Monday, July 27, 2015

Handicapping Major Party Declared Presidential Candidates (Part Three)

Everyday there's someone else announcing his candidacy because he thinks he has what it takes to be President of the United States. I really do believe that one possible reason for this number of candidates is because some people think that if the black guy could do it how hard could it really be. I'm not 100% serious writing that. Not completely anyway. But for all the myriad disagreements I have and will continue to have with President Obama it is still in some aspects pretty amazing that the twice elected President of United States is a black man with a name that is utterly non-European. That's a big deal. And it is also a big deal that America might follow the election of the first black President with the election of the first female President. But on the Republican side because there is no incumbent to follow or obvious heir, much like GRRM's War of The Five Kings, people think why not me? That HAS to be the justification for long shot mopes like Bobby Jindal, George Pataki or Ben Carson, to name a few. It's like the lottery. Someone has to win. And you can't win if you don't play. And even if you lose you may not have to return all of the campaign contributions. You could parlay your new fame into a television or radio show. Perhaps you have a book you'd like to peddle.Or maybe you intend to be the loyal opposition/sparring mate for whoever eventually does win. Then you can get a cushy cabinet position in their administration. Then you just kick back and do favors for lobbyists for three or four years before cashing in your chips and becoming a lobbyist or tripling your salary at a think tank. On the other hand if you really are trying to win the race there are different paths to victory for candidates, especially Republican ones, in an America with a browning electorate. Some Republican nominees would attempt to run up the score with white voters, particularly among the hard right base. Other Republicans would seek to placate the base but reach out to white suburban college educated voters of whatever political background who may not have seething rage about illegal immigration or gay marriage but who are still worried about their children's economic prospects. And some Democrats might point to the party's dismal national standing among white men, especially Southern white men, and claim that they can reverse that to build a new broad based coalition. I don't know and neither does anyone else who will win their party nominations and ultimately the Presidency or which argument will resonate most strongly with the voters. I do know that this race is going to be wide open, perhaps a little more on the Republican than the Democratic side, though Sanders is currently showing a little more strength and staying power than Clinton would probably like to see.

Scott Walker
Why he can win
The governor of Wisconsin could be the Republican Prince Who Was Promised. With the possible exception of New York City is there a region or area that is more closely associated with unions than the upper Midwest? I'm not sure that there is. The Midwest is where the modern labor movement was born and where it thrived for years. And yet, times change. Governor Scott Walker emasculated and humiliated public sector unions on their home turf. He beat them. He survived recall and was elected again despite the best effort of unions and sympathetic supporters. He took their best shot and is still standing. Unions are on the run. Walker's not stopping to rest on his laurels. He's going after tenure as well. His status as a college dropout may well endear him to some people who feel that overeducated Ivy League pointy headed elites are ruining America. There's no word as to whether this "aw shucks we's jus regular folk" schtick interferes with Walker's fealty to the MIT educated Koch Brothers. I'm guessing not. But in any event Walker greatly appeals to the "let them eat cake" cheap labor camp of the Republican capitalist class as well as to the resentful Republican proletariat who are often overcome with schadenfreude anytime a government worker loses his or her job, must take a lower salary or loses union rights. There was some data in the 2012 election that suggested that voter turnout in the Midwest among white conservatives was lower than expected. If Walker could reverse that he might make a few Midwest states besides Indiana turn red. And then it's anyone's ball game isn't it?

Why he can't win
Although he has started to walk the walk, as witnessed by his recent signing of the 20 week abortion ban, it's not really clear that Walker has always talked the talk around social issues which are dear to the hearts of conservatives, particularly in and around the Bible belt. On the issue of illegal immigration in particular he is a late convert. Some social conservatives feel used by the Republican establishment that whispers sweet nothings to them to get the vote but is really only interested in delivering things like low taxes and low regulation for their business class. Can Walker change any perception that he only cares about gutting unions?

Jim Webb
Why he can win
Webb is a throwback to years when the white vote, particularly the white male vote, was more up for grabs in Presidential elections than it is now. The world has changed however. In Presidential elections, Republicans routinely get 60%+ of white voters nationwide and much more in the South. But as we have seen that proportion is no longer enough to win the Presidential election. This has caused some internecine strife among Republicans. Some just want to ignore this and keep the same messaging. Others want to change messaging, if not policy, and try to woo away some winnable elements of the Democratic coalition. Others want to go full white nationalist and try to increase their percentage of the white vote, which is still by far the largest group in America. This Republican problem, viewed with much glee by some Democrats, also leaves other more conservative Democrats in a bind. But Webb may see this as an opportunity. If he attracts conservative/independent whites who are more interested in class and pocketbook issues than they are in ensuring that whoever makes the latest racist gaffe is suitably humiliated and shunned, then he can stop the Democratic losses among whites in Presidential elections. There is a nascent class consciousness among many working class white Southerners which usually loses to race consciousness. Webb could bridge this. Perhaps he can even win more than one or two Southern states. He's a combat vet, something fewer and fewer Presidential candidates are. And he wasn't just twiddling his thumbs. Webb put in work. He's got a Navy Cross, Bronze Stars, Purple Hearts and a Silver Star. He possesses foreign policy experience at higher levels as well, having served as Secretary of the Navy and Assistant Secretary of Defense. 

Why he can't win
Yeah. I was just kidding. His run is just an exercise in self-indulgence. He's to the right of where the Democratic Party base is moving. Many of his most logical and likely supporters have probably identified as Republican or independent for years. It will be a heavy lift for both policy and identity politics reasons for Webb to make successful inroads with many Democratic primary voters. Although I understand his attempt to find nuance around Confederate Flag displays, again the people who would support him most passionately are already Republicans. 

John Kasich
Why he can win
He's the other Republican governor from the Midwest running for President. He's managed to combine pragmatic conservatism with what he sees as good policy decisions to attract widespread support in his state. He won't easily be characterized as a mouth breathing goober who gets all of his information from AM radio. Like Walker, Kasich, would if nominated, try to provide a path to victory for the GOP through the upper Midwest, which has not yet undergone the demographic transformations which have turned Florida, Virginia and North Carolina into battleground states and placed California firmly out of reach. If the GOP can win Ohio it makes the electoral math much easier. Kasich's seeming reasonableness could entice some independents to vote for him, particularly if the Democratic candidate is lackluster.

