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I love a good nihilistic neo-noir where everyone’s a lowlife, nobody learns any lessons and anything–literally anything–can happen. I appear to be in the extreme minority as these types of movies have been bombing for decades, though I’ll never stop standing up for great stuff like To Live And Die In L.A. and Blood & Wine. When done right, this kind of movie can hit both reality and fantasy in ways that more conventional films can’t, something like the aforementioned To Live And Die In L.A. embodies the ’80s aesthetic and values in the process of shredding them, simply by elaborating on where they logically lead. Also worth including in this group is the more recent The Ice Harvest, which is like the others in that it’s a well-directed film with similar themes and character types, and is also laced with mordant humor. I’d say that The Ice Harvest is the funniest of the three, though it’s no surprise since it’s directed by the late Harold Ramis, who made a good comedy or two. It’s a thriller set during the Christmas season about a mob lawyer played by John Cusack who robs the mob before the movie even starts, and the movie is about him essentially tying up loose ends before he leaves. Which is, essentially the plot.

Cusack’s a weakling, both physically and morally. Billy Bob Thornton is a full-on psychopath. Oliver Platt is Cusack’s pathetic would-be sidekick. Connie Nielsen is a full-on femme fatale, although at some points she can’t help but revert to the awful Southern accent she attempted in the legendarily shitty movie Basic with John Travolta, which is an excellent bad movie. (Some other time on that one.) And Randy Quaid pops up and does his Randy Quaid thing for a little while. The movie looks really great and since it’s set in Kansas, there’s a little bit of Alexander Payne in the style, both in the photography of gorgeous scenery and its observations about Middle America, however without that slight undercurrent of contempt that Payne sometimes brings to the table. Definitely worth your time.

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I’m interested in persuasive explanations for why Barack Obama’s approval ratings are squarely in the toilet, and haven’t budged for ages. Michael Kazin, unfortunately, does not present one here. While his main point that the president’s lack of focus seems intuitively true and might well be part of the puzzle, it’s nestled in a lot of Sorkin-style talk about the importance of rhetoric to channel moral leadership, a notion favored mainly by writers, and not so much by the basic research on the subject. That aside, the proverbial jaw went agape after reading this:

And if Obama is indeed as arrogant some say he is, then so were some of the more consequential chief executives who preceded himAndrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan.

Each of those four presidentsas well as greater ones like Lincoln and FDRbuilt loyal followings and retained them for nearly their entire time in office.

Putting aside Lincoln, who didn’t serve out his second term, and Jackson, who lived in an era where measuring public opinion didn’t really happen, this seems to be a bizarre reading that’s only barely not a complete inaccuracy due to the presence of the word “nearly.” Everyone knows Wilson trashed his coalition over the Treaty of Versailles, leading to a Republican romp at every level of government in 1920. Johnson tore his coalition asunder with Vietnam. Reagan only experienced a period of mild unpopularity after Iran-Contra, though it was enough to lead to a disastrous second midterm for the GOP in 1986. FDR’s second term was largely similar, including a disastrous 1938 election capping off two dismal, failed years. And going even further, Eisenhower unwisely embraced “right-to-work” laws and free-market agricultural policies without fixing the country’s recession, leading to a 1958 election which destroyed (albeit temporarily) the American Right. Grant actually lost renomination for a third term after running a corrupt (if in some ways enlightened) administration. Nixon had Watergate, Bush had Iraq, Truman had Korea, etc. If you define “nearly their entire time in office” as meaning “long enough to win a second term” then it’s fine, though Obama qualifies for that. And even Nixon managed to maintain a loyal following up until the end–it wasn’t like he was ever at 0% approval, after all. None of them were impossible to poll for approvals because they were within the margin of error, as the joke about former Israeli PM Olmert went.

