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Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Sticky Subject

When i was growing up, other guys would speak admiringly of some miscreants they knew, saying, "He don't give a shit."  The idea was that those non-giving individuals were fearless in their transgression, or at least heedless of the consequences of their actions.  I tended to avoid those folks, because I did (give a shit).   I figured those people would get me in trouble, probably for doing things that I didn't care about and dragging me down with them.

Those shitfull folks (not giving same, not scared shitless)  had what I would call a developmental flaw:  little or no impulse control.  It is not at all uncommon in young people; it usually is something that adults can master, if they choose to do so. One can hope they somehow could have skated through without serious harm, something I was fortunate enough to have done on some occasions--I was/am no angel--but I know that was not the case for many, particularly the ones who imagined that they could do whatever without any regard for those who might object, or who might have been harmed.

Sex Crimes
The current rash of sexual assault/harassment/rape allegations exhibit a peculiar phenomenon in our society:  People (so far, all men) whose impulses toward misbehavior have been reinforced by their positions of power, so that they feel immune from the consequences.  What they were not immune from, though, was a sickness that made this kind of behavior habitual, with all kinds of plotting,  premeditation, and some use of threats to insulate themselves. Such appears to have been the case with Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, Mark Helperin, Louis C.K., Anthony Weiner, and (for me, most tragically) the brilliant actor Kevin Spacey, as well as others still prominent but not household names.

Boys being bad is, unfortunately, a widespread fact of today's life and I would say further, part of the weird mating rituals we have in many societies.  What is different in these cases was that these guys' positions of power acted as a deterrent to their victims' normal ability to fend off or respond to unwanted advances; what is different now is that these persons have decided not to suffer in silence anymore.  I applaud their courage, and I am somewhat impressed by the broader community's effort to try to change this ugly aspect of the very sticky and complex intersection of sex and power, a discussion that is going who knows where.  It is beyond my ability to predict; it is going well beyond the cases of famous people and having effect on all workplaces.   I can see some liberation coming out of this, for women and maybe even for men, who may learn to play the mating game more adroitly and less crudely in the future.

The Al Franken case is a bit different: Franken's story is a unique one, as I cannot think of any other comic who has made the transition to an active political career.  Comedy generally has a dark side, which makes it more affecting to the emotions, and comedians generally have to find their way to humor through trial and error--some lines work, some don't, and some offend. At the time of Franken's offense against Leann Tweeden, he was a humorist, not yet running for office; the victim of his naughty, harmful pranks was someone who, frankly, was putting herself out as an object of sexual desire (I was unfamiliar with her career; just Google her and you will see).  At this point, unless there is some evidence of a more widespread pattern of behavior, I would cite this as an isolated incident of lack of impulse control:  this is not to excuse it, he has apologized, he will no doubt be punished (probably more than others, because of his willingness to own up to it), and I think it will limit his career. 

What I object to is Donald Trump making judgments on Franken when he has failed to own up to his own behavior, even to the point of refusing even to acknowledge the many complainants or just calling the women liars and mocking them,.  It's outrageous, but that's just the norm for this miserable excuse of a human being whom we have mistakenly (and somewhat accidentally) elevated to a position of supreme power.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean-brain 
The case of Roy Moore, the Senate candidate from Alabama, is yet another. I denounced this obtuse, hypocritical bigot weeks ago when none of the allegations of borderline pedophilia had yet surfaced.  I rejoice that these women have come forward to address the pattern of stalking and groping underage girls which he exhibited (though he has denied the sexual assault aspects, the pattern of searching out, dating, and seeking to seduce the girls is factual); it makes the likelihood of the horror of him serving in the US Senate much less--they have performed a public service.

There is some difference from the pattern of the others' behavior--the events were some forty years ago, he was at most locally famous back then, and it seems as though he may have outgrown that infatuation and borderline criminal behavior.  (A 14-year-old is underage, even in Alabama.)  He seems to have been faithful to his wife of some 30-plus years, who was 24 when they married.  So, I don't oppose his taking office because he's sexually creepy, I oppose him because he's a monster in every regard.

All Eyes on Alabama
Lots of focus on the state that is "the South's South", as John Oliver memorably put it.  The U. of Alabama's Crimson Tide football team took its accustomed place at the top of the standings last weekend after a memorable combination of #1 and #3 losing while #2 Alabama squeezed out a narrow road victory over Mississippi St.  I couldn't imagine how Georgia could have been rated above any Alabama team when both were undefeated, but that's all over now.  Alabama still has tough tasks ahead, including an intra-state showdown vs. Auburn, the team that defeated Georgia, next weekend, but the path to yet another national championship for them is now clear.

The special election in Alabama next month will be the beginning of the midterm battle, with hugely important stakes.  To some extent, Moore's race (the election one, not the racial one) mirrors a possible 2020 national election if Trump is still in office and running for re-election.  Radical right-wing Republican nominee running against the establishment sector of his own party, and that establishment totally flustered and uncertain how much to oppose him.  A plausible but less-known Democrat hoping to benefit from the chaos, in either a two-way or three-way race.

The current race could go in any of several different directions:  a Washington Post article lays them out nicely, and ranks them in likelihood.  For me, the only acceptable outcome is 2b):  the race goes forward, as is, and Moore loses.   We must all do what we can--without provoking Alabama voters too much, so that they vote against their interests in a defensive stance against outside interference--to make that happen.  I gave to Democrat Doug Jones' campaign long ago; I think the money is flowing in nicely for him and he will run a sane campaign without stooping to the salacious, looking to let Moore flounder and sink in his tar pit.

Make no mistake, the outcome of this race is extremely important.  The two-vote Republican margin in the Senate (really, three-vote with Mike Pence remaining as the tiebreaking vote) will be very difficult to overcome in 2018 without this seat.  The Democrats really only have two likely candidates to pick up seats in 2018 as things stand today (Arizona and Nevada), and plenty of difficult ones to defend.  In this Thanksgiving season, I have to give Turkey-neck Majority Leader McConnell a modicum of credit for coming out strongly against Moore, even at the risk of losing a critical vote for his agenda;  it was strategically and morally more important for him to retain something of the high ground on this issue of sexual harassment, and to protect the Republican establishment's interest in defeating this radical upstart.

 One cautionary note:  I would not put any stock in the polls which show the Democrat Jones leading--there are doubtlessly people who will not admit to pollsters that they will vote for Moore despite what a monster he is (I call this "the David Duke effect"); the unknowns are if there will be a meaningful alternative for those who would prefer not to vote for either Moore or Jones, the extent to which that unknowable effect is present, how many will come home to the Republican as Moore's backers try to counter the perv problem, and how many Republicans just stay home.  Clearly, the Republicans start with a large potential majority in this race, but they are squandering it with their unwise choice of a nominee.


Final note; I was preparing a line about how President Trump should use his traditional Thanksgiving ritual of pardoning a turkey for one of his own house turkeys, like Jeff Sessions (who I would say is in serious danger of proceedings against him for lying in public to Senate committees); Jake Tapper got there first with this week's "State of the Union" cartoon on CNN (which he draws himself!).  Tapper concluded with the suggestion of Michael Flynn, who was in fact an (undisclosed) lobbyist for the foreign nation with the same name as the animal. Bravo, Jake.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Our World? ... The 21st Century Reality (Take 2)