Why he can't win
I was always told that if you graduated from Ohio State University it is a miracle that you manage to tie your shoes every morning let alone run for President. Ok, that's probably not a fair, accurate or nice statement, though I still would check to see if Kasich is wearing loafers. Kasich's problem is not that he hails from that state down south but that conservative as he is, he's not going to be conservative enough for the Republican base. Kasich expanded Medicaid in Ohio under Obamacare and has also supported Common Core standards. If he ever starts to get any traction in this crowded Republican field you can be sure his rivals will tell everyone about his positions. And that is when Republican voters across the nation will see that Kasich has a bit of a quick temper.  Now if you aim your ire at the normal Republican targets, media, minorities, welfare recipients, etc. all will be well and good. But if you're questioning the morality of Republican opposition to Obamacare and calling opponents stupid, I'm not sure you get too far with that (unless you're Trump). Also the positions of moderate conservative and snarky sarcastic ill-tempered conservative are already held by Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. Kasich will have to take them (and obviously Trump) down, to get any sort of traction. Right now he's just a rounding error in the polls.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Confederate Flag: No Big Deal?

Something which unites some people on the hard right and on the hard left or nationalist black left is the desire to sneer at the removal of the Confederate Flag from such official public spaces such as the Columbia South Carolina Statehouse or from Texas state license plates. The usual line of "reasoning" on the right will claim that because removal of the Confederate Flag will not stop the horror of "black-on-black" crime or any other pathology which apparently only affects black people it is therefore a waste of time and (this part is important because it dovetails nicely with what many right-wingers think of black people anyway) STUPID for black people to spend any time or energy trying to get the flag removed from public spaces. After this seeming axiom is pointed out the right-winger will usually try to convince you that the Confederate Flag has nothing at all to do with white supremacy or slavery and for that matter neither did the Civil War and anyone who thinks otherwise is the real racist, not them. I think the people who try to argue this are either mentally slow or think that you are. On the left of course there are people who understand the symbolism of the Confederate Flag and do not initially seek to claim that it has no meaning of hatred or a very specific and ugly type of white identity politics. Nonetheless they usually wind up claiming that the flag is harmless and/or needs to be understood with some sort of nuance . Another form of left-winger, disproportionately found in academia or other bastions of so-called radical thought, will claim that the US flag is the flag that black people really need to reject. And then of course there is the "more radical than thou" type who is thoroughly convinced that unless and until we can undo, eliminate and repair each and every incarnation of racism, capitalism, sexism, patriarchy, homophobia, speciesism, transphobia, fat shaming, xenophobia, whiteness, nationalism, and any other "ism" you can think of going back to 1492 or before, then your protesting the Confederate Flag or being happy that there is a growing clamor to remove it from public spaces is just evidence that you're a brainwashed sap who's too quick to go for the okey-doke. 

From this point of view you're watching people take flags down and thinking you did something while the power structure remains unchanged. Man you're stupid. Much like some of their counterparts on the far right, some people of the left really do enjoy believing that they're much smarter and thus more moral than the average putz on the street. This is not a political failing. It's a human one. Both of these critiques of people who are trying to remove Confederate Flags from public spaces miss the point. Each "argument" creates a straw man which is then thoroughly beaten. It's quite simple. The Confederate Flag is a symbolic "f*** you" to Black people. There are perhaps other meanings arguably but everyone knows, whether they want to admit or not, what the primary, secondary and tertiary meanings are. People don't like it when you insult them to their face, particularly when they're paying for the "honor". And by the way, the Confederates lost. Although many apparently disagree, I think it was a good thing that they lost. So the flag of the losers has no business being on the public space of the winners. If you want to wear your Confederate Flag belt buckle, wave it at your concerts, tie it to your pickup truck, knock yourself out. But it shouldn't be officially installed on state or federal property. And to those who argue that the US flag is the one we need to reject, the difference is that for all the evil that's been done and blood that's been shed in its name the US flag has the promise and possibility of inclusion and fair play. The Confederate Battle Flag does not and never did. The Confederate Flag is forever fixed in its meaning. Black people in the 1860s were not at all conflicted about which flag offered a better opportunity for advancement and recognition of their humanity. It is, public protestations to the contrary aside, possible for people to walk and chew gum at the same time. You can work to stop inner city violence, lower infant mortality rates, create better food and exercise options, stop police brutality, feed the hungry, assist the homeless or impoverished, prevent redlining, interrupt the flow of black people into prison, and STILL think that the Confederate Flag should come down from public display. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Movie Reviews: The House That Dripped Blood

The House That Dripped Blood
directed by Peter Duffel
Amicus Productions was a British film company that was actually owned by Americans. In many respects it was a Hammer Films ripoff. Well maybe ripoff is an unfairly harsh term. Rather I should say that the look and feel of the company's films were often similar to those of Hammer. This was made more so by the fact that apparently Hammer had neglected to sign many of its most notable stars to exclusive contracts so quite a few of them showed up in Amicus films. In this film for example, quite bountiful cleavage is provided by Hammer Films va-va-voom icon Ingrid Pitt. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee also show up for to add their usual gravitas to the proceedings. The major difference between the two companies was that Amicus was much better than Hammer at producing interesting films set in the present day while Hammer of course tended to shine at period films, Regency or otherwise. This film is an interesting time capsule of the looks and styles of early seventies Great Britain. Anyway this is another film in a packet sent to me by my brother. I think it was the best of the films included therein. It's an anthology of four short stories all of which revolve around the titular home. Robert Bloch, the noted American horror author of Pyscho, wrote the stories and screenplay for this film. So there's quality writing, solid actors and decent direction. And the film is just a little short of two hours. So even the infrequent down times don't last very long. Despite the title there's very little depiction of blood shown in the movie. In fact I think there might not be any. So if you are the sort of person who avoids horror movies because you can't stand the sheer nastiness and explicitness of much of the genre, you might be interested in checking this out. Or on the other hand if you are turned off by the ubiquity of nudity, spurting blood, shaky camera work, jump cuts and crushed heads that have become common place in modern horror films you may be intrigued by a slower paced horror film that really presents itself as a mystery and avoids too many overt shocks to the system. The director had a background in television which turned out to work well with the episodic nature of this movie. The special effects are not so great and are not even state of art for the time. But there is a definitely a tongue in cheek feel to the proceedings, particularly when Pitt is on screen. Some of the cheesiness is probably quite deliberate. All the same, it's Bloch's writing and pacing which make this movie work.

