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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.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Using Up My June anti-Trump Rant Early

Is a Crime Against Humanity an Impeachable Offense? 
It's a serious question, though in the current context of Trump's stupefying announcement that he intends to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Accord, one that is somewhat idle.

His action, though criminal in its intent towards the health and prosperity of the world's population (and even our own), and criminally stupid and ill-informed as well, does not violate any laws.  He clearly has the authority to take the action, and the accord itself specifies the timing of how a withdrawal (some three years down the road) would come into effect.  Trump will not be impeached for this, because impeachment--especially of a President--is entirely a function of political support, and for this wrongheaded move he will clearly have sufficient support from his party to preclude that.

With regard to the question, the identification of an impeachable offense is left entirely up to Congress. The two precedents of Presidential impeachment being voted by the House are the cases of Andrew Johnson, charged with exceeding his authority for firing a Federal official (clearly not a crime, nor even a fair reading of the limit of his authority), and Bill Clinton, charged with lying in a deposition about something that was not a crime nor related to the conduct of his office.  Of course, neither was convicted in the Senate (Johnson nearly so, Clinton not very close), but the point is that impeachable is solely in the collective eye of the beholding House and Senate.

As for a "crime against humanity", the fact that an action is legal in domestic law has no relation to that culpability.  The Germans convicted of those crimes at the Nuremberg trial generally were scrupulously following the direction of governmental authority; the same may be said of some other tinpot dictators convicted in the International Criminal Court in the Hague.  Though the US is not a party to the Court, that only means the US would not surrender its citizens for trial; Trump could be arrested outside the country and subjected to trial, something I would love to see but will never happen.  And make no mistake, whether or not his folly leads directly or indirectly to death and destruction, his action is criminal in its disregard for the opinion of the world, for the fate of people all over the world, or even the well-being of his own nation's citizens.

I get it that there is a principle of sovereignty, wrong-headed though it is expressed here, or that Trump's primary responsibility is to look after the interests of Americans.  Trump's alliterative talking point that he was "elected to represent Pittsburgh, not Paris" does not hold water, as PBS NewsHour commenter Mark Shields pointed out:  Pittsburgh is one of the greenest cities and it supported Hillary Clinton--if he thinks he is representing Pittsburgh, he's not doing it well.  And the sovereignty principle is wrong because his decision ignores the fact that the precise reductions each country commits to make are and have always been voluntary, not imposed in any way:  rather than withdraw from the accord, Trump could have merely changed the targets to address his supposed concern for American jobs that would be lost by restricting greenhouse gas emissions.

Trump's action is solely about politics: It is almost certain that jobs are being gained through reduction in emissions, particularly in the green energy fields, while very few are at risk from it.   And even the politics of the move are highly doubtful; while climate change is rarely named as a top concern by Americans in polls, this is a move that will backfire on the US in a hundred ways, domestically and internationally, and once again shows the limited breadth of his policies' appeal and the severe limitations of his vision for America.  He gets to claim a campaign promise fulfilled, but there would have been more honor in the breach of that promise.

Granted, America has not always been a leader in the world; only in the period since World War II ended has the national policy proactively acted outside the Western Hemisphere (with slight exceptions noted for the naval incursions in Japan in 1853 and in Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War).  Otherwise,  the US has generally chosen to remain apart from the projects of Europe, Africa, and Asia, and this policy is generally popular domestically. Trump is making good on a promise to withdraw from leadership in the world, through this unnecessary retreat from a near-universal, urgent global consensus. One can compare it to the US refusal to enter the League of Nations after World War I, rather than trying to help lead in its mission of preserving the peace.  That decision didn't turn out well at all.

In particular, the move is a snub at European allies like France and Germany, who are committed to the cause, and is a very unwise stance with regard to nations like China and India, who have been pulled into the cause but now could easily take the easy path and follow Trump's example. It is practically an act of war against nations like Bangladesh, the Maldives, the Pacific Island nations, and desertifying African nations, who will suffer directly and massively from continued global warming. It will reinforce the anti-American narrative that we are selfish, materialistic hypocrites.