Falling Back
I will celebrate the autumn's gift of an hour (or repayment of the hour loaned in the spring, if you prefer) to provide a high-level view of our current retreat-while-advancing posture in the global community.  I will limit the time for writing this screed to one hour, at which time i will need to board a plane.  
I would attribute the US’ dominant position to three distinct factors--principal components, in the mathematical terminology.  One could cite many others, but I would hold that the others are largely the result of these three.
  1. Plentiful, Inexpensive, High-Qaulity Labor -  America’s development has been boosted throughout its history by a continuous flow of immigrants, many of them imbued with the American Dream of hard work leading to prosperity, others gratefully escaping an unfavorable situation in some other country, and, very significantly, others still (and their descendants) coming unwillingly into servitude here and being forced to work for little or no compensation.  All three have produced value beyond the cost of their effort, which has often been reinvested, building up the nation’s store of capital.  I would add one more source of low-cost labor, the conscription of men into our military services, principally in time of war--more about this later.
  2. Free Institutions and Associations - I think this is the area for which Americans can justifiably feel proud and somewhat exceptional.   I don’t mean free in the sense of low- or no-cost as in 1), but freedom: Voluntary participation, active involvement without excessive coercion or regulation, and, in the case of government, gradually progressing access to government services, meritocratic employment, and participation in the electoral process.  Though we are not a particularly cultured society, this freedom has produced remarkable achievements in the arts, in science, in higher education, in inventions which have improved the quality of life worldwide, and enhanced the aura of that Dream mentioned in 1).  Factors 1) and 2) have combined to produce a military force--now even without the involuntary servitude of the draft-- which, in this era, no nation would dare to challenge in open conflict.
  3. Bountiful Resources - Herein the great treasure and fortune of living in this beautiful land.  Thanks to the light touch of the inhabitants prior to the establishment of the nation, the Native Americans and--to some extent--Hispanics who have been massacred, worked to death, infected, hunted down, expropriated, crowded out, and otherwise dispossessed, today's Americans inherit a land with huge mineral resources, including abundant fertile land, water, natural plant and animal life.  We can enjoy these 'gifts", along with a climate that is generally favorable, and the fruits of factors 1) and 2) applied to 3), but the manner of the acquisition of this bounty should give us some pause from being overly proud, and we should feel responsible to be good caretakers of this part of our heritage and leave something for those who follow us here.
So, let’s take a reading on these three elements which together have Made America Great--their current status, their trend, and the outlook, short-term and long-term for them to persist.  (32 minutes)
With regard to 3), I am cautiously optimistic:  If we are mindful, we can preserve the immense agricultural capacity, the abundance of freshwater (think of the Great Lakes, or our great rivers), while preserving more of our remaining fossil fuels through expanded use of plentiful, naturally renewable sources of energy.  Certainly our current national government provides daily setbacks for this objective, with its aversion to environmental protection and eagerness to defy the trends toward conservation which have prevailed in the past few decades; however, even eight full years of Drumpfication (to think the unthinkable, near worst-case scenario) should not be sufficient to irreparably destroy our favorable initial condition in this area.
By contrast, I am very worried about 2).  The Trump Administration is highly corrosive to all these civilized virtues, and his personal, malign influence is causing great harm from which we will not easily recover.  In particular, he is putting every institution of government (with the possible exception of the military, at least so far) in disrepute, either through his aspersions, his cynical appointments, or his misuse of the levers of power.  I am speaking of the trashing of various executive branch departments, the lack of respect for the legislative and judicial branches, his attempts to undermine voting  rights, the abuse of the free press, and his blatantly venal and dishonest approach toward government by and for the benefit of the wealthy. It is shocking that he and his kind have sought to turn public opinion against our world-class universities; the fraudulent Republican tax plan includes a proposal to tax the endowments of these non-profit (private) institutions, something which would reduce opportunity for the underprivileged and endanger our status as a world leader in research.
And I am afraid that those of us who have not kowtowed or been duped by the spurious appeal of the Drumpfenreich have not so far been sufficiently united, forceful, and effective in our opposition.  Responsibility for our failure which occurred in 2016 lies on those who voted for Trump, but the remedy lies, in part, with those who did not (and on those who can rouse themselves from their torpor, stupor, or other forms of mental inactivity which caused them to support him in the first place).   (47 minutes)
Which brings us to 1)--will our supply of plentiful, inexpensive, high-quality labor persist?  And, does our persistence in the top rank of nations require it?  I have my doubts about the latter, and I see the Trump Administration’s effect to be adverse to a favorable answer to the former.  The negative consequences of a sustained campaign to reduce both legal immigration and the ability of those undocumented who would wish to stay here and contribute could be serious for our economy, but they would be more severe if it were not the case that ruthless re-engineering and progressive automation were reducing the demand for labor. My conclusion is that this is very much an open question, and one that will probably not be resolved when the Wherever Man slinks off to his eternal reward (most certainly infamy, damnation if there is a just God).  (52 minutes).
I am something of an optimistic--generally a step back for America has been followed, eventually, by two steps forward. Right now, though, in stepping backward we have made an awkward stumble, and there is the danger we may fall--hard.
On the Good Foot
Speaking of the Gang of Four (..."two steps forward--six steps back, six steps back", from their song "At Home He Feels Like a Tourist"), this leaves me only eight minutes to mention the nation that shows the ability to Spring Forward (to complete the allusion).  China has emerged from a disastrous century or so of exploitation, civil war, invasion, and strife primarily through its exercise of factor 1), along with some steadily improving capability for central planning--something I would definitely not credit our country with having. Like America has, the Chinese have a strong sense of their identity and belief in their nation's "manifest destinay" of greatness (in their case, fully justified by millennia of history).  Despite the absence of factor 2), and with a somewhat negative stance toward the conservation of its resources,  China’s current administration has been able to produce continued economic expansion, combined with a determined approach to combatting the most serious forms of official corruption, and a newfound will to exert itself more powerfully on the global stage.

I visited Shanghai last month, for the first time in nearly 20 years.  My colleagues  there asked me, what was different?  My answer, it’s just so much more of the same.  That city is just enormous; it’s big and bold and modern, and it goes on endlessly.   Every day, we had the “China Daily” in our breakfast room--we called it the “Daily Propaganda”; it is published by the Communist Party, in English.  Yes, it was propaganda, but not filled with lies, only self-serving interpretation of the news.  The Communist Party was having its major party congress during that time;  Xi Jinping was re-elected as President for another five years, and the question is whether he will give up power vountarily after his second term, following the practice of the last couple decades. It is a question comparable to the one American presidents faced historically (before FDR and the Constitutional amendment which followed that now prevents its consideration).   Xi is aiming for his legacy to be the #3 of the triad of national party heroes, after Mao and Deng Hsiao-ping.  Chou En-lai is still remembered well, as someone who maintained some degree of humanity among the brutal power struggles of the early Communist state.  I think people are interested in freedom, as it relates to their personal lives, but basically have little interest in participating politically.

The modern culture that has developed in the past 20 years looks a lot to me like Hong Kong's, but without the free association. It is highly materialistic; shopping is very big, housing is an absolute prerequisite, and there is plenty of (carefully-monitored) pop culture, use of smartphones and the Internet. Social media and browsing have been limited to domestic, vetted sites. One difference is cars: China has followed American culture in going whole-hog for them, preferably big and--surprisingly--American. One positive development encouraged by the government is rapid expansion of electric cars--if you are having trouble getting your Tesla delivered, it's probably because Chinese people are paying more for them and therefore rate higher on the prioritization table.

I had a record number of corrections and edits to make after posting this the first time (including the last paragraph, for which I ran out of time to write the first time). I have decided to re-post it for those who suffered through version 1, and I add my apologies to them--I will not repeat that experiment. I will now delete the first take, as being unworthy.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Breaking: Drying Swamp Yields Ugly Reptilian Creatures

As the Shining City Sinks Slowly Out of Sight....
The current battles on Capitol Hill are struggles between entrenched interests over getting a larger share of the pie.  One major vote showdown came on a proposal to overturn the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's ruling that bank contract provisions with consumers preventing their ability to have recourse to class-action suits should not be allowed.  The CFPB was overruled on a 51-50 vote (Mike Pence breaking the tie); it was a victory for banks' interests over those of the lawyers who are the principal beneficiaries of class-action suits.  The Democrats argued that the opportunity to join class-action suits provided ordinary folks an ability to strike back at big companies who systematically abuse the public trust, such as Wells Fargo with their bogus accounts and Equifax losing our private information; they voted as a united bloc and got a couple additional votes from defecting Republicans, but the more powerful bloc won.

Similarly, the fighting over the tax cut proposal--which to me now seems likely to pass in some form, since the budgetary authority to facilitate its passage through Congress has now been approved--is basically a question of which rich people will get a bigger cut of the benefits.  The basic principle in this "reform" is to make the rich richer--though not all rich people; those to whom the Republicans are beholden are the intended beneficiaries.  There will be more work to pinpoint the individuals who will gain most, and some half-hearted effort to make some others pay more.  That last will probably not succeed, because they will need some votes from blue-state Republicans in order to get it passed, and so there will be some compromise and restoration of imperiled deductions, like state and local taxes and 401k contributions, but there will be the untouchables:  reduction of the top tax rate, of corporate tax rates (the benefits go to shareholders), and tax benefits for capital investors.  The main result will be reigniting inflation (generally a positive for equity investors) and making benefit programs more difficult to fund in the future.  I suppose I will end up having some net benefit, but the outcome I would appreciate most would be if it makes my taxes a little less difficult to prepare and file (not likely).

I will hold off on interpreting the news that Special Counsel Bob Mueller's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election  has obtained some (still-secret) indictments from a grand jury.  The significance of that news will depend on further developments, though I welcome the continued paralysis this will help produce in the Drumpfenreich.

The Return of Meaningful Elections
Some of you may have noticed an absence of any comment in recent months about the special elections held in several House districts. That is because there is precious little of value to say about them:  their importance was always overstated, the expenditures were ridiculous, the outcomes basically foregone and trivial in importance.

They represent a few isolated data points, but those soundings do show that the disastrous start to the Trump Administration has so far not dissuaded most rank-and-file Republicans from continuing to support the party.  One should not expect anything different, really; though there may not be anything that seems likely to reward them for their blind loyalty, there has been no flash of light which would open their eyes or jolt their optic nerves into function.  I am still holding to my explanation of "Why Democrats Lose":  too many Republican voters, many of them deluded.