Detective Inspector Holloway (John Bennett) is looking into the strange disappearance of an horror film actor. The actor was last seen in the house. The real estate agent Stoker (John Bryans in one of many shout outs to horror luminaries) has some strange stories to tell about the house. Despite his disbelief in anything that can't be quantified and enumerated, Holloway is willing to listen. Each story is opened and ended with Holloway looking less sure of himself and casting worried glances at the real estate agent. Could there be something really wrong with the house? Or are all of these incidents mere coincidences? Watch the movie and find out. 
Method for Murder
Could it be that this story inspired Stephen King's The Dark Half? Dunno. I think Koontz might have written similar works as well. Anyway in this tale a horror writer (Denholm Elliot) is concerned that his fictional creation of a mad strangler named Dominic (Tom Adams) is actually alive and threatening both him and his wife (Joanna Dunham). He's hearing strange noises around the house and seeing things. His wife thinks that he's gone round the bend. She suggests rest and seeing a shrink. The writer starts to question his grip on reality. Does Dominic really exist? Is he Dominic?
This story could be subtitled Eleanor Rigby were that song actually written about a man. But loneliness is hardly limited by gender is it. In this short, Peter Cushing is a desperately lonely gentle retired bachelor who has watched life pass him by. His only joys are listening to classical music and taking long brisk walks around town. It's probably not a reach to suggest that his long brisk walks are substitutes for other more pleasant activities he'd rather be doing but which require another person. Anyway on one of his jaunts about town he discovers a wax museum with surprisingly realistic figures. Cushing's character is entranced by the wax figure of Salome. This version of Salome looks like a woman he used to know. Cushing's character may be wistful about missed opportunities with women but Cushing also plays the role in a deliberately prissy fey manner. The leering owner of the museum (Wolfe Morris) seems to know more about things than he lets on while another man (Joss Ackland) tries to warn the Cushing character away from the museum while slowly falling under some sort of strange spell himself.
Sweets to the Sweet
In almost all of his Dracula movies for Hammer, the late Christopher Lee didn't get to do much more than snarl, grimace and intone portentously. One could forget that he was a pretty damn good actor, as he often showed in his non-Dracula Hammer movies and here in "Sweets for the Sweet". This is a great little short which will definitely make you question who is the hero and who is the villain. John Reed (Lee) is an imperious dominant giant of a widower (Lee employs his full 6'5" height in most scenes) who appears to be needlessly cold, harsh and downright mean to his only child, his daughter Jane (Chloe Franks). Reed has employed a new tutor/governess for Jane, Ann (Nyree Porter). He doesn't care to explain his frigid parenting style to Ann or go into detail about why he forbids Jane to have any dolls or toys. This short is subtle and enjoyable. I think this was probably the best of the four shorts. Paternal authority is necessary but it can also be extremely frightening, especially if your father happens to be a sneering type who's quick with discipline and a cutting remark.
The Cloak
This piece is the campiest of the bunch. It sends up Amicus, Hammer and some serious actors, e.g. Christopher Lee, who were occasionally annoyed at being typecast in what they considered work beneath their talents, like for example horror films. Paul Henderson (Jon Pertwee) is a famous horror film actor who has somehow fallen on somewhat hard times. Nevertheless the show must go on, not least because Henderson is too old to do anything else. So he's off to do another vampire movie. Still, although Henderson's annoyed at the crappy scripts, laughable sets and ridiculous special effects he's forced to work with, he's in his heart of hearts a true horror fanatic. He appreciates horror and knows the history. So when Henderson has the opportunity to increase his character's verisimilitude by purchasing an antique graveyard cloak from a rather disturbing shop owner (Geoffrey Balydon), he leaps at the opportunity. Things don't quite work out. Ingrid Pitt steals this short just by, well being Ingrid Pitt. She's Carla Lynde, Henderson's companion. She seemingly doesn't have much to do besides display herself but she's obviously in on the joke. There's a sudden shift from camp to attempted serious horror which didn't quite work for me. Fright Night did this sort of thing much better fourteen years after this work. All in all The House That Dripped Blood was a decent horror flick if you are a Pitt, Lee or Cushing fan or are just curious about how people made horror films before they could amp up the gratuitous sex and violence.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Netroots Hecklers, Sanders, O'Malley and the Theater of Emotional Politics

Hecklers by definition want to disrupt someone's speech or presentation. They think that the presenter is missing some key points in his or her argument, is morally heinous, is focusing on incorrect topics, is wrong about everything and/or shouldn't even be allowed to speak in the first place. Now, I would never say that hecklers are always wrong but make no mistake heckling is a rude aggressive action. If you remember just a few weeks back an illegal immigrant transgender rights activist tried to heckle President Barack Obama at a White House event. After attempting to talk over this person and vainly appealing to a sense of decorum, the President had the person removed from the premises. Most of the President's political supporters were okay with this action. Some were openly amused by the President's forceful response. It's all about time and place. Interrupting someone is what heckling is all about. It's bad enough when someone heckles you. That's to be expected in politics. Politics is a contact sport with sharp elbows. If you can't take the heat get out of the kitchen. But when someone tries to bogart an event that's something else indeed. There are some people or groups who can't get enough attention in their own right so they travel to other more popular events to hijack the narrative and reset the agenda to one of their own liking. Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley found this out recently when at the Netroots Nation conference protesters chanting "Black lives matter" and "Say her name" heckled them, prevented them from speaking and briefly took over the stage.  But the protesters aren't doing themselves or their cause any favors by focusing on people who currently lack the power to initiate nationwide changes. More on this below. 

PHOENIX — A group of protesters repeatedly confronted Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland during a town hall discussion with liberal activists here on Saturday, demanding the Democratic presidential candidates address issues like discrimination and police brutality. Chanting, “What side are you on, my people, what side are you on?” and “Black lives matter,” the demonstrators moved to the front of the ballroom about 20 minutes into the event as Mr. O’Malley discussed proposed changes to Social Security. They remained there, heckling the candidates and posing questions, until organizers shut down the event, one of the centerpieces of the annual Netroots Nation conference.