Time to Mention the Russia Thing, Finally
I haven't been too keen on the allegations of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.  I never thought the Wikileaks disclosures were that damaging; while the Russians clearly used fake news to distract and create false rumors, there was plenty of real news and true rumors for voters to make their decisions.  The evidence that Trump is owned (pwned?) by the Russians is more convincing, though difficult to make into a case.  Trump claims he has no conflict of interests; my response is, there's no conflict, just interests. Though he likes to say he owns nothing in Russia, they own plenty of him, and the pattern of his behavior in favoring Russian interests is extremely disturbing.

I really don't believe there is a route to impeachment through this subject, unless history repeats itself from the Nixon era and Trump is forced to yield self-damning taped conversations from White House discussions.  Comey's notes from private conversations in which Trump asks him to go easy on the investigation are not likely to be admissible; either Trump may emulate Nixon (yet again) and claim executive privilege, which he could plausibly do to block such testimony, or (again, unless there are recordings to the contrary) simply deny they are factual, as he has already done.

Unfriendly elements in Congress will be able to make much of the fact that several high-placed individuals from the campaign, transition team, and administration held conversations with Russian spies that they did not voluntary disclose.  Some may end up having to lean on their figurative swords, and resign or withdraw, as General Flynn did soon after he became national security chief, but these are precisely the people who will protect Trump until the end.

I have come to believe there is value here, though.  Continual harassment of the Trump administration will keep them from getting anything done.  There could even be a big payoff if the stresses take a toll on the President--I have decided that our best hope for him to leave before 2021 would be due to health reasons, real or ascribed.  It's somethng, anyway, we can hope for--i'll even willingly take Mike Pence over Trump; at least he would be predictable.

Kathy Griffin
The comedienne suffered a major setback this week after coming out with a video featuring Donald Trump's severed, bloody head.  Gruesome and distasteful, yes, but most Trump images are that.  She  did stipulate that she was not advocating violence against Trump, and she apologized profusely after the blowback, but she has not been forgiven.  She was fired from her regular CNN New Year's Eve gig with Anderson Cooper--if one has ever seen that, they would know that extreme provocation and silliness are her two stocks in trade, and that she's always lived pretty close to the edge of outrage--and she has even had all the venues in a standup comedy tour cancel upon her.

I think that she has suffered enough.  Mel Gibson made a comeback and got an Oscar nomination, didn't he? Now, her talent may be very limited, but I don't believe she should be blackballed, unable to practice her "profession", and since there is no actual threat to his person, the Secret Service should back off.

While many of us wish him ill (see above), it is actually the wish-fulfillment nature of her fantasy, one that some of us might even share, which makes the whole thing uncomfortable.  We shouldn't be thinking about improper means of disposal of this hazardous material. I'm not talking about Donald's personal discomfort; I welcome that.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Getting Past the Drumpfsters

It is not going to be easy to survive the Drumpfenreich:  combining the worst qualities of the worst Presidents of the last 100 years, the Trump administration has the rampant corruption of Harding, the paranoid hatred of all the better institutions of American life of Nixon, and the naive ignorance of the world which Dubya exhibited.

June 15 will mark a milestone of sorts, as we reach Day 146, which would be 10% of Trump's term in office.  I will exclude the possibility of his re-election, not that I do not consider it a serious threat, no matter how much the majority of the population hates him.   The Republican gameplan will now focus on disenfranchising as many potential voters as possible, and the party's stranglehold on so many state governments makes it a realistic strategy.  Only the courts stand in the way of a return to a series of measures designed to discourage anyone without the leisure to pass through a series of time-consuming, challenging obstacles if they don't already hold the necessary credentials.

The only thing possibly worse than Trump himself are the people he has chosen to surround himself, in the White House itself and in his Cabinet.  But let's not dwell on that right now.

The good news, once again, is that Trump has accomplished almost none of the objectives that he espoused when he ran for the Presidency.  The bad news is that he has plenty of time to learn how to do it, and very few impediments, apart from those of his own and his own party's making.  The other bad news is that nothing he wants to do is a good idea. He picks the wrong allies, wants to help the wrong people (and I include his cronies particularly among those), creates chaos wherever he goes (or at home, in the White House), and has a perverse dislike for valued objects like science, a free press, clean energy, public education, civil liberties, and civility generally.