Along these lines, I offer this assessment from recently-retired Bereley linguistics professor, George Lakoff, famous for his theory of how effective politicians frame values to gain support, who nailed his prediction that Donald Trump would win the election with 47% of the vote:

 If they start re-framing Trump’s promise as “getting rid of two-thirds of federal protections — and spell out what some of those environmental and health and water quality “protections” are — there might be less support for repealing federal regulations, Lakoff said. “Every progressive knows that regulations are protections, but they don’t say it,” he added. Similarly, “taxes” are actually “investments in public resources.” 
So, here's the thing, as I see it.  Lakoff is right, the principle is well-expressed, Democratic politicians would do well to frame things better and express some vision and enunciate their values better, but I don't see that frame moving many voters. Too many American agents of electoral power (contributors/voters/candidates/family patriarchs) don't want protections:  they have guns. They don't want public resources; they want more $$ in their own accounts. I am waiting to be proven wrong.

I am somewhat surprised to have found an election this year into which I do want to contribute--basically I have been holding out, except for a regular small contribution to the DCCC, keeping that portion of my powder dry until next year. The opportunity to replace Alabama's Senate seat with someone antithetically opposed to previous incumbent Jeff Sessions and his reactionary, racist politics--his name is Doug Jones, a Democrat--with the alternative of someone even more awful than Sessions--has moved me to action, even if it is something of a longshot (currently at 12% chance on predictit.org).  The special election is December 8.   Depending on the poll, Jones may or may not be within striking distance of this neo-Fascist clown (Judge Roy Moore). Moore was too extreme even for Trump in the Republican party primary, though the Drumpfster had no problem stamping his approval upon Moore when it was clear he had it won.  In some recent elections, there have been candidates too flaky to effectively rally the GOP, and Moore certainly qualifies.

A related story is the recent attacks on Trump by Senators Corker and Flake, who combined their denunciations with announcements that they would not run for re-election in 2018 because of the harm he is doing to their party--implied was a recognition that they felt unable to combat the degrading trend.  Noble were their words, but cowardly the effect of their actions:  if they were truly against the Trumpification of their party, they would run as independents against the eventual Tea Party nominee and represent themselves as the "true Republicans".  I still hope for such a movement to emerge--this may occur if the potential disaster for the party comes to pass in 2018-- but it is apparent that, for the time being, the true Republicans are Trumpists, and that those who oppose him within the party, as Corker and Flake recognized, are now being relegated to the sidelines.

There is one other US election in 2017 worth mentioning:  the battle for control of the statehouse in Virginia.  New Jersey and Virginia are the only ones that have their regular statewide elections the year after the Presidential contest, but New Jersey looks certain to end the two terms of the anomalous Republican occupation of Trenton's gubernatorial office in the person of self-abased Chris Christie.  As for Virginia, its history is to go against the result of the national election:  based on that, and an increasingly strong trend for Democrats there, moderate Democrat Lt. Governor Ralph Northam should be favored over former Republican party head Ed Gillespie.  Gillespie has been moving further and further in a Trumpward direction as the campaign  moves toward its climax, seeking to undercut Northam with racial and anti-immigrant ads.  It does appear to be close (though polls show a lot of variation; predictit.org has the Democrats' chances of winning at 71%).  Taking control of Virginia, both the governor's office and also of  the state's legislature, would be significant, and the kind of progress the Democrats need over the next couple election cycles; however, as was pointed out on Fivethirtyeight.com, the state's result will not necessarily provide a good indication of the 2018 election trends. The outcome of those midterm elections is  hugely critical to the fate of the Trump administration, and, thus, to our future.

More about that soon--in the meantime, we can hope for good turnout in Virginia and a surprise in Alabama.

There have been a number of national elections and referenda of various kinds in European countries.  A couple of generalizations;  referenda in Catalonia (Spain) and in Lombardia and the Veneto in Italy reflect a new form of stress, in which the more-wealthy regions are reacting against central governments which are transferring benefits toward the less-wealthy ones. I am generally against strong nationalism, but I can't feel this trend is favorable to those nations' population, nor even, in the case of Catalonia, which now seems headed for direct rule (instead of the autonomy they previously enjoyed) and civil strife, to the region itself.  Something like Brexit, on an intra-national level.  General elections in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic show fragmentation of voter support for parties, weakening of the center, and increasing difficulty in forming national government coalitions.

I will post next on China and East Asia, with some observations from my recent trip there.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

An Excess of Calamities

Quite a string of bad news for America these days:  Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate, all affecting our states and/or territories; the massacre of innocents in Las Vegas; the wildfires in Northern California, stunning in their severity; and, most embarrassingly, the US Men's National Team of soccer and their improbable elimination from World Cup qualification.

This lastt, man-made calamity required a very unlikely combination of events, all of which happened within a course of a half-hour:  the US had to lose to Trinidad and Tobago, the worst team in their qualifying group; Mexico had to lose to Honduras, and Costa Rica had to lose to Panama.  All three games were being played simultaneously, and at halftime Mexico and Costa Rica were winning, while the US was, incredibly, losing by two goals.  i am a bit suspicious:  perhaps Mexico and Costa Rica, both of which already had their qualification assured, got the word that maybe they could arrange for the hated us rivals to get shut out, and they did the necessary:  lose.  Of course, the most important element was the USMNT's own letdown--after a fabulous victory over Panama a couple of days before--without which the rest of it wouldn't matter.  Maybe it was Putin (Moscow will be hosting the games in 2018)?   I blame Trump.

Our America'Nero
Not a typo, referring to a hero, of which we have many, but to Nero, the Roman emperor who, according to a famous criticism, "fiddled while Rome burned".  Our guy played golf while Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico's underfunded infrastructure; he has since compounded the problem with his lame efforts on the that territory's behalf.  Just as bad as our ignorance of Puerto Rico's calamity, largely in the media, and more by this administration (though the military did its best to provide relief) was the weak response to Irma's devastation of another US territory in the Virgin Islands.

I don't begrudge Houston the attention given Houston after Harvey, at first clumsy, but then more effective; or Florida, also victimized by Irma, though not as badly as feared, or Las Vegas, site of yet another mass assault of gun violence in America.  But Trump showed clearly that the problems of these disenfranchised citizens--unable to weigh in on any Federal elections, though full citizens--mean less than our states'.  And let's not even talk about his level of concern for Guam, a territory with a disproportionate share of military enlistees and inconvenience, one that Trump seems very clearly willing to sacrifice if it will tease out a foolish military action from the North Korean dictatorship.

Nero, the last of the familial line of emperors beginning with Augustus, had a fairly disastrous end to his reign; historians of the era blame him for unsound executions, lowering the prestige of the office, and even for possibly starting the great fire in Rome, as a means to facilitate his urban renewal program. He was ultimately deposed by a rebellion, condemned to death, after which he committed suicide.  Just saying.

My comment above about Trump (and Putin) was facetious, but I do want to comment on one thing. Drumpfenreich is bad in almost every way, but one positive outcome is that it may retrain us some from thinking that every good (or bad) thing that happens is due to our President.  We have invested too much power in that office, but beyond that, too much emotional dependence.  We just had the best President we could hope for, and it was not enough:  not for his supporters even, certainly it was not in his power to convert his opponents.  Time to be a little more realistic in our expectations.

The Motive for Evil
Aside from the usual bootless wrangling over gun control--it seems some sort of ban on the "bump stocks" used by the killer to increase the rate of firing may be a concession that the NRA and its obedient servants in the Republican party could agree upon this time, though apparently not a limitation on the number of rounds in the ammunition clips which were just as important--most of the other discussion has been a search for what drove the ignominious killer to do what he did in Las Vegas, gunning down dozens at a country music festival from the safety and advantaged angle of a 32nd-floor hotel room.  There was no ISIS or al-Qaeda link to him, no criminal record or history of violence,  no obvious signs of insanity.

On the other hand, there is abundant evidence of premeditation and planning for the massacre. There is a lot of discussion about his motivations; also a school of thought that says it doesn't really matter, for policy purposes. I'm calling him out as an 'ammosexual':  loves his guns, hates people.  He went for the record, and to his discredit, he got it.  His brother said, "I'd like to be able to say he was a miserable bastard..." but he couldn't.  I have no problem saying it, with confidence.



Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Excluding the Wall

The Way off the Bottom--Look to the Surfacing Merkel
Once again, the unexpected.  The alliance between Schumer & Pelosi and the Dreadnought Drumpfster to pass a DACA bill--of some kind--is a surprising and meaningful victory if it comes to pass.  It supports the improbable but enormosly attractive concept of a center-left alliance. Relative to our current posture flat on our back at the bottom of the sea it looks quite OK.  It is as temporary as Trump's moderate stance may be, which is bigly temporary.