If you recall, some people on the left, particularly on the more explicitly black nationalist left, have criticized and continue to criticize Barack Obama both as a candidate and as President, for not saying or doing more specifically about the systemic racist challenges that Black Americans face, particularly in the justice system. Until very recently the President's tepid responses were generally along the lines of "I'm not the President of Black America", "A rising tide lifts all boats" ,and "Pull your damn pants up and stop bothering me. I'm doing the best I can, and anyway these are generally local matters". Ok, I'm deliberately engaging in a bit of hyperbole for dramatic effect but not by all that much. The two most notable Black public figures who did have the temerity to question President Obama's program for black people, Professor Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, were generally ridiculed, shut down and dismissed by a great many black left intellectuals, politicians and most importantly voters. To be fair, in his second term and after the midterms President Obama has apparently felt more able to speak honestly and openly about his and the country's struggles around race and to seek some policy changes, some cosmetic, others truly revolutionary, around how race is experienced in this country. But that doesn't change the fact that for most of his term as President, black voters were "understanding", to put it mildly, that President Obama was not going to verbalize his inner Kwame Toure. That's not how the system works and probably not who he is anyway. So if people gave Obama a pass on that sort of stuff both as candidate and as President, why wouldn't they expect to give Martin O'Malley or Bernie Sanders a pass as well? It doesn't make any sense. Additionally, neither O'Malley nor Sanders currently has any sort of personal/legal authority over the state or federal prison system, any local police force, the US Department of Justice, the FBI, transfer of intelligence and military technology/weaponry to local police forces, or the ability to open and prosecute federal civil rights cases against local law enforcement officials.

You know who does have that sort of power and authority? President Obama and his Attorney General, Loretta Lynch. But I don't remember AG Lynch's confirmation hearings or press conference being interrupted by these protesters. In fact I seem to remember some of the very same people who are giving Sanders a suspicious look being ecstatic that the new AG was a black woman, without even bothering to look at her record or ask her some tough questions. Questioning Sanders' intentions because he represents a mostly white state shows that the person doing that is a demagogue who is ignorant of Sanders' past record and current political position and statements. This Netroots event was just an exercise in emotional theatrics. To close, the next President of the United States is going to be a white person. It is not going to be possible for people who muted their criticisms about social ills while Obama was President, to suddenly reinvent themselves as fearless social crusaders once there is a white President again. Life doesn't work that way. And if I were invited to speak anywhere I certainly wouldn't surrender the microphone to someone who's bumrushing the stage. You can ask questions during the Q&A or you can leave. If you want people to hear what you have to say get your own invitation or rent your own hall or have your own press conference. If O'Malley can't stand up to pushy protesters how can he sit in the Oval Office?

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Book Reviews: A Walk Among The Tombstones, The Age of Selfishness

A Walk Among The Tombstones
by Lawrence Block
This is listed as a crime thriller but is really more of a mystery novel. It was originally published in 1992 so many of the technological references and even some plot points are now dated but not so much so that these things would interfere with your enjoyment of the story. As it turns out I recognized the lead character's name. I did some checking. I believe that I read an earlier Scudder story by Block way back in the seventies or eighties. Go figure. This is a very leisurely read at just over 408 pages in paperback format. Although some gruesome horrors are detailed because the bad guys are very bad indeed, for the most part with a few notable exceptions there's not too much gore. It's mostly offpage and/or left up to the reader's imagination. But when a shock does occur it punches you right in the gut, suddenly and with extreme force. Being a private eye in American fiction is sort of like being a ronin, a samurai with no master, or being that gunfighter with no name. The private eye often fights for the side of what's right, but he may need to break laws to do that. He's often no Boy Scout. He may have his own demons to face which prevent him from being the best man he can be. In some cases the private eye is only on the side of good by accident. He may have the same urges the bad guys have but was trained or raised differently. Change one or two things and the private eye could just as easily be on the other side of the good: evil divide. Well Matthew Scudder isn't quite walking the fine line between good and evil. He's probably not (at least in this book) anything even close to being a bad guy. He knows the difference between right and wrong, but he's willing to occasionally stretch the law or look the other way. He's not a naif. Scudder's an alcoholic and former cop. He knows the wrong that people do. Usually unless it involves hurting other people he tries not to judge. He has his own pain to process from the apparent destruction of his former marriage and relationship with his children. I'm not sure what the status of his relationship is with his ex and children or even if they are still alive as Scudder doesn't talk about it. I'm not sure you could say that Scudder accepts evil as indeed he ends up struggling against it. But I do think that you could say that Scudder is under no illusions that he's going to make a huge difference in the overall scheme of things or that evil will ever be permanently removed from the human condition. No matter what Scudder does, the world is going to keep on turning. There is both horror and joy in that fact.

Scudder's best friend is Mick Ballou, a thief and gangster. The two are opposites in many respects. Scudder's primary street contact is a black teen named T.J. who always seems to know the right people for whatever job Scudder is undertaking. And Scudder's lady friend is Elaine, a call girl who has Scudder's love and returns it in kind even if each of them is so far unwilling to take that penultimate step towards commitment and move in together or at the very least verbally agree that no one else will provide either one's nookie.
This book opens with the sort of every day horror that you read about but never think will happen to you. Francine Khoury, the vibrant young wife of Kenan Khoury, is kidnapped off the streets of Brooklyn. Her husband receives insulting phone calls telling him to leave a sum of money if he ever wants to see her alive again. Desperate, Kenan does what he can to raise the money in a very short period of time. He gets the money and leaves it at the assigned drop. But when he goes to the place where he's supposed to pick up his wife, he finds that the kidnappers have reneged on the deal to leave her alive. At this point, or even long before this point, most people would have called the police or the FBI. But Kenan can't do that. He's a drug dealer, or to be more accurate a drug importer/wholesaler. He can't have the police sniffing around his business. Given his career path who's to say they would even take this murder seriously or not just assume that he did it. So he calls Scudder. Kenan's no tough guy, nor does he have a whole crew of savages ready to wreak bloody revenge. No. But he does want Scudder to find the people who did this and then look the other way as Kenan gets medieval on them.