Now, I will admit that there is one current Trump initiative in which I must wish him sucecss, even if I am not a believer.  He dares to try to accomplish what so many others have failed to do--he wants to broker a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  I do admire the audacity; it ranks with him rating himself worthy of running for the Presidency.  Even if, in my view, he was wrong about that, he certainly was right in his assessment (if he ever had it, at any time!) that he could win.  So let him try with Netanyahu.  If he can pull it off it would clearly dwarf any other possible positive achievement of his terrible reign, a la Jimmy Carter, who similarly was able somehow to deliver arch-warrior Menachem Begin's agreement to the deal with Egypt.

Of course, I don't believe Netanyahu is prepared to negotiate seriously, to be the one to recognize any form of Palestinian state, to allow any part of the West Bank to be ceded to their longstanding neighbors, those fellow Semites.  I never imagined Begin would make peace with Sadat, though.

Even imagining this could happen, though, violates one of my cardinal rules about surviving Trump's administration.  I have raised my hopes.  Expectations must always be at rock bottom, with him. Subsequently being proven right, as would normally happen, is not the point.  The point is that disappointment is a near-certainty if one hopes for anything that is not criminally stupid and badly executed.

The good doctor Deepak Chopra provides some suggestions for skills to develop to avoid being consumed by the stress arising from Trump-driven outrage.  One of my own resolutions is to limit myself to no more than one Trump-driven rant in this blog space per month.  Please hold me to that.

Their Lives Were Not All About Donald Trump
Chris Cornell - guitarist and lead singer for Soundgarden, one of the top grunge bands, who had a successful solo career after the '90's.  His style was brooding, dynamic; it was not so hard to imagine that the writer of "Black Hole Sun", a powerful grunge classic which pleads for a black hole to swallow everything up, might end up taking his own life.  Sorry.

Gregg Allman - Keyboard player and usual lead singer for the Allman Brothers, who basically pioneered a brand of Southern country-tinged blues rock.   He became the leader after the early death (motorcycle accident) of his brother, Duane, the superior talent of the band.  Allman had several comebacks over the years; Gregg's talents were never shown better than in his performance of the '70's classic, "Whippin' Post".

Zbigniew Brzezinski- He was a displomatic and military strategist who drew upon his early days in Communist Poland. He was not as much as a hard-ass as he appeared during his key role in the Carter administration, when circumstances (the invasion of Afghanistan) triggered an increase in Cold War tensions; later , he supported President Obama's efforts to reduce our war footing.

Frank Deford - One of the most talented pure writers in sports journalism I have ever come across.  Young folks may not recall him, though he appeared on TV until recently; I remember his essays in Sports Illustrated which showed humor and true appreciation of the finer aspects of sport.

Roger Moore - or, Sir Roger Moore, as some might have it.  The most purely British of the James Bonds, he brought a little more respectability to the role after the louche manners of Sean Connery.  I will remember him best as The Saint, though.

Jim Bunning - Let's stay positive about Bunning, who was an unapologetic right-winger Senator in his later life, Mitch McConnell with some dignity.  He was a great pitcher.

Roger Ailes-- I have a very hard time saying anything good about Ailes, who made Fox News what it is today, except that he did believe in journalism, which meant he had a hard time accepting Donald Trump's behavior.  He did, though--he swallowed his ethical scruples and backed his candidacy in a thousand little ways.  Of course, he was not in much of a morally-superior position.


Monday, May 01, 2017

Spring Sports Report


A little later than I wanted to get this, but not ridiculously so.

European Soccer
I greatly enjoyed the British FA Cup semifinals the previous weekend; both games were close, dynamic affairs with tons of top players in evidence at the famed Wembley Stadium. They moved the semis there a few years ago and converted to the single-game, must-decide outcome format used in the final. When all four of the teams are as good as in this year's matchups (Chelsea-Tottenham, Man City-Arsenal), it works.

It certainly helped, from my biased point of view, that Chelsea won its match, 4-2. Both teams approached the game seriously, not quite playing all their top XI, but close and with eminently reasonable substitutes where they didn't.  The rivalry is at a peak; though they will not play again in this Premier League's season, they are 1-2 in the table (four points apart), and Chelsea's win should provide a needed psychological  boost to help 'dem Blues reach the finish line first. As such, it should complete their recovery from a frankly disastrous 2-0 loss a week previously to Man United. Chelsea Rule OK in 2017!