What is a shining gem of hope and moderation shining in the far-off, translucent distance is, for Trump, a shiny object, or more precisely, a high-value poker chip he may play against the hand, the one of his opponent, way to the right.  Still, the only way back to the surface is up, for the bottomed-out fleet of S&P and Our Captain, the Wherever Man.

As this lunatic kleptocracy twitters away its first and best-enabled session of Congress on all other topics, the fact that governance = Democratic governance does not seem to be emerging as it might.

In fact, this agreement seems to be limited to this particular arrangement:  the form of re-authorization may be tied to an increase in the debt limit,. It is highly appropriate to separate the question of building a wall from the literal security of these peoples' lives.  Just that makes the deal worthwhile for any reasoning Democrat or independent.  However, once this may be done I am expecting the usual fiasco to resume.

The right will throw everything they have at this.  Yet there will be a few Republicans who dare to vote for common sense.  The vote may be close, needing a dozen or so of them to make 60 votes and close debate.  McConnell will be happy because he gets to play referee, this time.  Can't you just see him ref-ing a kids' basketball league with a vertical black-and-white top and a whistle?

I think I've gone far enough trying to empathize with the Republicans.  I draw the line trying to imagine what's going on in Trump's head at this point; the change in his thinking probably has something creepy to do with Bannon leaving--what was he feeding him?

In the old days, a guy like Trump would have a royal taster to protect him a little.  If it were anybody but Trump I would worry, but poisoning is probably one of the best ways out for all concerned.  I meant poisoning Trump:  I wasn't advocating it, just sayin. Who can he trust to taste for him now, Melania?

And Now...Back to Exuding the Wall
I really do recommend that--exuding the wall, building it out of the orange turds Donald and his sons produce everyday.  A half-mile's worth of Wall a l'Orange, it would be a great monument to the Trump Presidency.

Merkel Goes for Third*
Angela Merkel is in position to win a third term in the German parliamentary elections in a couple of weeks.  She appears to be in position to push back what seems to be a half-hearted run against her from the head of the Socialist party, Martin Schulz, the former head of the European Parliament.  He was the only one from all the other parties with sufficient name recognition and stature to be a serious threat to her as a potential prime minister. So, I think it was more about whether the Germans opted for a change, and it looks from the polls as though she will prevail in a fractured electoral contest.

Merkel has been in a center-left coalition the last term with the Socialists; she will have a variety of choices and probably will be able to pick and choose among variegated alternative parties.  Probably The Left and neo- Alternative for Germany are out, which may leave the Free Democrats, or even the Greens, as alternatives to Socialists, in the Trumpian sense I described above.  But her situation is quite different from Trump's is, after this remarkable success for her.  Hers would be the German equivalent of FDR's successful run for a third term in 1940 in its historic significance; in the complicated decision logic of third parties, being associated with her is probably more valuable, more attractive to their brands, than the inevitable co-optation as they lose their distinctiveness.  Merkel's one of the major figures of this time, and underrated as such, comparable to  Nikita Khrushchev in as a meaningful change leader, in her case both owning and symbolizing the achievement of demonstrating the successful reintegration of East Germany and bringing the country to the forefront economically.

*Seth Myers just described Trump lawyer Cobb, with his handlebar mustache, as "the starting pitcher in 1908". I am reminded of a Merkel from 1908, actually a Merkle, Fred Merkle, of "bonehead" fame.  He was the unfortunate who failed to go for second after what should have been the winning run, causing the Giants eventually to lose the championship of baseball.



Monday, September 04, 2017

Labor Day

Labor Day is becoming one of my favorite holidays, if not the very favorite.  First, it is very favored by the calendar:  late summer/early fall is one of the most beautiful seasons of the year, here in the temporate zone.  It is the only holiday on the calendar between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving (Halloween/All Saints Day doesn't count). It always provides a blessed three-day weekend, one of the most popular opportunities for a short getaway; among all the major holidays, it is the least overhyped, the least an excuse for commercial overreach. The only downside it has is being one of the busiest days on our highways. So, it provides a welcome, needed break for us still in the labor force, and I suggest celebrating in your current hometown.

From the entertainment point of view, this is the traditional beginning of the new season on television. That's changed somewhat, with seasons being launched at all times of the year now, but there is still a noticeable change, as key programs return from their summer break periods.  Film is a little different: the best films are coming out later, and it's even too early for most of the previews of the best movies--most of the ones I saw this weekend (prior to viewing the beautiful, harrowing "Wind River") were schlocky horror films for the annual splatterfest.  The one exception was "Suburbicon", a Coen Brothers-written farce directed by George Clooney and starring Matt Damon and perennial favorite Julianne Moore.  It's premiering now in the Toronto Film Festival, and this is the time of year for those upcoming stalwarts looking for major studio backing to appear among these parties for connected insiders and critics.

If we're talking sports, this is one of the best seasons for activity:  biking, running, playing outside.  As a spectator, it's pretty good, too.  See below for some comments on the current activity.

On the History of the Holiday
The establishment of the September Labor Day holiday is one of the great political triumphs of the US trade-union labor movement of the late-19th and early-20th centuries.  It reflected the power of labor in major US cities during that period, the mayors of which yielded to demands to give the workers a day off to march together.  That political effort, eventually adopted nationally, was assisted by a carefully-considered strategy of timing, separating itself clearly from the Socialist International movement, with its selection of May 1, Mayday, and its revolutionary objectives.  Labor Day, in contrast, represents the accommodation American labor made to support our constitutional republic and help contribute to its success.  (Labor Day is celebrated the same day--first Monday in September--in Canada, and on the seasonal equivalent, in March, Down Under; the UK stayed with the original program(me) and Labo(u)r Day is on the first Monday of May.)

Nowadays, though this almost-uniquely American holiday (like most of ours are unique, excluding Christmas, New Year's, and now Halloween) seems secure in its status and time of year (in contrast to rapidly-disappearing Columbus Day, once the other paid holiday on the fall calendar), the meaning of the holiday (and of the word "labor") is disappearing.  The percentage of workers in US unions is lower than it has been in more than a century; unions' stronghold is basically the "trade" of working for the government; and, if you've been following this blog, you know I feel that the size of the US workforce itself is shrinking inexorably. My feeling is, those who are overemployed should celebrate both their day off and their ever-increasing productivity, while those underemployed (now the majority) should fight for the continued existence of productive, fulfilling labor in the face of ruthless market forces which marginalize them.

Harvey:  Honest Feelings about the Hurricane in Houston
I have plenty of empathy for the people affected by the hurricane and its subsequent flooding.

I was in their soggy shoes once;  after hurricane Camille devastated much of Cuba and the Gulf Coast in August, 1969, it went inland, dumping Harveyesque levels of rain on the Piedmont, Blue Ridge, and Shenandoah Valley areas.  Over 100 people were killed in our area in the flooding and landslides which followed.  My family and I were evacuated by motorboat as the usually-placid South River (southern feeder into the South branch of the Shenandoah River) surged ferociously overnight both behind and in front of our house, rising several feet inside it as we escaped.  The house, the riverbanks, and the flood control system upstream were never the same, and we eventually moved to the top of the hill; many of the houses in our development were eventually condemned (because the flood insurance was prohibitive or impossible to obtain).  Anyway, that's where I was while Woodstock was happening in the Catskills.

Houston is certainly one of the great cities of the US; fourth-largest, last time I checked, with plenty of pride and plenty of things to be proud about.  Built on the growth of the oil drilling industry, it has been earnestly trying to transform itself into something broader and deeper--healthcare is one notable example of forward thinking.  Houston distinguished itself exceptionally in its welcoming of the disaster refugees from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It has one of the most diverse populations you can find anywhere, including a disproportionate number of undocumented aliens:  the notion that President Trump, after his photo opportunity visits there last week, would then dispossess the people who will be so critical to any rebuilding that happens there, seems unthinkable but oh-so-Trump. Still, I think he will take the stage, say the outrageous, then pass the buck of the cruel decision to Congress, where legislation to follow through on his legless directive and actually deport the Dreamers will not pass.

The heroism of those helping with the evacuations, maintenance of order, and medical relief are inspiring. Still, I am little inclined to open my checkbook for Houston's relief.  The Federal government, controlled as it is by Republicans, will ignore the libertarian leanings of the state's political leaders and offer whatever logistical and financial support is asked.  The immense public exposure (something we in Camille's tail-end destruction didn't really ever get) will ensure the private donations of Americans, many of them well-heeled Texans on dry land, will be huge, as well.  Clearing the mud and debris will take months.