With the exception of the introduction, almost all of this book is told in the first person. I liked the realistic(?) depiction of how detective work has relatively few "EUREKA" moments but instead plenty of slow plodding connecting of data points, interviews of eyewitnesses, and trying to find evidence, no matter how fragile, that links someone to a certain place and time. There are no supermen or superwomen here. People get tired and irritable. They make mistakes. There were a number of false hints and a few real ones about the identity of the killers or how they knew about Kenan. There's a lot of dialog in this book, maybe a little too much sometimes but that's often the case with first person tales. Kenan makes a superficially convincing argument that his business is not any worse than selling someone cigarettes or guns. He doesn't appear to have any guilt or regret about the creation of junkies, even those who might be very close to him. This was turned into a film starring Liam Neeson which I suppose I will watch sometime soon. 

The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality and the Financial Crisis
by Darryl Cunningham
The problem with these sorts of books is that they are mostly impressive to those who already share many of the author's assumptions about life, morality and economics. If you happen to come at things from the polar opposite point of view, this book might well leave you cold. However facts are facts and for what it's worth I happen to think that Cunningham did a bang-up job of linking the philosophical musings of a Russian Revolution refugee to the increasing Social Darwinian turn of the right wing and the Republican Party. Many modern conservatives and libertarians alike have found sustenance in the writings and world view of one Alissa Rosenbaum, who became better known of course as Ayn Rand. Rand was the founder of the philosophy known as Objectivism, which, at its essence, and I'm trying to be fair, was the belief that individual rights were not only important but were the only way by which we could measure what is good. Selfishness is indistinguishable from independence and rationality. A rational person lives for himself and not for others. Any limits on this moral selfishness were immoral and quite likely the result of jealousy expressed by less intelligent or less skilled people. Again, NO ONE had the right to demand that you labor for other people or place their good above your own. From Rand's point of view the only legitimate functions of government were armed service, police and courts. Everything else was theft carried out by corrupt parasites who were too dumb to realize that their intellectual and moral betters were the people who made everything work. As you might imagine,this philosophy probably came out of Rand's negative experiences during the Russian Revolution, when her father's pharmacy and family home were seized by the communists. Rand didn't like talking about this time in her life, perhaps finding it needlessly reductive but the Revolution pretty clearly had a negative impact on her and her family. Cunningham divides this cartoon book in three sections. Section One examines Rand, her philosophy, her novels, her time in Hollywood, her out there personal life and her heading of what would today obviously be recognized as a cult. In later years one smart fellow by the name of Alan Greenspan became a devotee of Rand. This would not be of note but for the fact that as head of the Federal Reserve, Greenspan took the opportunity to put many of Rand's ideas into practice, with predictably bad results.

Section Two dives a little deeper in the economic crisis of 2008-2009. It explains in pretty clear English what happened, why it happened, what's still happening and how the basis for the crisis had its genesis in bad assumptions about human nature and pure greed. It gives the best description/explanation of derivatives and rating agencies which I've seen in a while. You won't look the same at banks or financial institutions in the same way. Section Three is to me the most interesting portion. It examines, Rand aside, the very different moral assumptions behind American "conservative" and "liberal" thinking. Although in some cases each group thinks of the other as lacking any sort of moral foundation or clarity, in fact quite often different groups simply give different importance to different moral values. There may be another post on this shortly as some recent news showed how liberals and conservatives can look at the exact same news and reach entirely different and equally valid conclusions about the moral worth of a government program. Section Three also examines how liberals are almost by nature much more accepting of difference and how this is not always a good thing while conservatives are much more comfortable with conformity and how this is not always a bad thing. This hardcover book is a little over 200 pages. It is essential reading for someone who wants a quick and easily understood explanation of what caused the financial crisis, how corporations have become so powerful and why liberals and conservatives see things so differently. There are numerous footnotes as well a helpful financial glossary at the end for those of us who don't have our grad school "Principles of Corporate Finance" textbook handy. You should get this book.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Book Reviews: Flat Broke In The Free Market

Flat Broke In The Free Market
by Jon Jeter
This book's subtitle is "How Globalization Fleeced Working People" so it's not as if the reader should be too surprised that the author, a former Washington Post bureau chief for southern Africa and South America, and Pulitzer Prize finalist, very clearly takes a stand against globalization, or to be more precise, globalization as it's been implemented. Broadly speaking globalization has meant that there have been ever greater capital flows in search of cheap labor and low regulation, less protection of native industry, deindustrialization and destruction of unions, massive privatization of key public sectors and monetary policy that is far more concerned with fighting inflation and protecting the value of investments than with fighting unemployment and ensuring that those people outside of the investor class at the very least have a job. However this book was written in 2009 so some of the specific economic information cited about certain countries is now out of date. Some of the countries Jeter cited as basket cases have slowly turned things around but on the other hand some of the countries which he didn't mention because they didn't support his arguments have since had experiences which fit well with Jeter's theme. However, specific data points aside, the larger trends remain more or less the same across the United States and especially what is called the Third World. Corporate profits are up. Banking, investment, finance, and real estate sectors are larger parts of the world economy. Wages are down. Inequality has risen. Worldwide, people struggle to pay or obtain basic services and goods such as food, clean water, electricity and housing. Theories that seem to make sense and have a certain elegance in academia or corporate board rooms somehow have devastating impact on the real lives of people across the world, especially the half of the world's population who struggles to live on less than $2.50 a day. Jeter struggles to make sense of all of this. He describes the genesis of this book as coming to him after interviews with right-wing libertarian Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman and former Rhodesian white separatist leader Ian Smith. Although he had no truck with either man's point of view, Jeter found that each man was surprisingly hard to dislike even though they apparently lived in an alternate reality to that which most of the world's population inhabited. Friedman thought that everything was going well for the world's investor class and that everyone else would be helped further on down the line by what he called reduction in interference in trade. The polite and genteel Ian Smith thought that the blacks in "Rhodesia" were much better off under white rule and were the "happiest in the world". I guess that Smith didn't really think too much about why such "happy blacks" launched a war to end white rule.