Winning the Cup final vs. Arsenal will just be icing on the cake (and may complete Gunners' coach Arsene Wenger's long-awaited departure).

I should mention Barcelona's incredible comeback from 4-0 down in the first leg of a Champions League series against Paris St. Germain.  They had to pull off a 6-1 win to do it, scoring three goals in the final seven minutes.  I have rarely seen anything more outrageous (and that includes the PSG goaltending at the end).  They pushed it too far in the next round, though; a 3-0 away deficit to Juventus was more than they were capable of erasing.  I don't usually root for Juventus, but I'm thinking they might break through the recent Spanish domination this year.  Somewhat surprisingly, they haven't won since 1996. 

ML Baseball
It appears the trends toward more home runs (tighter wrapping of the ball, maybe?) and more strikeouts will continue this year.  Hitting the ball somewhere within the ballpark is out of fashion (too many good fielders?  I doubt it), and stolen bases, too--unless it is a sure thing.  The Earl Weaver philosophy (two walks and a 3-run homer) never went completely out of style, but now it is in, "big league" (as our Fearless Leader, "POTUS minus the TU", would say, somewhat slurringly).  Arm injuries remain a strong trend for overthrowing pitchers, but the greatest harm so far has been the 80-day suspension for a steroid for one of the key players on my Rotisserie team, Pirates' outfielder Starling Marte. 

I shed my rooting interest in the hapless, rebuilding Reds last year in favor of the lifelong favorite team of my aged father, the Cubs.  Their having won the World Series, at last, in 2016 (and what a joyride it was!), I have fulfilled my commitment to them.  I do favor the Indians, who competed nobly last year and have a long schneid (winless streak) of their own  (appears to be since 1948).  I am also hopeful their downstate "rival", my Reds, will be able to avoid last place in their highly competitive division.

My preseason picks were as follows:
  AL division winners--RedSox, Indians, Astros; with Orioles over Rangers in the Wildcard game
  NL division winners--Nationals, Cubs, Dodgers; with Diamondbacks over Cards in the WC
  ALCS - Indians over Orioles; NLCS - Nationals over Dodgers
  and World Series:  Indians over Nationals.
So far, I see no reason to regret any of these picks, though it's early.

NBA
The first round ended up very predictably, after some early excitement.  In the East, the #8-seeded Bulls defeated the #1 Celtics in both of the first two games at Boston, but then Rajan Rondo got hurt and the team chemistry dissolved, the Celtics winning the next four.  Similarly, the #6 Bucks folded after giving #3 Raptors a bit of a scare.  The best first round series, in terms of quality of entertainment and play, were the Rockets-Thunder matchup of MVP candidates and the strong effort the Grizzlies produced against the Spurs before succumbing.

Now, I would say the main question of the next two rounds is whether the anticipated Spurs-Warriors showdown in the West will happen, and can anyone stop the Cavaliers in the East?  On the latter question, I had some thought that the Washington Wizards might be the team to stop LeBron James' streak of six straight years in the championship playoffs, but they disappointed in Game 1 vs. Boston and will now be serious underdogs to pull it off (as would the Celtics against the Cavs).  Spurs-Warriors seems extremely likely to me, and the odds are increasingly pointing toward a third straight year of Cleveland-Golden State in the championships, with GSW looking like the better team at this point.

College Hoops
 I found justification for my rooting interest in favor of the U. of Kentucky in this English press article, which argues correctly that Kentucky's frequent practice, in which they recruit the top high school stars, get them to play one year, and then actively assist them in landing on a NBA team if that be their intention, the so-called 'one-and-done", is the most honest in college sports.

The Wildcats' current crop were "very freshman" in their play but showed tremendous talent and matured by the end of the regular season.  They got a very tough draw in their region, coming up with big wins over Wichita St. and UCLA in the first two rounds, but then hitting the wall against a more seasoned group of future pros, the eventual winners, North Carolina.  My other main rooting interest (besides Yale, which came up short in the Ivy League championship game), the U. of Louisville Cardinals, had a decent team, competitive in their "new" conference, the refurbished ACC, but didn't make it too far.