Then, one must ask, what will be the public policy taken toward Houston, its sprawling suburbs, and the low-lying, poorly-drained areas by the Gulf?  The hidden cost of this disaster will be an enormous increase in the social expense of flood insurance everywhere it is needed; the program would not exist any more without its Federal subsidies, and those will now need to be increased.  The alternative is to name a lot more areas as being in flood plains--those ones that require some imagination to be so classified, which mortgage lenders would then require homeowners to pay, are what pay the freight for those areas that are repeatedly subjected to floods.  Many suburbs in Houston's previously rapidly expanding sprawl will now be understood to be unsupportable; some destroyed homes will not be rebuilt or whole areas may be abandoned, as occurred in the aftermath of Katrina.  I am a strong supporter of building on stilts, in areas like the coastal cities of Galveston and Corpus Christi, if homes are to be built at all, or as a condition for flood insurance.

Finally, there are some big questions:  is the frequency of Category 4 and 5 storms in the Atlantic increasing, as a form of release of the energy building up globally from "warming"?  The example of Camille informs us that, though Harvey seems without precedent and has been cited as such, there have been such outsized storms in the past, but if the extent and frequency are increasing (as I write, another Category 4, Irma, seems headed for the Caribbean and the US' Southeast), it will have a long-term effect, one which will only become clear in the same longer term.  Still, if the mirage of recent history changes the perception of stubborn climate deniers, it will have produced at least one positive outcome. Another might be a change in the perception of a certain class of Texans that they are some kind of standalone sufficient society, one that does not need anything from the Federal government--never mind that the state's ratio of Federal benefits received to taxes paid is already one of the highest.

Sports Update
Let me get a couple of others out of the way, then I will focus on the three sports of greatest interest to me in this moment:  tennis, baseball, and "football" (soccer).  As for the "other" football, I am willing to participate in the boycott of Kaepernick-less NFL, but I hardly think they will notice:  I never watch any preseason anyway, and only a handful of regular season games before the decisive December-January period.  The college game has more interest, but only marginally, and not in the early part of the season, either:  I liked the idea of that first weekend Alabama-Florida St. inter-conference showdown held Saturday, but my impression from the small portion I watched is that it was really a live warmup game, not a blowout like the ones most of the top teams schedule, but one whose outcome could be dismissed later if it goes contrary to the performances in the games that really matter later.

As for basketball, the offseason trading period in the NBA was one of the most interesting and high-profile I  have seen, but the end result, as we go into the new season late next month, does not look very different from how we finished the 2016-17 season.   The biggest change is that the Boston Celtics, who had the best regular-season record in the East last season, have strengthened vis a vis their chief competitor, LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers, coming out a bit ahead in their teams' direct trade (Kyrie Irving for Isaiah Thomas + others) and signing rising star Gordon Hayward.

In the West, Minnesota (with Jimmy Butler added) and Houston (with Chris Paul) have improved noticeably but are still not seen as threats to the developing Golden State dynasty (my surprise prediction: the Warriors will not represent the conference in the finals in one of the next two years). The Paul-less Clippers (they also didn't sign Paul George, who went to Oklahoma City in what looks to be an interesting  one-year rental supporting role for one-man-team star Russell Westbrook) do not actually seem as weakened as you might think; though they remain terribly frustrating to their fans, at least they have more to cheer than those of their crosstown rivals  (the Lakers) or those of the other two top metro areas, New York/Brooklyn and Chicago, which show little sign of progress from abysmal teams (I could add Philadelphia to the list of largest metro areas with bad NBA teams, which could become a financial problem if not eventually corrected).

There now, that wasn't so brief, was it?

Tennis-- The US Open enters its second week today.  The big news is how wide-open both singles tournaments are:  the women's because of the absence of Serena Williams (who gave birth last week--congrats!), the men's because of the absence of two of the top four (Djokovic, Murray) due to injuries, and the placement of the other two (Federer, Nadal) in the same half of the draw.  In the men's, this means a probable showdown in the semifinal of the two top Grand Slam winners, who--amazingly!--have never met in the US Open before (?), while the other half will have someone who is seeded no better than #12:  Carreno Busta of Spain is the highest remaining seed in the bottom half; American Sam Querrey is another possibility in the final.  As for the women, four Americans not named Serena have made the final eight; it is theoretically possible that those four could comprise the entire semifinals contingent.
Predictions:   Federer (I always pick him; lately it has been a good bet, though Nadal looks very intimidating) over Querrey in the final; on the women's side, I have an incredibly bad record with picks on the Racket Bracket contest on Tennis Channel (my rating is usually in the "top 90% of entries")--I'll go with a non-American who might be the sentimental pick, Petra Kvitova of Czech, who has made an impressive comeback after a burglar in her home badly cut her (dominant) left hand just months ago.

Baseball -- This has been a season of a few outstanding good teams, a few outstandingly bad teams, and a whole lot of mediocre teams.   Four of the six division races are over (with Cleveland and Houston in the AL, and Washington and Los Angeles in the NL as winners); the other two (Boston in the AL East and Chicago in the NL Central) have significant but not decisive leads, and one Wild Card spot in each league is basically reserved for a team (New York in the AL; Arizona in the NL) with enough quality and a lead large enough to be a strong favorite.  That leaves only the second Wild Card spot in each league being truly up for grabs:   there are a half-dozen possible grabbers for the AL spot and 2-3 realistic ones for the NL. Of course, only one will be able to snatch that ring, but that team, even if it has a mediocre record and will have home-field disadvantage throughout, will come in with considerable momentum.  A lot of the outlook depends on that one Wild-Card game; the Yankees have a solid ace, Luis Severino, so I like their chances for that game, if it happens that way.  The NL Wild Card game is likely to be high-scoring and unpredictable, especially if it's Arizona vs. Colorado, two teams with decent-not-great starters, high-scoring offense, and band-box parks.
Predictions:  I will stick with my preseason pick for the Series (sorry, not published here), the punchline of which was as follows:
World Series - Indians over Nationals (6 games)
GNorman - this is for you, man!: I'm going with Indians winning the World Series before Donald Trump croaks, but it could be close. Maybe both could happen this year. 
("GNorman" is our longtime friend Norman Goldman of progressive talk radio.)

Soccer:  The new season should be an exciting one in the Premier League.  Defending champion Chelsea (my team) didn't improve, while the two Manchester teams did so to a great extent.  Chelsea lost interest in keeping its productive center forward from last year, Diego Costa (very talented, always a major distraction, frequently a downer) and failed to replace him fully (though Morata will do).  Man City was the preseason favorite, but I like Man U's chances, with former Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho and former players Matic, Lukaku, and Mata.   There are other points of interest in the league, too, with Tottenham and Liverpool both highly competitive, while I am excited to see unusual teams such as Brighton, Crystal Palace, and Huddersfield in the top division.
In North America's MLS, there is some excitement in Chicago for the first time in over a decade with the arrival of dimmed, but still bright, German superstar midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger on the Fire.   The World Cup qualifying is heading for an exciting climax, with perennially competitive teams such as Italy, Holland, Argentina, and the US all on the verge of failing to qualify for Moscow 2018.  No doubt some or all of those will squeak through (Holland is in the weakest position), but the risk makes this phase more exciting.
Predictions:  Chicago Fire makes the final of the MLS championships;  Premier League is a close 3-way competition until April, when Chelsea surges ahead to win by 4 points! Thanks to a late-season win over Chelsea, which causes a 'nervy' finish for the Blues, Liverpool takes the fourth spot and a Champions League berth. (totally unbiased view /s)

Walter Becker
Yesterday the guitarist and co-founder of Steely Dan died at the age of 67.  I had seen Steely D. a couple of years ago, and based on that, I'm not too surprised--Becker was there but in a more limited role, and he didn't look well.  I will save the retrospective for another occasion but will complain now that the Dan do not get the radio play their music still deserves.  Maybe that will change now?   Here is a very measured, fair, and loving statement from his partner in crime, Donald Fagen.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Best link from Facebook to Internet I've seen this year

Jimi hendrix footage royal albert hall 1969
It was at https://forgottenguitar.com/2016/02/26/rare-footage-of-jimi-hendrixs-full-performance-at-the-royal-albert-hall-in-1969-video/#prettyPhoto.  Now it says "This video does not exist." Over and over again.

I should search for who posted it and thank "them"; at least I got to see it before it was snatched back.

Try this one that's still there--it's as muddy as can be (and Jimi's singing is pretty crude), but it's both incredibly early and very well developed:

http://www.guitarworld.com/artist-news-artist-videos/forgotten-guitar-earliest-known-live-footage-jimi-hendrix-experience/25922

Global Retrograde Commedia

I have restrained myself recently while the travesty of Drumpfian "governance" has continued to reveal its chaotic evil nature.  When it comes to administration, we have the White House revolving door:  Scaramucci/Spicer/Priebus/Bannon.  For foreign policy, we have vapid "fire and fury" threats toward North Korea.  For moral leadership, his shameful statements with regard to the events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Wall Street is, belatedly, starting to take notice of the madness, though the economy, so far, has not suffered from his misrule. The only remaining question is if and when the Republicans will try to disown him and their embarrassing history of kowtowing to his bullying; if that were to happen, taking the actual form of opposition, as distinct from mere criticism, the end of the farce would be near (and we could then be more comfortable laughing at the evident stupidity).