It's after these conversations when the basic thesis of this book came to Jeter. His argument is that colonialism and globalization are basic riffs on the same theme, service to imperialism and the ownership class. This is not a dry book full of charts or mathematical models. But there are oodles (and I do mean oodles) of footnotes. Jeter explains over and over again that he's not an economist. Jeter was born in 1965 and grew up in the Midwest. He describes the difference it made in his lifestyle that his father was able to find a job at Chrysler plant. In later years when because in part of globalization and capital transfer, inner city (i.e. black) male residents suffered through wage drops and high unemployment, Jeter appreciated even more the value of a good paying job. Jeter doesn't believe that people are inherently damaged or less than because of their race or ethnic class. Nor, would I venture to say does he think that individual failings are the sole cause of poverty. This book is a strong corrective to the widely accepted view that poverty is always and only a personal moral problem. Many of the issues which are used to criticize the underclass are quite often a response to economic stresses.For example, in Argentina, probably South America's whitest nation, Jeter talks to lower and middle class women who've turned to prostitution to feed their families. He also gives a history of the country's economic policies to see what's worked and what hasn't. In this book Jeter examines communities and countries across the world and points out how they have been ill-served by so-called "free trade" and globalization. His points of exploration include Zambia, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Brazil, Malawi, Mozambique, Mexico, Venezuela, and of course places closer to home such as Washington D.C., Chicago and the post-industrial Midwest. Jeter mixes economic history and personal stories together to put everything into context. For example, if we didn't have subsidies for corn and sugar, would we have our food supply overflowing with added sugar and high fructose corn syrup? And if that weren't the case would we have skyrocketing obesity and diabetes rates? If you take nothing away from this excellent book you should understand that globalization is neither inevitable nor is it a force of nature. It is a result of human decisions designed to benefit a very particular set of people. It could be changed to benefit a wider group of individuals. For example in South Africa, the whites took steps away from the free market to benefit themselves at the expense of the Africans. It was only after their economic dominance was complete that they were interested in a "free market". This book was just about 200 pages in hardcover. It's quick but rewarding and even dense reading. Jeter ties a LOT of disparate events and problems together. I found it generally convincing but then again I share some of his assumptions. Jeter is scorching in his dismissal of the black political class, a group he views as being largely unable or uninterested in helping the black masses they claim to represent. He does give some positive attention to street level activists across the world who are challenging the narrative, albeit with decidedly mixed success.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

HBO Game of Thrones: Rethinking Theon Greyjoy

As Roose Bolton matter of factly reminds Theon Greyjoy in the book (not sure if this happened on screen and it's not that important) Robb Stark's cause was permanently lost the moment Theon took Winterfell. The eternal symbol of Stark authority had been captured and was later burned. Robb's heirs were supposedly dead. Theon's actions (and the Bolton secret backstab) were not only serious symbolic blows to Robb's cause, they also caused both Stark allies and enemies to pause and wonder about The Young Wolf's judgment. If Robb couldn't protect his own castle and smallfolk, how could he protect his retainers? If Robb misjudged Theon's loyalty, would he make other similar strategic wartime errors? Well, we know that Robb did indeed make horrible strategic blunders. Chief among these errors were trusting the Boltons. The Boltons ruthlessly exploited Robb's mistakes in order to realize their long dreamed of goal to supplant the Starks as the Wardens of the North. None of this would have been possible without Theon. And Theon knows it. He verbalizes in both book and show that he should have died with Robb at the Red Wedding, and that he sees Robb and Ned as a better brother and father to him than his own. By then it's too late. All of Westeros knows him as a traitor. Many people start using the alliterative appellation "Theon Turncloak". And that's the nicest thing they call Theon. He's despised and mocked throughout the land. A man who could have been the living symbol of reconciliation and/or alliance between the North and the Iron Islands became the ultimate icon of Iron Islander treachery. What went wrong?

Both Theon Greyjoy and Sansa Stark were forcibly separated from their families and made to live with people who either had been or were currently in a state of war with their respective relatives. Both Theon and Sansa had to worry, needlessly or not, that they, children or not, would be killed to send a message to their relatives. But that is where the similarities end. From pure sadism, the Lannisters made Sansa look at her father's and tutor's corpses. They regularly beat her, stripped her and mocked her. She couldn't leave and was kept under constant guard. For every setback in Lannister fortunes that occurred, the Lannisters made Sansa pay a psychological or physical price. Theon Greyjoy, although presumably he can't just sail back to the Iron Islands, has extensive freedom of movement in and around Winterfell. Although from time to time he's reminded, sometimes bluntly, that he's not in fact a Stark, he's considered loyal enough to carry weapons around Stark family members and retainers, including Robb, the heir. The Stark master-of-arms trains Theon along with Jon and Robb in swordplay and combat techniques.  
Rodrik: For ten years you have been a ward of Stark.
Theon: Hostage and prisoner, I call it.
Rodrik: Then perhaps Lord Eddard should have kept you chained to a dungeon wall. Instead he raised you among his own sons, the sweet boys you have butchered, and to my undying shame I trained you in the arts of war. Would that I had thrust a sword through your belly instead of placing one in your hand.

At Winterfell no bored psychopath beats Theon for amusement or threatens him with rape. And although as a child Theon no doubt feared Ned Stark and his stern nature, from what we know of Ned it's unlikely that Ned would have executed an underage Theon for his father's actions. When Catelyn Stark shares her suspicions about Bran's "accident" and her plan of action with Robb and the Stark retainers, Theon Greyjoy is there to listen and pledge his fealty to the Stark cause. Would Catelyn have done that if she had serious doubts about Theon? Can you imagine Tywin, Tyrion and Cersei having a Lannister war council and letting Sansa sit in?  Would anyone let Sansa carry weapons around Joffrey? Of course not. So while Sansa Stark was unambiguously a hostage, and a poorly treated one at that, Theon Greyjoy is something a little different or rather, something a little bit more. It's the confusion that both Theon and Robb shared over Theon's status which caused the actions which ultimately led to Theon's downfall and Robb's murder. There's no guarantee that Balon Greyjoy knows that Ned is generally opposed to killing children. In fact he may not. Ned and Balon weren't friends and didn't meet under pleasant circumstances. Ned Stark, Stannis Baratheon, Tywin Lannister and King Robert Baratheon suppressed Balon Greyjoy's rebellion. Ned Stark took Balon's last living son and heir, Theon, as a ward/hostage. This is pretty obviously meant to make Balon think twice about revolting again. But the secondary reason is that once Balon passes away, Theon Greyjoy,  schooled in the Stark/Northern ways and raised as a "semi-Stark" ,would hopefully be a friendlier Lord to the North, the Starks and to all of Westeros than his father had been. But that's the long game. Even kind decent Ned hoped that Theon could be used to compel Balon to do things he might otherwise not do. He told Catelyn as much when he saw her in King's Landing: And from this day on, I want a careful watch kept over Theon Greyjoy. If there is war, we shall have sore need of his father’s fleet.