Finally, I did happen to catch the end of the most amazing event in college basketball this year, the upset of Connecticut in the NCAA women's semifinal by South Carolina.  After an incredibly emotional victory, breaking UConn's 100+ game winning streak, South Carolina came up short in the final.  A Pyrrhic victory is still a victory, still will be remembered in history.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Drumpfenreich 100 Days: Less is More....

....I am not arguing for a minimalist Presidency, but making an exception in this case.  With President Trump, the less he does, the better, and if he did nothing at all, that would be just all right.  Because anything he does will be wrong.


The administration has really not accomplished anything it was trying to do.  The one notable exception was the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, and that would have to be laid mostly at the feet of the Republican senators who allowed pragmatism to rule over principle and abolished the filibuster as applied to the Court's nominees.


Mostly, but not entirely:  the Democrats in the Senate botched it, too.  Their best play was to extend the debate to the maximum, then allow cloture, then fight it some more.  Now they have no principle or rule to back them when the next, more critical Court replacement comes up.


Unfortunately, there is a long, long way to go. I cannot rely forever on his inability to demonstrate any competence, there is every possibility that his team can learn about how to accomplish its objectives, and Congress will eventually help out, as it did with Gorsuch.  A regressive tax plan is coming, a stupid healthcare bill will eventually be voted upon by both houses of Congress (filibustering methods are unlikely to contain it, now), and there is likely to be some sort of ridiculous "infrastructure" bill that will pad the wallets of his cronies and favorites (that's probably where wall money will go, as well).


The bottom line for me is simply no new stupid wars.  If that happens, we can all consider ourselves lucky to make it to 2021.   In the meantime, I like Legit PAC (look it up) to work for voter protection and take money of elections, and the DLCC and DGA to offset some of the Republicans' edge in the states in 2018.   I will be looking for opportunities to forgive repentant Trump voters for their sin.


Shutdown for the wall:  By the above logic, I shouldn't be opposed; however, "non-essential" government service shutdowns is exactly what Trump is trying to accomplish through his appointment of incompetents, ideologues, and cronies to all the agencies that help people.  Drumpf has shown the door--feed my swamp shark lobbyists to continue to study the problem, without actually funding the expense of building it.  Damage limitation is the name of the game.  


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Looking up from our Collective Navel

Yes, I know it's "America First", and as an American I can hardly say that's totally wrong (just mostly), but still that doesn't mean it's "America Only".  So, some thoughts about some events in other countries which may interest some in our self-absorbed populace.  And/or beyond.

France
The French go to the polls tomorrow in one of the most significant elections--in any country--in decades. The question, in a narrow sense, is whether the French will go down the road of Brexit and Trump, or whether they will thumb their collective nose at that trend toward populist nationalism. Beyond that, the election's outcome could prove decisive for the future of the Euro, and even of the European Union.

France's central government, as mandated in the constitution for its Fifth Republic (since 1958), bears many similarities to the US':  bicameral legislature, independent judiciary, and a strong executive headed by its President.  One area in which the French improved greatly on the US' system is in its election for President. The fairly open contest provides for direct election if a candidate receives a majority in the first round; if not, the two candidates with the highest number of votes have a runoff some two weeks later.

This year's election is wide-open, with the final outcome difficult to predict. The incumbent, Socialist Francois Hollande, decided not to run for re-election, a decision that was almost universally supported.  Both Hollande's center-left party and their major party opponent, the center-right successors of the legacy of Fifth Republic titans Charles deGaulle and Georges Pompidou, were riven with dissension, with surprise candidates emerging from their primaries, but then weakening.  The Repubicains (the Gaullists) rejected both of their establishment leaders, Alain Juppe and former President Nikolas Sarkozy, in favor of Francois Fillon, who promptly got caught up in a nepotism scandal.  The Socialist primary voters rejected their establishment candidate even more dramatically,  rejecting their leaders from the current government in favor of a candidate further to the left, Benoit Hamon.