I would like to take Donald Trump to task for every misstep, every lie, every empty boast, every fault of direction, vision, leadership, acumen, or strategy.  I just don't have the time or patience.  So I will just address the three big ones I mentioned--in personnel management, foreign affairs, and use of the "bully pulpit"--all things that a President can actually control.  Then I will mention briefly my assessment of his handling of a couple of those that are less within a President's span of control, but which, too often, are used by the public to measure a President's success:  the economy and legislation.

When You Do the Fandango



I don't claim to be an expert on the commedia dell'arte, but I am enough of a fan to appreciate the "Scramouche" story from that centuries-old form of entertainment as it played out recently in real life.  Scaramouche (see above for a 200-year old image of the character, and the note below)* is, literally, a clown--the perfect caricature of the caricature which was Anthony Scaramucci's performance as "Communications Director" for the Donald in a mercifully-brief role.  I don't want to judge people on their name alone, but somewhere up the line Scaramucci's ancestors must either have been playing or being that guy--it's been named for centuries.   Scaramucci played the brash bucko but fell victim to pure bravado, calling Reince "Rancid Priapus" Priebus a paranoid schizophrenic and describing top adviser Steve Bannon as "trying to suck his own cock" in an on-the-record interview.  A bit too much communication, maybe; he was sacked by Priebus' successor, John Kelly, who's trying unsuccessfully to bring some decorum to the full-scale ugliness and infighting rampant in Trump's White House.

Another stock character sent packing recently was the personification of evil, Steve Bannon.  Bannon was an ideologue insistent on his extreme nationalist agenda.  Trump paid his advice plenty of attention during the campaign, but when it came to governing, his lose-lose strategies to isolate the US and suppress trade fell victim to pragmatism and to reality--so he was out.  Priebus and Bannon had traded hostility and throwing-under-bus behavior toward each other, as well as most everyone else around; new Chief of Staff John Kelly made sure both were shown the door in the interest of reducing chaos. Compared to those public bloodlettings, the departure of much-ridiculed press secretary Sean Spicer was relatively tame news.

The main source of the White House chaos remains, though, empowered to oust almost anyone in his government but, so far, loth to apply any standard of behavior to himself.

As for "fandango",  the other referent from Freddie Mercury's famed, unmistakable line in the classic  rock song "Bohemian Rhapsody", a word also featured in the first line of the lyrics from the classic Procol Harum song "Whiter Shade of Pale", as well as a popular website to buy advance movie tickets, it is a word that is bandied about frequently without much knowledge.  It is a Spanish foot-stomping dance, performed at triple time, typically with accompaniment from casatanets,  the frenzy of which somehow transformed the word's meaning toward clownish behavior.  Which brings us back to Scaramucci., and to Trump.

For a person with a long history as head of a major commercial operation, the man has no idea how to be the head of a major operation.  He routinely makes public criticism of his subordinates and key allies--people like his Attorney General, chief economic adviser, the majority leader of the Senate--and further reinforces the idea that loyalty to him is a one-way street, one that is unrewarding personally and to one's professional reputation.   If he cannot change his ways, even the corrupt power-seekers he has so far been able to attract will realize there is nothing to be gained (if not part of the immediate family) by tying one's name to this sinking ship of state.

*Scaramouche was the name of a 1921 historical novel by Rafael Sabatini set in the run-up to the French Revolution; the character was adopted by the novel's hero, who joined a dramatic troupe while seeking his moment of revenge.  Inspired by Hamlet, no doubt, but more an adventure story than a tragedy.  The 1953 movie made from it featured Stewart Granger, Mel Ferrer, (pre-shower) Janet Leigh, and the lovely Eleanor Parker.  "The Loves and Times of Scaramouche" was a second-rate Italian movie featuring Michael Sarrazin and (see second picture--a Spanish-language poster for it) Ursula Andress.

Empty Bluster
Can heads of state of nations armed with nuclear weapons and threatening to use them be totally ridiculous?  We saw in recent days, if those leaders are Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un of North Korea, the answer is yes.  Kim threatened to nuke Guam, which may have alarmed Guamanians but made him the butt of jokes for mainlanders; Trump then ripostes with vapid promise of "fire and fury, like the world has never seen" if Kim continues to threaten. It's all nonsense:  while these turkeys may have the theoretical power to order such a fandango, those who actually have to make such monstrosities happen would not condone or execute it without more justification.

As always with North Korea, the most interesting aspect is neither the North Koreans' lies or empty promises, nor America's impotent militaristic response, but the response of China to these vexatious complications from their neighbor.  This time, China advised North Korea they were on their own if it attacked the US (which put an end to that notion), supported UN sanctions against North Koreans for their unlawful missile tests, but drew the line when the Trumpsters added to the dogpile with unilateral sanctions against some favored Chinese entities for their alleged complicity in North Korean weapons development.

Then there was the Trump-eted big announcement with regard to the US' involvement in Afghanistan, basically a big nothingburger.  It boils down to continuing the effort to suppress a potential Taliban takeover, trying to eliminate ISIS there, and promising nothing specific.  A continuation of the policy he inherited from Obama's administration, but of course it could have been worse.  At least his military advisers are consistent and predictable in their behavior.

The Battle of Charlottesville
The subtitle is a bit ironic; the C'ville area was one of the few parts of Virginia that doesn't have a Civil War battlefield.  Grant and Lee's armies were headed in that general direction but ended their conflict at Appomattox Courthouse, 60 miles or so to the south, and the running cavalry war in the Shenandoah Valley ended about 30 miles to the west in the Battle of Waynesboro a month before then, when Union General George Custer finally defeated the Confederate forces which had been rampaging up and down the Valley for years.  In that way the area was spared the devastation of war, and antebellum mansions like Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and James Monroe's Highland survived unscathed.

I know Charlottesville pretty well; rather, I should say I knew it.  That same Waynesboro was my home in the '70's.  Coincidentally,  I visited Waynesboro, for the first time in decades, the same day as the white supremacist rally.  I was at a peaceful gathering, a reunion of '70s era rock bands with a friendly crowd of oldies and families, and we had no notice of the violence occurring a half-hour away.

One thing I want to do is provide some defense for the reputation of Charlottesville, a big college town/small city with an uneven past.  The University of Virginia, which Jefferson helped found and architect, has a well-deserved historical reputation for well-heeled and ill-behaved,  entitled white boys, one it has not completely shed, and the city and its housing were segregated, formally and then informally, until very late, but now the city tends very strongly in a progressive direction.  I won't say it was the big city for us, but it was the place we could go for a bit of culture, either highbrow or popular entertainment.  Although one of the top organizers of the white supremacist gathering was from Charlottesville, for the most part it was just the unlucky locale which could not legally keep away those coming for a "peaceful" assembly for vitriolic hate speech.

Of course, it did not turn out that way.  The counter-protesters no doubt had mixed motivations:  to confront the assembled neo-Nazis, KKK, and fellow travelers, even to try to prevent their marching; also to defend the plan to tear down the Confederate "hero" statues.  There had been scattered violence prior to the fatal vehicular assault by some lunatic rightist, and it seems as though the police were not active in keeping the opposing sides apart.  They did step in more once the worst had happened.

With regard to statues of historical figures, I refer to Nietzsche's "Use and Abuse of History" which identifies three valid (but not mutually exclusive) uses of history: for purposes monumental, antiquarian, and critical.   I'm certainly not opposed to statues being made, even of people who were monstrous, but there should not be monuments to traitors.  (That was the problem of the giant statues of Lee and Beauregard in New Orleans which were previous sources of antagonism before being removed:  they were so central and monumental, their symbolic purpose was unmistakable.) There may be an antiquarian purpose to memorializing some parts of the past; Europe is full of statues in out-of-the-way locations to people who are no longer widely remembered; most of them provide some information about who and what , and thus are educational. I haven't yet seen a statue erected for the purpose of criticism--Jefferson watching as his slave is lashed, Patton slapping the soldier's face as he accuses him of cowardice--but some historical  "National Monuments" like Mt. Vernon and Monticello have started to learn the lesson and present their homage to their national heroes a little less uncritically these days. One thing I was appalled to see recently, when driving to Washington's National Airport ("Reagan" is not part of its name, as far as I'm concerned), is that the Pentagon and some other venues of national military or patriotic significance in Arlington are on Jefferson Davis Highway.  I find nothing redeeming in the treason of the Confederacy's President.  I would welcome the banishment of his name, by law, from the vicinity of any Federal venue of any kind.

