, I can’t speak to whether England is presently a “nasty” place or not. But if anything would put me in the position of wanting to defend Brexit (!) it would probably be this. I mean, come the fuck on, Dawkins! He has some gall to sit in judgment of an entire nation for small-mindedness and judgmentalism after spending the past couple of years pushing Islamophobia and sexism (remember this?) in a grouchy old-mannish way little different from the Daily Mail/FOX News geysers that he’s implicitly upbraiding here. It’s not as though he can plausibly claim to be one of the “good guys” crying out in frustration after losing the good fight. If anything, he’s part of the problem, legitimizing the nastiness by parroting it from a theoretically lefty, atheist position. But now, the intolerance he helped to fuel is going to restrict his prerogatives via Brexit, which is apparently the ultimate in nastiness. Not spreading hatred for other people, dismissing their struggles, making them feel less than enlightened people like celebrity scientist Richard Dawkins. Nope. Making Richard Dawkins have to work a little bit harder for stuff (though probably not much more, since he’s a celebrity and all), though, is the true tragedy.

Perhaps this is a mea culpa of sorts, but my general rule is don’t issue a mea culpa, just get lost. I support vocal critics of religion particularly given the choices made by American Christianity over the past few decades, which deserve constant criticism, but criticism is hard to pull off when your standard bearers are just as horrible as the people they’re meant to be criticizing. Vocal atheists would be better off without Dawkins (or Bill Maher, for that matter).

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I always found it odd that George W. Bush was so determined to be a War President. It’s an odd list to want to be on when you consider the actual list:

  1. James Madison
  2. James Polk
  3. Abraham Lincoln
  4. William McKinley
  5. Woodrow Wilson
  6. FDR
  7. Harry Truman
  8. LBJ
  9. Richard Nixon
  10. George H.W. Bush
  11. George W. Bush
  12. Barack Obama

Really not a lot of people on the list who finished their desired terms of office healthy, popular and respected. Sure, there’s Obama, but you can probably almost exclude him given the context of the times – he didn’t care about peace but neither did enough of the country either. Polk is probably the other one who mostly did, and given that his actions probably made the Civil War inevitable, that’s not exactly a great example to take. Aside from that, though, you have a lot of premature death and failed presidencies, many of which foundered on pointless wars we didn’t even have to fight. Not that I’m saying that I want Trump to surrender to the Beltway sirens’ song of war, but if he does, he’d be lucky even to be Obama.

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Yeah, Trump is predictably eating it, but let’s be honest as to the reason why. Talk about the Freedom Caucus all you like. The reality that the media can’t/won’t acknowledge is that the problem with the Republican Party is Republicans. Not all of them, of course. But still, 70% or so of the party stuck with Bush until the end, loved Palin, loves Trump. The other 30% may be uncomfortable about this but generally goes with the flow. There’s a real question of what to do about this, and I’ll confess that there aren’t a lot of easy answers. The Democrats’ plans seem to basically be to just hold out until generational change does its work, which is to say, they have no plan. Some people (e.g. Bernie Sanders) seem to think there’s a way to break through with this group but I don’t really see it. Maybe you can activate non-voters in red states but generally speaking the problem with Republican views is their glibness, which makes outreach pointless. Dubya will go down in history as great, never mind the deaths and blowback. Climate change is a hoax, never mind the data. Immigrants are criminals, blah blah blah. You know these assertions. It’s all snap-judgment stuff buttressed by a massively profitable media empire that flatters these people, but a lot of it existed before the media empire was created. So much of it is just people too scared or lazy to follow things through to logical conclusions, people who just want “the answers” and then fight like crazy against anything that challenges those answers. This is sort of a double-edged sword because while it works great in opposition, governing makes the implications tougher to ignore. Not that all liberals are deep-thinking, fearless intellectuals or anything–they’re not–but liberal politics isn’t solely an exercise in trolling to mask a massive “nuh-uhh” counterargument. Not even MSNBC is that, whatever its faults.