The collapse of the major parties has opened the way for not one major third-party candidate, but three of them.  The true third-party is the National Front, headed by Marine LePen, the daughter of the party's founder, whose mission has been to bring her party's anti-Semitic (Jews and Moslems), ultra-nationalistic postures more into the mainstream, in order to make her and her party's candidates electorally viable.  She has been surprisingly successful at that, at least as regards her own candidacy.  Then there are two true independents who have risen to be serious contenders:  one is a renegade former Socialist cabinet minister who has never been elected and who espouses a bland, centrist, Gaullist-type message ("Let's Go Forward!"), Emmanuel Macron. The other is Jean-Luc Melenchon, who rejected both the Socialists and Communists for an iconoclastic, anti-EU, left-wing candidacy.  As the campaign has progressed, Melenchon has steadily taken support from Hamon in polling.

The issues driving the election are many:  the future of France's contining in the EU, the Euro, and full participation in NATO, the restive Muslim majority, the reaction against that minority's growth and the militants within it,  the reaction against immigration more generally, the weakness of the parties,  and a general debate about the changing nature of the French economy.  I would say many of these will be addressed more in the parliamentary elections a month or so after the second round of the Presidential elections, when the French will know who their new leader will be--and will either reinforce or choose to restrain that person.  This round seems to be mostly about the personalities of the leaders, and of their parties.

With five candidates sharing significant shares of poll support, there is really no chance one will emerge as the victor in the first round, so the objective in the first of this two-act drama is just to finish in the top two.  Macron captured support from the early leader, Fillon, when his scandal persisted and rose as high as the mid-20's in percentage but has fallen back a bit (many are disgusted by the lack of substance in his platform), while Fillon's support in the polls has stabilized around 20%.  LePen's has been fairly steady in the low 20's, while Melenchon has tracked upward and is in the high-teens, while Hamon's has fallen to high single digits.

Given these poll numbers, which apart from the trends mentioned have shown a lot of stability, there are four serious contenders for the two top spots. A lot of attention will be given to the "winner" who gets the most votes, but the one who finishes second will be exactly equally a winner, and may well be the favorite in the second round.  I will discuss each of the six possible combinations briefly:

Macron vs. LePen - This is the most likely outcome, and would provide a clear decision point for French voters--continue the postwar and EU paths, or reject them entirely for nationalism.  The standard wisdom is that all others would rally around Macron to avoid LePen's winning, but the standard wisdom could be wrong.  In particular, Macron is distasteful to the left.  Still, he would be a substantial favorite going into the runoff.
Macron vs. Fillon - This would be a surprise outcome and would represent a reversion toward normalcy in the final days, surprising because the primaries have suggested anything but normalcy.  Macron would be favored because of Filion's compromised position.
Macron vs. Melenchon - Many of LePen's supporters don't really agree with or care for the National Front's history of antisocial tendencies, so Melenchon, who shares many other positions with LePen, could capture the second spot with a late surge.  This would end up like Macron vs. LePen, but with a more typically French leftward flavor.; I'm thinking Melenchon might pick up some LePen votes and could win.
Fillon vs. LePen - This was the originally-expected matchup, before Fillon's troubles.  It could still end up as a more conventional all-vs. LePen contest, but with many on the left sitting it out it would not be a sure win for him.
Fillon vs. Melenchon - See Macron vs. Melenchon.  This may be the least likely of the six matchups; it would represent the voters' rejection of the standard wisdom that the final choice would end up being Macron and LePen.  That surprise outcome would suggest caution how the second act would play out, as well, though it would superficially appear to be a standard left vs. right contest.  In the Fifth Republic, those have gone to the right in times of crisis--which the current environment suggests may be the case.
LePen vs. Melenchon - This would be a disaster for the European Union and the Euro, as both are opposed to France's continuing its participation in those institutions.  Would both try to exceed each other in their extremist rhetoric or would they try to capture the middle?  Again, the conventional wisdom would suggest the latter, but this is not a conventional year.