Again, Ned would probably not have executed Theon under any but the most extreme situation. But Ned was okay with letting Theon and especially Balon Greyjoy think that Theon could be in harm's way. So although Ned was obviously not the best game player,  he at least understood that Theon was a piece to be moved and used. So while Theon is initially a hostage, when war breaks out, he's clearly something else. Although Jon Snow is not that friendly with Theon, Robb certainly is, while the younger Stark children apparently view him as a foster brother, if a somewhat annoying one.  Nevertheless Theon saved Bran's life from a wildling attack and later covered himself with glory fighting at Robb's side during the initial battles with the Lannisters.  It's Theon's actions and his seeming loyalty which make Robb forget that Theon is not in fact his brother and commit the mistake of sending Theon, bound to him by oaths, back to the Iron Islands to carry Robb's offer to Balon Greyjoy. The problem with oaths, as Jaime "Kingslayer" Lannister mused, is that they often conflict with good sense and with each other.

Robb put Theon in an impossible position. Although oathbreaking and treason are horrible sins, kinslaying is even worse. Theon's a psychologically fragile young man, who upon returning home to his family, is met with indifference by his uncle and retainers, mocked by his sister and openly attacked by his father, who views Theon's continued existence as an unpleasant reminder of his own past failings. In Balon Greyjoy's mind the Starks, not the Baratheons or Lannisters, were the primary source of his humiliations. Now that the Northern leader was dead/imprisoned and his inexperienced son had taken most of the Northern armies south, what better time to strike at an undefended North? Strategically, attacking the only other force who is willing to recognize you as an independent entity is extra special stupid but clearly Balon Greyjoy's resentments outweighed his good sense. And Robb's friendship with Theon outweighed his mother's warnings that giving something for nothing to Balon Greyjoy was a very stupid move. Although Catelyn Stark couldn't know that Balon had already written Theon off and was preparing for war, she did know that showing kindness or good faith to Balon Greyjoy was futile. When Theon returns home he's reminded repeatedly that his family thinks he's a failure, a weakling and a punk. His family questions his manhood and loyalty. Balon showers Theon with abuse, verbal and physical. Theon is shocked to learn that his father considers Theon's sister Asha (Yara in show) to be the Greyjoy heir.  When he learns that his father intends to make war on the North, Theon does not feel himself capable of doing anything about it. Think about it. What would you have done in Theon's place? Would you have continued to argue against it to no avail? Would you have raised hands against your own father and sister? Would you have refused to participate and thus confirmed your family's low opinion of you? Would you have sent a warning to Winterfell? Theon had to pick a side.

Considering your father had already written you off as dead, kinslaying taboo or not, he might have been willing to bring that status about. Theon had no good options. He chose his blood family over his foster one and you know the rest. But in Westeros, this is not an unreasonable choice. In fact it's the only choice. Blood is always thicker than water. Theon's "betrayal" came as a shock because Robb didn't heed his mother's warning about the Greyjoys or consider the possibility that Balon Greyjoy might not be eager to bleed FOR the people who had suppressed his last rebellion and kidnapped his last son. Hindsight tells us that Theon's choices were the wrong ones, both morally and consequentially. But at the time, Theon's decisions made sense from his pov. He chose blood over friendship. He tried to cover himself with glory and impress his father by taking Winterfell. And he trusted the wrong people (his own men in the show, "Reek/Ramsay" in the book). The ultimate problem is that the Great Houses need to find a different way of enforcing peace and good behavior than taking hostages. Hostages, even long standing ones who are well treated, may have deep resentments. When Balon rebelled, Theon's use as a deterrent was at an end. Robb's naivete and Theon's desperate need to impress and be accepted led to disaster. It's ironic that Theon's confusion over whether he's a Stark or a Greyjoy led to him losing his identity completely and being turned into "Reek". Theon paid a horrible cost for his crimes. No one should endure what he's had to go thru. Is Theon evil? Well, he's killed children. But so has fan favorite The Hound. Theon's switched allegiances but again so has The Hound. Theon betrayed the "good guys" House Stark but would you have had loyalty to people who kidnapped you from your family? It's complicated. I hope that Theon has, no matter how rocky, a redemption arc. He's done evil things. But as Rodrick Cassel and Maester Luwin pointed out, Theon is more lost than evil. He continues to be a fascinating character.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Key and Peele: Hillary Clinton Anger Translator

I don't watch a tremendous amount of television but I ran across this skit and thought it funny enough to share. I recognized Stephnie Weir from MADtv. I always thought she was a bit underrated there. Nice to see her here. I really like the whole Obama anger translator bit so it made sense to use it to parody Hillary Clinton. I think that like Obama or really most other politicians, Clinton keeps a lot of her true feelings very tightly wrapped. Key and Peele continue to impress. They, like Weir, are MADtv alumni and apparently reached out to Weir to do the translator bit.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