I get that politicians can’t say that 3/4 or so of the other side’s supporters are deranged. Hillary Clinton committed a “gaffe” by saying that half of Trump’s supporters held deplorable views, even though that’s lowballing it. I have criticized Clinton but I still defend that: it was subpar as tactics but necessary as strategy. Obama spent years flattering those people for some reason. Clinton didn’t, and while that may have made her less popular, Obama’s view of Republicans was a total fantasy and dealing with facts is superior to that, even if they don’t make people feel good. And sure, politics aren’t the only measure of a person. I’ve been to the South a few times in my life and people there, white and black, have generally been super nice. But politics are a measure of a person, and they occur within the context of a culture. And the culture that creates Republican politics is toxic. It’s unsurprising that the people that culture venerates are toxic, and that those chosen to lead it politically would also be toxic. That’s all.

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I watched Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom this week for the first time in over a decade. Why, you may ask? Partly it was because I didn’t remember it very well, and partly because sometimes my film obsession borders on sadism and I need to give myself an endurance test, apparently. My takeaway is that it’s one weird movie. It starts out with a Busby Berkeley-style dance number for some reason, then after an opening scene in Shanghai that had many more comedic beats than I remembered (or were necessary), it’s essentially an hour of mostly-failed broad let’s-call-it comedy, courtesy of soon-to-be Spielberg spouse Kate Capshaw:

That scene is notorious. Still, for all of George Lucas’s talk about how Temple Of Doom was so dark because of his foul mood after his divorce, it’s the first half that bears his stamp the most, in that it has a lot of trying-too-hard broad comedy tied to a normal quest plot. We’re not wildly off of the Star Wars prequels or the dastardly Holiday Special for much of this, which again makes me wonder why so many people were shocked at the prequels. (Also too, the same people who wrote this wrote Howard The Duck, another Lucas-produced joint.) Lucas goes into reruns with this virtual redo of the garbage compactor sequence from Star Wars:

Then they find the underground lair and the tone of the movie changes so completely that it’s almost a different movie with essentially different characters: Willie Scott suddenly becomes 75% less annoying, notably, as we get into the child slavery and demon worship part of the program, which is shockingly effective. It’s like a movie starting as a Seth Rogen comedy and then halfway through becoming 12 Years A Slave. Like I said, weird. And oh man, 80’s movies oriented at kids really didn’t skimp on the horror:

It’s really kind of a hard movie to evaluate. I wouldn’t say I liked the second half of the movie, but I found it to be extremely effective and it held my interest. It was inventive and clever. The first half just sort of blows aside from an isolated moment here or there, good for a hatewatch at best. Not only is the movie not more than the sum of its parts, but the parts have no business in the same movie, and they don’t fit together much at all, and some of the pieces shouldn’t have been in the movie at all. People whine about Short Round and it’s true that the child actor has some…ahem…acting limitations, but it’s Capshaw’s character that really needed major reworking. Clearly they were trying to get as far as they could from Marian from the first film and boy, did they. Marian is competent, likable, tough and smart, none of which applies to Willie, who is intended to be the ugly American: stupid, provincial, selfish, whiny. It’s not a pleasant character to spend time with. Probably the other major failing of the movie is the handling of physics. Dropped and thrown objects fall at a rate that has little to do with gravity. Maybe you could get away with that in the early 1980s, but in this day and age it really stands out. Overall, it’s not a particularly pleasant watch, particularly for a popcorn blockbuster.

And yet…the style is there, which is something. I’d still put it as the second best Indy movie, as I’m not that huge a fan of Last Crusade. Enjoyable as it is to watch the chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, it mostly just feels like a been there, done that thing to me, much like the third Back To The Future. The weirdness and unpleasantness of Temple Of Doom seem like an attempted step forward, while Last Crusade feels like a step back.