Predicting the Outcomes - My preferred site to play the odds, predicit.org, does not have "markets" on those six outcomes; instead they have ones for the first-place person in the first round, the margin in the first round, the eventual President, and then for the chances of each of the four major candidates of making the second round.  That betting shows a clear expectation that Macron or LePen will finish first, a slight preference for a 3%+ margin for that candidate, and 85% and 81% chances for LePen and Macron, respectively, to make the second round.  There is decent respect for the odds of an upset in second, though:  with Fillon and Melenchon each at 19% to make the second round (doesn't quite add to 100% because of the gaps betwen yes and no prices), with each having 10% or better chance of being ultimately elected if they make it through.

My own betting is on either Macron or, to get a good return on a very small investment, the longer-shot Melenchon (I bought his shares very cheaply, early).  I think some Fillon supporters will ultimately be disheartened and drift to the safer alternative, Emmanuel Macron, and . that it will be very close between Melenchon and LePen for second place.  I have some money on the second choice in the betting to finish first (Macron stands at 41% there, vs. LePen's 56%).
My pick: Macron 27%, LePen 23%, Melenchon 22%, Fillon 18%, Hamon and others 10%.  I will hold off on second-round prediction until after this one, but if these are the results, I would think Macron will be a big favorite to win ultimately.

Finally, on this topic:  An avowed ISIS supporter killed a police officer on Paris' famous Champs d'Elysees the other day and was then killed.  Continuing on the Islamic terrorist theme, the incident could play into LePen's candidacy, as Donald Trump kind-of suggested; however, he hedged on it, perhaps perceiving that it might also play exactly in the opposite way, as the French may react toward rejecting the isolation of the Muslim majority and tend toward one or more of her opponents.

Germany 
The German elections will not be until late-September, but it makes sense to follow the discussion of France with this one, because the French election will provide signals that should directly affect the German ones.  If France takes an anti-EU turn, Germany (and Italy, in its next Parliamentary election, probably in 2018) will have to decide whether to rally around the multinational flag or go in a nationalistic direction.  Germany has its own major immigration issue--less terrorism, but large numbers of Turkish workers and the largest share of refugees from the Middle Eastern bloodbaths.

The German election may become a referendum on the fate of the EU, but it is also likely to be a referendum on Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has served since 2005 and is seeking an unprecedented fourth term. Merkel's stances in favor of a united Europe and providing refuge have drawn great praise globally--in the wake of Trump's election many consider her the de facto Leader of the Free World--but those stances are widely unpopular at home, even in her own center-right party.

The current German government is a "grand coalition" of the two major party groupings, Merkel's center-right CDU/CSU (Christian Democrats) and the center-left SDU (Social Democrats).  The SDU pulled a clever move in leading up to the elections by bringing in as their leader Martin Schulz, former head of the European Parliament and a well-respected political operator.  The selection of Schulz brought an immediate lift to the SDU in polling, and it is now about at parity with Merkel's party.  There is a long way to go, but Merkel is now threatened on both sides, with also the possibility that voters may have wearied of her as head of the government after such a long reign.

If the election ends up being Merkel vs. Schulz leading the major parties, there may be a big opportunity for some anti-EU party (could be on the left or the right), and that may end up being the big story as opposed to whether Germany tilts center-left or center-right. Still, Merkel and the future course of her career remain the critical aspect in the broader, historical sense.  She remains a very impressive figure, the face of the country's great success in the past decade or so.   I am making some small bets against her--I bought Schulz as Prime Minister after the election at 3%, and it rose after his selection as high as 36%, but I've been taking profits recently, waiting to see what dynamic the French elections' results will have there.

Britain
Prime Minister Theresa May made a move last week that surprised all, but in retrospect does not seem at all irrational.  By calling for early Parliamentary elections in June, she put her brief government at risk when she did not need to do so; however, the conditions appear extremely favorable for her.  She is looking for a strengthened majority for her Conservative party to be able to pursue more confidently a difficult negotiation for withdrawal from the European Union, and she is likely to get it.

The main reason she is likely to succeed is not the popularity of Brexit, for which she has become the chief executor (after having opposed it in the referendum).  If there were a new referendum, it would probably lose, but there is not going to be one for the U.K, much as some opponents of the policy might wish. Instead, it is the weakness of the main opposition party, Labour, which gives her reason for confidence.