De'Andre Johnson dismissed from FSU football team

Some people like to say that there is no excuse for violence against women. I don't really like that framing at all because it turns what could be a valid reason into an "excuse" and ignores the fact that whether we like it or not there are some very violent, dangerous and even deadly women on this planet. What IS true however is that almost regardless of what a particular woman might have done to initiate or continue a physical confrontation, a man who hits a woman rightfully has a very high bar of skepticism and contempt to climb over in a court of law or especially the court of public opinion. Because this is the case it is a good idea to avoid putting hands on women. It's a bad idea and is often morally repugnant. However, men, like women, do have the right and duty to defend themselves. There ought to be a better way for us to distinguish the case of a man who is legitimately defending himself from the case of a lowlife punk who just gets his kicks beating and terrorizing those who are weaker than he. I've seen both situations. This problem is further muddled by the assumption that women are and should be in all ways "equal" to men. Some people say that if we wouldn't worry about a bad outcome happening to a man because of his or someone else's dumb decision than we shouldn't worry about a woman in the same position. So by this logic if a woman wants to be in combat and is qualified, let her do it. There should be no cries of "Save the women and children!" if a ship starts to sink. We're all equal. Well.
De'Andre Johnson, former quarterback for the Florida State Seminoles football team, found out the hard way that "defending yourself" from a woman in the same way that you might defend yourself from a man is not, at least for him, an acceptable course of action. He got into a physical confrontation with a woman at a Tallahassee bar. She raised her hands which were balled up in fists. They both appeared to push and grapple with each other. She took a swing at Johnson. Johnson punched back. The woman lost. It is the difference in gender and strength that makes this a shock. Johnson was suspended and later dismissed from the team.

Florida State Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher dismissed freshman quarterback De'Andre Johnson from the team Monday night, hours after the state's attorney's office released video showing Johnson punching a woman in the face last month at a Tallahassee bar.

Fisher made the announcement in a brief statement released by FSU on Monday night.
Johnson, who was named Florida's "Mr. Football" as a senior at First Coast High School in Jacksonville, Florida, was indefinitely suspended from the team in June. He was charged with misdemeanor battery for striking the 21-year-old woman during an argument June 24. He surrendered to Tallahassee police on June 30 and was released on $500 bond.
The video, which was captured by security cameras in a bar near the FSU campus, shows Johnson trying to push past the woman, who was waiting to order at the bar. The woman turned toward Johnson, who grabbed her right arm after she raised it in a fist. The woman raised her knee and swung at Johnson with her left arm, and then he punched her in the face.


When I watched this I asked myself what was Johnson, who is under the legal drinking age, doing in a bar in the first place? But I was informed that some bars allow underage people to enter; they just won't serve them alcohol. Both Johnson and the woman made bad decisions. If I were the prosecutor I would charge both of them or charge neither of them. But I'm no lawyer. Perhaps someone with actual legal training and experience will chime in to discuss the charges. Bottom line though is that I think it's critically important that we teach all people regardless of their race or gender not to put hands on other people. If this were a smaller man who had started something with say, a heavyweight MMA or boxing champ before losing in a spectacular fashion, many more of us would likely find it humorous. We would tend to judge same gender interactions differently than we would opposite gender ones. Is that wrong? Perhaps. I think it's good and proper to teach men not to hit women. I also think it's good and proper to teach women not to hit men. No hands. Why is this so difficult? Did the woman think that Johnson was just to going to accept a punch in the face? Did Johnson think he was going to walk away with no repercussions? 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Book Reviews: Necessary Evil

Necessary Evil
by David A. Van Meter
This is a very creepy thriller/horror revenge story. It's told in first person so you never get the chance to step outside of the subject's mind. This was a short novel, just over 300 pages. It's an older book, written a little over twenty years ago. It was very graphic for the times, but still retains its ability to shock even in today's grindcore market. Revenge is not really a morally good feeling is it? We try to get rid of it by outsourcing private revenge to a dispassionate justice system. But for some crimes and for some people that's not enough. Some people are able to forgive the worst trespasses as indeed Christianity argues that they should. Vengeance is not man's but God's. Other people scoff at such arguments. If someone hurts them or gives them trouble they want to repay evil for evil, hurt for hurt, pain for pain to bitter end. For some people turning the other cheek only invites further attacks. And even if it didn't it would still be morally wrong to do so. You come after me with a bat; I get my gun. You put my brother in the hospital; I leave your son's casket on your front door. And so on. Most societies can not operate if everyone behaved in such a fashion because we'd live in a Hobbesian state of nature where no one can trust anyone who is stronger than they are. So in order to have the benefits of society we all implicitly agree to give up our private desires of revenge or retribution to accept the dictates of judges, juries and the law. But what if the law lets us down? Then what? Do we accept that sometimes a guilty person gets away with his or her crime? Or does that haunt us? In Necessary Evil, Van Meter shows almost in a clinical way how an act of evil impacts a child and warps him for life. If you have ever wondered where an adult psychopath came from, Necessary Evil gives a pretty good, though occasionally cliched, depiction of just how such a human being is created. The story jumps back and forward through time. We get childhood memories, teenage memories and finally present day descriptions from a thirty three year old man.

Billy McIlwaine is a thirty three year old man who has just been released from prison for a horrific crime which is not important to know about in this review. He's seemingly adjusted to being back in society. He has a job as a security guard and does his best to stay out of trouble. All the same though Billy is haunted by memories of a better time. Twenty three years prior when Billy was just ten he was forced to witness the murder of his maternal grandfather. In part Billy blames himself for his grandfather's murder. Not only did the lowlife perpetrators not go to jail they were able to claim self-defense and even successfully sued the estate. Billy's father Ned cared nothing for his father-in-law or wife and son. As soon as he learned there was no money forthcoming, he left. Even when he was around he wasn't much of a husband or father. He abused and cheated religiously on his wife, Billy's mother Grace. Grace is an alcoholic who has attempted suicide. Left to grow up with the clingy and oft inappropriate Grace (this is quite a Freudian story) Billy becomes alienated in some very real ways that go unnoticed. By the time Billy is a teen, Grace has turned her life around and become very financially successful in real estate. She doesn't have a lot of time left to tend to Billy. She has work to do. But Billy is obsessed with finding the two men who murdered his beloved grandfather.    

The book sort of dragged a bit in the middle. I did like the idea that people can often be in love with a false memory of a person or in love with who that person used to be and not realize that that person doesn't exist any longer. Our experiences define us and can also twist us. If evil is anything it's the inability to empathize, to put yourself in the other person's shoes. Over time, Billy gradually loses the ability to do this. As everything is told from Billy's POV, the story can get kind of claustrophobic at times. And because Billy is not always certain that what he's seeing is actually there, there are some deliberately unanswered questions. All in all this was an ok book. Not horrible, not the best. Evil can invoke pity at the same time as we know that we must remove the infected person from society, perhaps even from the planet.