Looking at all this, one would almost think that second-term presidents have a tendency to fall out of touch with the public, become obsessed with their own insular priorities, and thus make big political mistakes that cost them. I would argue this is true of Obama, who seems to be a little too interested in whichever foreign country Rice and Power tell him needs to be bombed. But it’s true of each and every one of these men. FDR’s fixation on court-packing, for example, whether or not he had a valid point, was a political disaster that ended the New Deal and rallied conservatives after four straight years of endless failure. That’s not what the public wanted of him, though after winning all but two states, a little hubris was probably unavoidable, and that’s my point. With this group, you’re talking about people who reached the pinnacle of power, who have been at the center of national and, indeed, world affairs for the better part of a decade, and for whom buying a meal is a distant memory. FDR–arguably the most canny and most successful politician in US history ever–still could not resist the temptation to think all those votes were for him personally, and that he would have massive support for whatever tangent he went off on. He had to have known better on some level but he couldn’t resist, and that’s the point. If the best can’t, the rest certainly won’t. I have reason to believe that Obama has desperately wanted to avoid this fate, but I think it’s unavoidable (unless you happen to be president in a massive economic expansion and a bunch of unlikable assholes impeach you, apparently the opposition being even more out-of-touch helps). I’d argue that the only distinctive thing about Obama relative to the group is that there’s no single bullet-point explanation for why he’s doing so poorly, considering an improving economy and an ultimately successful (though rocky) healthcare rollout. Could well be that people now associate him with the rest of those Washington bums they hate.

I have been super-busy recently and have had very scattered thoughts politically, but I do have a few crumbs:

  1. Lots of people have made the accurate critiques of the wisdom of giving surplus military hardware to places like Ferguson. I do remember that during my pre-2004 sorta-conservative days wondering why it was that all these suburban and small town/rural types were the ones so panicked about terrorism when the odds that terrorists will actually target them are essentially zero, assuming that al-Qaeda’s goal was to kill as many people as it possibly could. Exactly the wrong people were panicked. Now, of course, it seems like a pretty easy question to answer: tribalism*, id-centric thinking, paranoia, etc. all play their roles. If al-Qaeda ever get their fuck-up selves together to do another 9/11-style op it will be New York, LA, Chicago or Washington who will have victims, though if they were smart, attacking a place like Ferguson, MO, would cause a whole other level of panic that would suit their own ends perfectly. But that seems unlikely. In any event, I recommend adding this to the pile of things we’re talking about when we’re talking about Ferguson: the blatant tribal panic of the hinterlands.
  2. My basic take on Hillary Clinton is that she’d probably be a bit better overall on domestic policy than Obama–she comes from a generation of Democrats that sees public education as sacred, for one thing, while Obama’s a different story–and while she uses Republicans for her purposes she would go in knowing exactly what they are, rather than taking five-plus years to do this. But I have little doubt that she’d be a disaster on foreign policy. Maybe she’d be enough of a pragmatist to keep it in check, but she’s hardly encouraging me.
  3. Andrew Cuomo is an asshole.
  4. I’ll probably have to wait for four to five years until I get a real sense of Obama’s worked with Congress, you know, after all those folks start putting out their memoirs and talk to reporters. But I’d be willing to wager this was more typical than not.
  5. Speaking of the prez, at least the British press can assign blame over gridlock appropriately.
  6. The pro-life movement is the sleaziest in American politics, with no obvious second place. I’d argue that the oil/coal/gas and cigarette lobbies are vastly more principled by comparison. These folks simply have no scruples or restraint, plus they’re steeped in self-righteousness and utter moral relativism, an insufferable combination. Which is not to say that all pro-lifers are sleazy, etc. But for a group that occasionally gets respectful disagreement from liberals who are not “even the liberal” types, this is worth saying again and again. And the old adage about how great causes shouldn’t need to be sold with lies applies.
  7. The Pauls often are overrated by liberals–Rand Paul in particular doesn’t quite match up with what liberals wish he was (IMO, he’s a poor man’s Justin Amash). But he does have his uses.
  8. What’s different this time in Israel? Why now are the Chaits of the world buckling just a bit? Not because of what the government is doing, which is hardly new. Rather, the increasing feel that Israel is passing the point of no return with respect to (exploding) sentiments, unbridled nationalism, and suppression of dissent. As someone who at the same time scoffs at hyperbolic propaganda about how Israel is the “only democratic nation in the Middle East” or what have you (Turkey and Lebanon are an obvious rebuttal) but still also hopes that somehow the politics of a two-state solution can somehow work out, it’s enormously depressing. Netanyahu may well rule the country for another decade, but in the history books, he’ll be regarded as one of the greatest fools of all time. I’ve said it before and nothing has changed my mind.
  9. Amidst all this depressing shit, there are a few good things. Like a new Leonard Cohen album, soon. But in keeping with the mood:

* To be fair, I do believe liberals and conservatives are tribal, because humans are tribal. But liberals are in my experience a bit less so in general, and the ways in which it is expressed are vastly more subtle.