So. Trump's equivocation about the Charlottesville violence is readily understandable to me, as is his recent pardon of the convicted Hispanic profiler, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona.  He is always ready to send a signal to his most loyal supporters--the deplorables of the extreme right, yes, including the nativists, bigots and racists--that they will not be abandoned by him to their deserved fate in the dustbin of history.  His advisers pleaded with him to do the right thing, to unequivocally denounce them for their militant, anti-American extremism, but he just couldn't leave it at that.  You can't blame Trump for being Trump, just as you can't blame a viper for being a cold-blooded, venomous reptile.

I do want to mention the extraordinary coverage of the Charlottesville incident provided by HBO's Vice News.  Vice implanted a young, patient reporter (Elle Reeve) among the beasts behind the right-wing rally, where she had some amazing admissions of their malevolent hate-mongering.  They even had video of the moments when the car and driver attacked the counter-protesters, then backed away at high speed.  Prize-winning stuff.

When Incompetence is the Best Strategy 
From the point of view of national popularity, Trumps's moral obtuseness with regard to Charlottesville has been a negative. The widespread condemnation it has taken, especially among some stalwart Republican politicians and his panels of corporate executives, has cost him some support, which shows that there is some growing discernment of the gross error made last November, even among some Trump voters.

I feel that his popularity would have suffered even more in these months had Trump not been totally incompetent in the promotion of his domestic agenda.  Nothing that he or the Republican Congressional leaders have promoted--the misbegotten Obamacare replacement efforts, the budget designed to starve innovation and productivity, the stillborn invitation to corruption that was their infrastructure investment program, the repeal of trade agreements, the tax reform giveaways to the wealthy and corporations--would have redounded to the benefit, in the short, middle, or long term, of those beloved "poorly educated", or the disenchanted blue-collar workers who helped Trump achieve his fluke victory last fall. Those people may ignore the chit-chat without result coming from Washington.  There may still be a domestic disaster this fall, though, if Trump makes good on his threat to shut down the government if Congress does not authorize funding for his stupid (and unpopular) border wall.

Though I wish earnestly for Trump to fail in every way, I cannot bring myself to support the perverse argument my comments above suggest:  I don't want him to fail by succeeding in achieving his policy aims.  Instead, I want him to continue to achieve nothing until such time as his reign of terrible ends through his death, resignation, incarceration, or (least favorable, but still acceptable) massive electoral defeat.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Round Number Nostalgia

The Elephant in the (Anniversary) Room 
It was fifty years ago today...Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play..... 
Actually, it was 70 years ago "today", sometime in 1947, to which the lead song on the Beatles' most memorialized album, which has gotten the full treatment this year.

Whether it was their best one is, in the musical sense, more a matter of taste.  But if one is speaking on the impact upon global society, one could not deny its unique sense.  Among other things, it provided a love, naive but artistic slant which fit extremely well with "The Beatles" Saturday morning carttoon, which was Extremely Popular.  In that sense, it was a merchandising home run.

For a musical assessment, I will check in with with the ranking made this year by Bill Wyman (of New York magazine, presumably not  Rolling Stones' bassman) from best to worst of all 213 Beatles songs (as defined). Wyman is not an authoritative judge of character from my point of vie. He rated "Long and Winding Road" better than "Revolution"--the White Album version, an unconscionable error. I will give him credit for being a knowledgeable insider Brit crit who knows some stories--read his interesting take in #35, I Am the Walrus.. .....anyway,
Picking his Top '47 (randomly following above thread), *  After dutifully giving homage to "A Day in the Life", the next best song in his rankings from Sgt. Pepper is the rankling "lovely Rita Meter Maid".  After that, no more in the top 47, Wyman correctly naming more songs from Rubber Soul (the unremarked 50th was two years ago), Revolver ('66), later albums Abbey Road, the "White Album", and the underrated early albums Help!  (also 1965) and A Hard Day's Night ('64) , with also several singles he cited.  Debating "A Day..." and its inexplicable wisdom is for another day, but the point is that nostalgia is terribly shallow in its research:  I'd  agree that the first four I listed were at least equal to Pepper in musical innovation and creativity.

*Though I really did pick that number without having looked at the ratings just after 47,both Sgt. Pepper (Reprise) (#48) and Within You Without You (#52, the best song on the album) were just afterward+

Round Numbers from Recent Anniversary Citations
1917 - US enters WWI;  Russian revolution (both more overlooked than not)
1967 - "Summer of Love" in low-down San Francisco; many great albums (yes, including Sgt. Pepper); 6-Day War and beginning of Israeli occupation
1997 - handover of Hong Kong to China
2007 - Obama announces campaign for Presidency

In a contrary sense (not multiples of 5):  somehow more-than-usual attention this year focused on the Hiroshima attack -72 years on (much more than Nagasaki, I'll bet--if there were to be a case for violating norms, it would be with the attack on Nagasaki, which was not nearly as necessary) . I've also seen, on Facebook, a commemoration of Jerry Garcia's death 22 years ago.

Then there is the barrage of recent movies set in World War II.  Dunkirk, of course, but also: The Zookeeper's Wife, Their Finest, Hacksaw Ridge, Allied.  All those last four were valid stories with entertainment value and some historical merit (OK, Allied didn't seem to have any real historical referent, but it was a good flick). Even better,  this fall, what may be the best of all, we will have Churchill. WWII has long been a rich source of film--appropriately so for our modern era's most critical event in its significance and in its enduring effect in shaping our world.  Box office-wise, obviously Dunkirk has done well, though it had a huge budget, and Hacksaw Ridge did well at lower cost---WWII is not a cash cow, but Dunkirk showed it can still produce a big hit, if done with modern special effects and a sufficient sense of drama.  (The most frequent criticism of it, that the film sequence is not chronological, is somewhat retrograde in a post-Pulp Fiction/Memento/Cloud Atlas cinematic world.)

(A couple added notes on 8/20:  If we're talking semi-round numbers, a real event of global importance began its 75th anniversary last month, which will continue until February.  The Battle of Stalingrad was the true turning point of World War II; the Russians have a point when they insist that this was, above all, their war, and their victory at its end, and Stalingrad was where they halted the Nazi advance and turned the momentum of the war around.

Secondly, a "round number" aside:  In baseball team managers often talk about the importance of avoiding a "crooked number" for their opponent in the early innings.  The numbers that are "crooked" are 2-9; having one of those go against you early will often or usually put your team in a hole for the rest of the game.  I was amused that, in the last game before the All-Star break, against the Pirates, the Cubs avoided a crooked number in the first;  they allowed a 1 and a 0, as in 10 runs.)

My conclusion from the above:  nostalgia based on round numbers lacks discernment, but bringing back any living memories can work if it happens to hit the spot, in the culture of the moment.

OBIT DEPT
I have fallen well behind publishing deadlines--I will do the best I can to bring back some of the names that passed by which I neglected to mention.

Subject of a fascinating forthcoming film and novel:
 https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/mistress-and-muse-of-james-bonds-creator-ian-fleming-dies-at-104/2017/08/11/27f65c7a-7eb2-11e7-9d08-b79f191668ed_story.html

Jimmy Breslin (Mar. 19)- Back in the day, in his prime time, I wasn't much of a fan of New York's Daily News (except for the Sports Final edition some Sunday mornings).  Even less did I devour his many novels; still I have to say I appreciated his efforts to find truth through the lives of ordinary folks.

Jonathan Demme (Apr. 26)-- I have regretted not mentioning sooner his passing. Demme won his Oscar for directing Silence of the Lambs, a genre-setting combination of drama with horror, with an unsettling perspective on the ability of our justice system to handle pure evil.  Otheres cite Philadelphia. For me, though Demme will al.ways be the man who brought to screen perhaps the best staged live rock performance in film history.  (taking it slightly over Scorsese's "The Last Waltz", or the best of the "Unplugged" series on MTV).

I'm talking about Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense, of course. Thank you, Jonathan, for recording that moment so well.

Glenn Campbell (Aug. 8) - I"m definitely no fan of country music, but I have to credit Campbell's musical ability and sterling personality.  I would go for "Southern Nights" as my pick, slightly over the classic, somewhat poetic  "Gentle on My Mind". 

Finally, I (and the rest of the galaxy) must mourn the fact that there will never be More Chuck Berry (Mar. 18). His career is definitive proof that it's not all about #1 hits:  his only one was the laughably bad "My Ding-a-ling", yet he is properly revered and heavily imitated for his ineradicable impact on rock 'n' roll.  I would put "You Never Can Tell" and "No Particular Place to Go" at the top for their original vocal rhythms.