Jeremy Corbyn was supported strongly by the Labour party's membership, but his staunch old-left positions have little support beyond there (and there's plenty of grumbling from party colleagues who have to run behind his leadership).  Corbyn has taken the ineffective posture of grudging support for Brexit as the will of the electorate, though he was opposed (and his constituency's opposition to Brexit was lukewarm).  On the contrary, the Liberal Democrat party, almost wiped out as a parliamentary faction in the last election, has ridden its opposition to Brexit as a new raison d'etre, and stands to multiply their quota of MP's by a factor of 5-10 (which will still leave them as numerically unimportant).

The other major party which has opposed Brexit is the Scottish National Party; their stance, which is in line with the overwhelming majority of Scots, should help preserve their foothold in Parliament (and continue to undermine Labour's representation from one of their former strongholds).  The big question for the Scots is whether the SNP, and the Scottish parliament, will move to demand a new referendum on leaving the U.K. this year, or Scotland will wait until 2018 to decide, once the terms of the U.K.'s withdrawal from the E.U. should be more clear.

Middle Eastern Affairs
We start with Turkey, which had a referendum on a new constitution approved by a slender 51-49 margin last weekend.  This was a big victory for President Erdogan, giving him a lot more potential control over the political system and allowing him to remain in power another 10 years or so.  Erdogan, ever more Putinist in his methods, had stacked the deck nicely for this outcome; the voting was challenged for alleged irregularities, but the final authority on the election result was a council that Erodgan had packed with his supporters (or more precisely, purged of his opponents).  I think the best hope for Erdogan opponents is to be patient, wait for the nationalistic surge which followed last fall's coup attempt to fade, and build a never-Trumpian kind of national resistance to Erdogan, voting him out at the next opportunity by such a wide margin that he can not hope to "trump" the outcome.  They would be a long long way from that today.

I have read that President Hassan Rouhani of Iran has been approved to run for re-election by the religious council, as he would require under their constitution.  This suggests that his relatively moderate regime, which counter-balances the aggressively expansionist Revolutionary Guard faction, is meeting with the continued approval of the country's Supreme Leader Khamenei, who has shown surprising ability to outlive his potential successors.  Iran has so far stayed within the terms of the multi-party agreement which prevents it from developing nuclear weapons for ten years, though the ballistic missile test they did recently was a provocation which could easily have flared up all kids of retaliation and counter-retaliation.  So far, not a disaster.

Somewhat to my surprise, I would say the same about the US policies toward Iraq and Syria thus far in the Trump administration.  Admittedly, my bar is low--to get through four years of Trump/Pence without entering massively into a new stupid war--but we are now about one-twelfth of the way through, somewhat safely.  The attack on the Syrian airfield after the chemical weapon attack on civilians was, although contrary to international law, a reasonable warning to the Russians:  they need to perform their role as guarantor against Syria using those weapons (as was agreed during the Obama administration), and the Russians should not feel they have a free hand to do absolutely anything they want there (though it's pretty close to that).  In both Syria and Iraq, the war against ISIS is proceeding, steadily, toward military victory.  The key will be what happens in the aftermath of freeing Mosul, in Iraq, and Raqqa, in Syria, from the Islamist tyrants.

Korea
This is the area where I think we have the greatest danger of falling into that massive, stupid war.  If that happens, it will be through a miscalculation, either by our side or by North Korea's--probably not by China, Japan, or South Korea, all of which would just wish the problem (of nuclear-armed, psychotically-ruled North Korea) would just go away.

I actually agree to some extent with the Trump national security team that the policy of trying to engage North Korea constructively, which has been pursued for over 20 years, by administrations of both parties, has not worked well, and that the reason is that the North Koreans have broken every agreement. That does not determine what the policy should be, though, and one could fear the worst.

In the case of the recent US naval maneuvers and the North Korean failed missile launch, though, I think the danger was not as great as it may have seemed.  In my mind, the mission of Secretary of State Tillerson to China to discuss the North Koreans had a specific purpose:  is it your turn to cyberhack their missile launch, or is it ours?  Whichever was decided, it seemed to work.  I would suggest that we and they take turns--that way both know who's doing it, both get practice, the North Koreans will be confused by the two different attack strategies being applied to their systems, and then both China and the US can apply all their methods when the real crux of the matter comes, as it eventually will.