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With the possibility of a government shutdown or debt ceiling crisis (or both) on the horizon, what exactly should Democrats set as goals for any possible intervention in a Republican crisis? Let’s do a little summing up first:

  • Republicans have a governing problem. During the Dubya era, they were able to govern, albeit in an oft-incompetent and corrupt fashion. The current party seems incapable of even that much. The party culture of the GOP has not evolved since the eight years of opposition to Obama, which crystallized an ethos of purity, escalation, and chaos that has not fully abated. Their president was elected by plurality and lacks many of the basic requirements for the job, and is coming off a massive failure with Paul Ryan’s AHCA bill. The party’s policy credentials are essentially nonexistent, and it’s unclear just how much the president knows or cares about this stuff. Something that shows even modest competence would be highly useful.
  • Democrats suffered a major bummer after the election, and it at first appeared as though it would rebound much as it did to Dubya, under Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt, to utterly disastrous effect. Daschle and Gephardt were the proverbial peacetime consiglieres, trying too hard to collaborate with Bush and inept at running an opposition. However, grassroots pressure shifted Schumer’s mindset rapidly. Democrats despise Trump with near-unanimity. The women’s marches, the protests against Trump’s travel ban, and the lower-key organizing by groups like Indivisible have set to model the party after the Tea Party under Obama, i.e. to reject any of Trump’s initiatives with the intent of denying him bipartisan victories and undermining him. So far, the results have been positive.

This is the state of play, and what it means that if Republicans cannot cobble together majorities to pass spending bills and a debt ceiling increase, Democrats will hold all the cards. Picking off a couple of Democrats isn’t going to work like it did for Bush because the Blue Dogs essentially don’t exist anymore. Sure, there is a caucus called that, but it’s not the same thing at all. During Dubya’s time, the archetypical Blue Dog was Jim Marshall of Georgia or Dan Boren of Oklahoma, guys representing quite conservative districts that would never have elected anyone to the left of them. They hung on mainly because of seniority and their ability to “bring home the bacon” to their districts, a model now virtually extinct in national politics. Now the archetypal Blue Dogs are Henry Cuellar of Texas and Jim Cooper of Tennessee, guys from red states who represent safe blue seats, but are a few ticks to the right of the rest of the party. These two come to mind because progressive activists are constantly interested in trying to primary them in order to get more liberal representatives installed instead. That hasn’t yet come to pass because they’re talented politicians, but if they played ball with Trump, it very likely could. For this reason, I don’t really think the Blue Dogs are more or less likely to work with Trump than Democrats at large. The Marshalls and Borens of yesteryear had genuine freedom of movement and there was little that Democratic activists could do about it, but more than that, their seats were utterly dependent on getting things for their districts, and Bush could provide them. The Cuellars and Coopers of today do not have a bacon-based model for holding their seats, they do so for partisan reasons, and even if they got goodies for their districts their heavily anti-Trump voters would never forgive them. It’s why Ben Nelson was forced into retirement over the “Cornhusker Kickback” – he was bringing home the bacon, but his conservative state saw it as a bribe to enact a law they hated. So unless they’re stupid people, the Blue Dogs have no reason to help Trump. The irony is that this is all due to GOP gerrymandering. Democrats from red states now typically represent ultra-safe seats and thus have no reason to ever consider working with the man. The incentives for Cuellar to work with Trump are no different from the incentives for Nancy Pelosi to work with him.

So if they need any significant quantity of votes, Trump’s going to have to cut a deal with the leaders. And the leaders are going to have a pretty simple case to make: “If we make a deal with you, our party hates us and we maybe lose our jobs. Our party can’t stand you and in fact is organizing to keep us from doing deals with you. Don’t get mad at us, you guys showed them how to do it. So the only way we can sell this to our base is if you, Trump, come out of this looking like a loser. The only way we sell this to our base is if it looks like we rolled you. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is. They won’t accept an equal compromise.” That’s an argument that would be 100% true, and Democrats could simply walk away from the table if they don’t like the deal. A government shutdown under unified control would be savage for Trump and Ryan, coming after the AHCA was pulled it would destroy whatever remains of their reputations as competent professionals. It would be strongly in the interest of Democrats to make that happen. There is a game theory angle to this as to how much leverage they get the longer they wait that I can’t speak to, but even a short, several-day shutdown would be hugely in the interest of Dems from a strategy angle. The only reason to accept an eleventh hour deal to prevent one would be getting everything.