+ OK, my top 10 Beatles songs, off the top of my head, looking up the Bill Wyman ratings just for kicks and/or validation: 10. For No One (34);   9.  I'm Only Sleeping (84);  8. Yer Blues (87); 7. Sun King--first part of the extended Abbey Road jam  (23); 6. Tomorrow Never Knows (12); 5. I Want You (She's So Heavy) (132); 4. Lady Madonna (58); 3. Penny Lane (3); 2. Within You Without You (52); 1. Revolution (White Album version--167; single was 56).  I probably should've had "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" somewhere in there.  I can't imagine why he has W/in U W/out U at 52.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Transitional

Sometimes It's Best Not to Post
A lesson our President cannot, or will not, learn.  I was completing a brief essay on the prospects for the Senate vote of the Bupkis Completely Repugnant Act, their version of repeal and replace, but the plans for an early vote collapsed before I could complete it.  I will not put it past the wily turtle, Majority Leader McConnell, to figure out how to bribe, cajole, or threaten enough of the recalcitrant Republican Senators for it to squeak through soon, but I think it more likely that the proposal will need more than minor tweaks to appeal to both moderate and extreme right-wing holdouts.

I shouldn't offer advice, but I think the likeliest proposal would be along the lines that Rand Paul, one of the most determined opponents of the current bill, has proposed:  focus simply on repeal; get rid of the individual mandate and the employer mandate and the medical taxes.  Probably every Republican in Congress could vote for that.  What to build up in its place, as the insurance exchanges under Federal sponsorship are allowed to crumble from neglect, would be the matter for an extended debate, one that could even possibly include some Democratic participation. If they must do the evil deed--and politically it is close to an imperative for the Republican Congress--they would do better not to compound it with benefit cuts and tax cuts for the wealthy which would practically write the script for Democrats to nail them in 2018.

I only post this because I'm pretty sure they won't be listening; just making a sort of prediction of what I see as being possible.  This legislative exercise could be an example of actual compromise, unipartisan though it would be.

Back to the Drumpfster, his latest outrage tweet about Zika Brzezinski has shocked the nation to the point that even right-wing news outlets and most Republican Congressmen are begging for him to STFU with the Twitter, already.  My view:  since they feel his posts hurt him and hurt their cause, I have to lean towards encouraging him to keep it up.  It should be easy:  "Great job, Donald!  You really hit the mark with that one--your fans will love it/your enemies will suffer."  I'll accept the further decay of our civic dialogue that comes from his grotesque and ugly communication--one way or the other, it's coming anyway.  At least until he becomes Reaganesque and just reads the scripts his lackeys write for him.

Moving toward a Summer Focus on the Arts
Some of you may have noticed an absence of any comment in recent months in this blog about the special elections held in several House districts. That is because there is precious little of value to say about them:  Their importance was always overstated, the expenditures were ridiculous, the outcomes basically foregone and trivial in real-world importance.

They represent a few isolated data points, but those soundings do show that the disastrous start to the Trump Administration has so far not dissuaded rank-and-file Republicans from continuing to support the party.  One should not expect anything different, really; though there may not be anything that seems likely to reward them for their blind loyalty, there has been no flash of light which would open their eyes or jolt their optic nerves into function.  I am still holding to my explanation of "Why Democrats Lose":  too many Republican voters.

As for the Russia thing, as I have said, there is something there, some evil, ugly, corrupt, and contemptuous set of actions and omissions, something that should fill us with firm repulsion and newly reinforced determination to resist, but nothing that is going to lead to a "change in control"--of the executive, or even of Congress.  The Democrats will have to find their breakthrough elsewhere, though the distraction from actual policy implementation and legislation has its value.  I don't imagine I will need to comment on this in the months to come.

As for future elections, there are two meaningful elections for governor, in Virginia and New Jersey, both of which are ones the Democrats "should" win (as opposed to those Congressional races they lost).  They are important, but they will get more attention and campaign contributions than their true importance will merit.  I suggest token contributions to those campaigns this year, and to the DCCC, which has a mighty and urgent task for next year, but not to get sucked in:  keep the powder dry.

Instead, it is a very good year to give to charities and causes that will suffer due to the Drumpfenreich, both domestic and international.

It's an even better year to support the arts, and the development of an artistic counterforce to the tragic direction our country is taking.

Songs of Resistance
I'm going to start with a plug for a rap group, Swet Shop Boys.  I'm no expert on the genre, but their rap combines exotic Orientalist (or Middle Eastern, if you prefer) backtracks with some loaded lyrics on the subject of Islamophobia.  Second-featured artist is Riz Ahmed, the star of the superb "The Night Of..." TV mini-series of last winter.  Here is a video of their debut on Stephen Colbert the other night.

Generally speaking, I think we can count on rap to lead the way with the heaviest topical attacks on the neo-Fascist xenophobic regime.  Kendrick Lamar and others who do not fear commercial retribution will give at least as much abuse as they will get. However, I do not think we should write off rock 'n'roll; even rising country star Sturgill Simpson will bring something to the table, though it may sound more like antiwar populism than partisan progressivism.  I would say that is the general theme in rock's protest music, along with Platonic forms of love (the romantic and procreative ones are far more prevalent, but irrelevant here); the key in the immediate timeframe is to turn the energy from anti-government to pro-engagement.

I was working on a list of notable protest/resistance songs, when I saw one with a few picks from several different music artists in Vanity Fair (I saw it recently, though it's actually from their April issue).  It has three overlaps with my own list:  "Clampdown" by The Clash, "Ball of Confusion" by the Temptations, and "Masters of War" by '60s era Bob Dylan (contributed by Q-Tip, Brittany Howard, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, respectively).   Here are 22 more, to fill out a top 25 (no order--no repeats of artists), with some comments (I am staying away from rap, for the most part, because I'm not qualified):
  • "Ohio" - Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young - I'm pretty much compelled to include this one, which is also musically outstanding, and it edges out the song with the same name from The Pretenders; 
  • "Volunteers" - Jefferson Airplane - a call to get involved, which I like
  • "What's Going On" - Marvin Gaye--Platonic love, this time. 
  • "You Haven't Done Nothing'"  - Stevie Wonder; there were several other valid choices. 
  • "Free Nelson Mandela" - The Specials.  Asked and answered; and while I'm on the topic of South Africa,  "Biko" - Peter Gabriel. 
  • "Holiday" - Green Day.  Not too hard to figure out where they're coming from, politically. 
  • "Cult of Personality" - Living Color.  Extremely relevant today. 
  • "Epitaph" - King Crimson.  The music sounds a bit like the theme from "Lassie", but the lyrics are poignant, trenchant. 
  • "Doo Doo Doo Heartbreaker" - Rolling Stones. They are not usually very political; this one from the '70's goes to the Black Lives Matter theme. 
  • "The Unforgettable Fire" - U2.  Many other possibilities--this one is about nuclear war, and not their only one on the subject. 
  • "Big Yellow Taxi" - Joni Mitchell - early eco-pop, much imitated and frequently covered; there are many other possible choices from Ms. Mitchell (including "Woodstock"). 
  • "Effigy" - Uncle Tupelo.  Very non-specific song on the theme of rebellion, but mainly 'cause it rocks like hell. 
  • "B Movie" - Gil-Scott Heron.  Reagan is the target of this early rap; I chose it over the presumably factually incorrect "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"; there were other good candidates. 
  • "Born in the USA" - Bruce Springsteen - of course, there are many other possibilities from the Boss, who is both politically aware and an activist,  but I like the irony of how this song is widely misunderstood. 
  • "What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding" - Nick Lowe (most famously by Elvis Costello) - I say it fits here, and I'm writing this. 
  • "Imagine" - John Lennon.  Of course. Musically, I would opt for "Instant Karma", but this one is more  truly a political statement.
  • "When the President Talks to God" - Bright Eyes.  A bit shrill, maybe, but devastating on Bush II. A good case could be made for "Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)", about an experience at an antiwar rally, pre-Iraq invasion. 
  • "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World" - Neil Young.  Bush I-era manifesto
  • "in the Ghetto" - Elvis Presley.  Maybe a little politically incorrect, but I'll give him credit for the effort. 
  • "Fortunate Son" - Creedence Clearwater Revival . A clear statement about whose side they were on in the battle between the people and the elite. 
  • "Call to Arms" - the aforementioned Sturgill Simpson.  Very current, very strong statement (though hard to distinguish the lyrics), great music. 

I opted against including songs from The Who (more about personal spiritual development--closest would be the generic anti-government "Won't Get Fooled Again", and please don't bring up "My Generation"), Talking Heads (politically incoherent, closest would be David Byrne's idealistic solo song "Ain't Got  So Far To Go"), Gang of Four (they have a very coherent view of politics and history, but it's so negative), or The Beatles themselves (the opposite of Gang of 4, in each regard).  Pink Floyd ("Us and Them") deserves mention but is a bit too vague about what it is protesting. I will admit I should have something from the very politically-aware band R.E.M., but I couldn't pick something specific; similar admission with regard to such other "woke" artists as The Kinks, Arcade Fire, and Prince.

I hope this will spur readers to look up some of these, if unknown, but even more to inspire future artistic product with quality thinking.