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Too busy to write a real post now, but I offer this:

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Saw a local event coming up that might be of interest to you, going on at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek, CA:


Lieberman I understand, he has nothing better to do. But isn’t Scott Brown, like, running for office this year? Doesn’t he have more important things to do one month before election day, than having a “debate” with another has-been on the other side of the country? I guess this is his equivalent of the famous John McCain Saturday Night Live QVC sketch the weekend before the 2008 election, i.e. an obvious sign that he’s not taking it seriously because he’s given up. Doesn’t make sense as the move of a candidate focused on winning above all else, but as someone wanting to cash in on his rapidly waning starpower before another embarrassing loss in three months it makes perfect sense.

Why’d he even run in New Hampshire in the first place? What was he thinking? I swear, I would totally read a book about that story. Well, if it were a Kindle Single anyway. And one of the ones you can download for free. Then I’d definitely read it. What I’m really excited about is which state will Brown move to for his next run for office. West Virginia seems the obvious choice: the state’s Republican drift has outpaced the GOP bench, meaning that even blatant carpetbaggers can have a shot. I’m calling West Virginia.

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Generally, people who make it a point of pride to drink bottled water are at worst a moderate annoyance to me. But today I encountered the next level of this phenomenon: a woman who first took quite a while to figure out what to order at the place I went to for lunch, then took some time trying to find her preferred brand of bottled water, then griped both to the guy behind the counter and then to me about their not having the “correct” brand. Of bottled water. How could they not have it? Naturally I offered no support, as bottled water is a silly concept to begin with, unless you’re going to be doing strenuous activity in a remote, hot location. But the idea of bottled water brand loyalty was a new one, up to the point of not taking one of the brands that were available, as though the bottles contained cold piss instead of, you know, water. The places people draw their Red Lines.

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It’s eerie to see it laid out like this:


It’s been a year since he’s even broke even. And it’s clear that our year of intractable foreign crises can’t fully be blamed: this slide began last year. The key drop happened about a year ago, which was the time of the Syria debate. Then a little bounce back after that happened, followed by an even steeper drop.

What’s interesting is that this is entirely a second-term phenomenon, if you check the link you see that Obama’s approval ratings have been lame forever, but his actively terrible foreign policy ratings are rather new. It’s not even a matter of hawkishness per se, as the first term included the Libyan operation. I’ve been thinking recently about what’s different between the two terms of Obama, and probably the most interesting one is that Libya was sold self-consciously as an international, burden-sharing operation, while both Syria and the new Iraq thingy have been sold as American first and last. This is easy enough to explain away as the increased influence of Samantha Power, Obama’s UN Ambassador who hates the UN and loves unilateral action. (Just read her books.) The Libya bombing was a bad idea with bad results, but Americans were at least marginally willing to go along because of the work the Administration did to get allies on board. Obama’s second term has had the strong implication that America has to handle every world crisis alone, which is just about the worst argument you can make to the public at this time. They just won’t hear it, and I think this is where you see Power’s influence quite strongly. She’s a genocide scholar who unsurprisingly wants to stop what she sees as imminent genocides, immediately. On a side note, my wife (who is a genocide scholar as well) tells me that these are the last people in the world that you’d want setting foreign policy, almost universally they tend to be extremely hawkish and despise realism and practicality. We can in addition say they tend to ignore the political dimension as well.

You also begin to see just how much ground liberal hawks have had to give up between the disastrous outcomes of past adventures they support and the political realities they’ve helped to create. Obama seems to have absorbed the public’s severe distaste for ground troops or nation building and I believe him when he says there will be no troops. However, at some point liberal hawks will have to just confess that Iraq destroyed their worldview, since at present it can only offer bombs to any kind of crisis they want to go to work on. The question of “What comes next?” can no longer be answered. Compare this with the misguided but at least robust worldview of the Clinton-Blair days, where that question was UN Peacekeepers, basically. Didn’t work so well, but it was something, unlike the utterly intellectually unsatisfying liberal hawk worldview of today, where contradictions have been heightened to such an extent that all that remains is sanctimony and contempt for the limitations of power. Can’t wait for Hillary ’16!

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