What would everything be? It would have to be an ask that wouldn’t be so huge that Trump could turn around and use it to unite Republicans with it. So probably not naming Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court or firing Steve Bannon (though, actually, Congressional Republicans might quite like that one, even if they couldn’t say so). But certainly using the last Obama budget as a basis for negotiations–rather than the batshit one Mick Mulvaney shitted out in a week–and forgetting most of the newsmaking cuts in the latter would be a start, as it is the status quo. Obviously, no fucking with the ACA would be a requirement, no border wall appropriation, no defunding of Planned Parenthood, etc. Legislative implementation of some of the Obama regulations Trump and the GOP Congress killed would be a good one. Bringing back the overtime rule. Putting the clean power plan into a congressional resolution. That might push it too far. Not many Republicans liked those. But keep in mind that a second fiasco could take Trump to where Dubya was around 2007, where people just weren’t listening to him and didn’t care anymore. It has to be correctly judged but there’s a lot that can be gotten out of this, and a lot of this Trump could spin for the RWNJs too–I objected to their being regulations, not the actual ideas–and so on. But the only way this works is if liberals can sell this as a humiliation of Trump, which in some sense it would be. (It would also save him from a greater humiliation, at least for a time. That’s the downside. But neutering the Trumpian Revolution and leaving his ultimate failure to another day would maybe make it worth it.)

I honestly don’t know how it’s going to go down. A government shutdown under unified party control of Congress and the White House would be such a disaster for the GOP and Trump I have to wonder if they’d risk it. This was not true of the killing of the AHCA, in which the greater disaster by far to the party would have been passing the thing. But you do have a pretty strong purity contingent that will be emboldened after defeating TrumpCare and against which Republican leaders have little leverage, and you also have a moderate wing that is in Clinton-won districts (or close enough ones, like the one Jon Ossoff’s running for) that absolutely does not want to be the candidate that killed off the NEA, or PBS, or the NIH. Either side can tank a bill on its own. A skilled politician could play them against the other, exploit their fears, get what he wants. Trump isn’t that man. Doesn’t have the knowledge, doesn’t have the patience. He doesn’t have anyone with those sorts of capabilities around him. I just don’t see how he’s able to solve this problem, and the deeper it grows, the more this looks like a failed presidency just a few months in.

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Chuck Berry’s death has gotten me thinking about the musical form he was instrumental in creating. I mostly listen to rock music, though not exclusively. It’s a form that has been declared dead many a time and then came back, though its current “death” has been quite a long one, and that’s a shame. Pop music is still the house built by the Black Eyed Peas and I don’t much care for it. Then again, my formative years were when popular music was dominated by assholes like Fred Durst, in which the thematic content of the work ranged from white guy self pity to white guy aggression. No thanks. I’d gladly take Bruno Mars and Katy Perry to that. As I’ve said before, one of the few silver linings of 9/11 was that it killed off the broad popularity of that sort of music, though it still persists in some quarters. The Trump moment would seem perfect for a rock renaissance to turn the page on this era of pop, but I’m not yet seeing it. And it’s plainly obvious to me that a big part of they why is that indie rock is pretty much by white people and for white people, which puts a firm cap on its popularity at this point, with such hyperspecific appeal that I find it hard to get into. I like some of the more garage band stuff out there like The Oh Sees and The Ettes and Ted Leo, but in my experience too many bands want to be Radiohead, which is a grave mistake. If I had the time and inclination, I could write a book about how Radiohead killed rock music. Not just because I don’t like their music since the turn of the millennium (which I mainly don’t, though this hardly differentiates me from most people, including a lot of Radiohead fans, whether they want to admit it or not), but more because as the band has persisted as (theoretically) a rock band, albeit one that you can’t dance to, can’t really even sway to, that doesn’t “rock” in any meaningful way, that promises political and social relevance through its public image even though the lyrics are nonsense in a true “emperor has no clothes” way, and whose music itself doesn’t even offer the promise of liberation, let alone delivering on it. I do like OK Computer and even Kid A to some extent, but this is “rock” music all about imprisonment and entrapment and misery, as is pretty much everything that came after it. OK Computer at least ends with the modestly hopeful “The Tourist” which implored people to slow down and enjoy life, implying that this was still an option, but nothing later offered even that much. This isn’t what got teenagers dancing in the late 1950s or headbanging in the ’80s. I remember an interview with Iggy Pop where he said that rock music is fundamentally about joy and I’ve never seen it put better. You can even put a lot of fucked-up stuff in it and still have it be joyous (as Iggy’s work shows quite clearly). Radiohead’s post-The Bends stuff would have been fine as a one-off experiment, a la Springsteen’s excellent Nebraska, but they kept going and inspired too many others. For too many people, rock music is indie rock is music for hipsters, who want to live in a cocoon of protective irony and fetishized nostalgia, and Radiohead helped make that happen. The best I can say about them is that at least they’re not Coldplay.

The Trump era makes one wonder if loud, aggressive rock music will come back as a reaction to all that. I doubt it’s going to come back to what it was in the 1990s (which, of course, grew from the underground scene that developed as a response to the Reagan ’80s). I don’t think it’s possible for something to build so big and then explode so suddenly anymore thanks to YouTube and social media, and given media fragmentation I don’t think any rock act can be as big as Nirvana was ever again. But if we do see a rebirth, it’s going to be due to nonwhite stars leading the way. There will be some white stars of course. But if it does come back, it’s going to be thanks to a scene replete with Hispanic stars, Asian stars, Black stars, and plenty of women, among many others. The diversity of contemporary pop stars is what it is for a reason, and if rock is going to come back in a big way, it’s going to have to reflect the young audience in the same way that pop music does. This may only happen over the dead bodies of the current gatekeepers, or it may not. What’s more, bands are going to have to reconnect to what actually made the music happen in the first place, which wasn’t using obscure veterinary diseases as a metaphor for what’s sick in humanity (that’s not a nasty joke about the grad studentification of rock music but rather an actual Radiohead song). Really, rock people need to just go all the way back to Chuck Berry to see how it’s done. Not that they should just copy what he did, but they do need to learn the right lessons about what makes the music work, and unlearn the wrong ones. Rock music can dabble in realism (again, Springsteen) but it’s never been about reality. Fantasy has always been a major part of it and that’s what indie often fails to understand. Berry’s songs are selling a fantasy but just as often the lyrics deconstruct and poke fun at the fantasy too, which is also a big part of it. There’s certainly a place for irony and cynicism in the music but it must be done properly. If your music reflects the cynicism of people in their forties, then that’s who’s going to listen to it (if they even do). High spirits, sex, and fun, with hints of cleverness and anarchy, are what rock music needs to have to be rock music. That’s the world of young people and they need to have it reflected in rock music if they’re going to start picking it up again. If that starts to happen, I think it’s a real possibility. If not, well, I guess it’ll become a hobbyist thing like Dixieland Jazz, which would probably suit a lot of online music publications more interested in curating a small, hermetically-sealed world than making the form stick around. I guess we’ll see.

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I’d like one of our nation’s fine “both sides” journalists to answer the following two questions for me:

  1. How can you say both sides are the same when one side regularly tries to make it more difficult to vote for people who don’t agree with them, and the other side does not do this? California could make it harder for the Trump-loving inland areas of the state to vote, which could further entrench Democrats’ power. And yet that hasn’t even been considered.
  2. Why do you think that is? (Unacceptable answer: that they don’t need to. Alabama Republicans don’t need voter ID laws and all the rest to win in that state, but they put them in anyway.)
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This is going to be fun:

According to the source in the room, White House staffers told attendees that Trump doesn’t see much downside to a shutdown and believes congressional Democrats will bear full responsibility if one does occur.

Full responsibility. For a party that controls neither house of Congress nor the presidency. I guess because of Trump’s simply tremendous spinning skills? Whatever those are. Once again, Trump’s roots as a rich kid with no concept of responsibility are showing.

Bad as a shutdown would be for the economy, even if it only lasted a few days, it would be way worse for any lingering traces of Republican competence. It would be a total self-inflicted injury. Which is why they may come together to avoid it. But it’s fair to say that Trump doesn’t appreciate the gravity.

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