Forgotten Film Legend Lewis Milestone

Lewis Milestone Reading All Quiet on the Western FrontOn this day in 1895, the great film director Lewis Milestone was born. He was one of “those” directors. You know the kind: directors who did consistently excellent work but who are never really held up as great. People like Michael Curtiz. Meanwhile, people write dissertations about Alfred Hitchcock, even though the main thing I think about him is that his films never looked very good. I don’t get it.

One reason that Milestone may not have quite the reputation he deserves is that he worked his way up in the Hollywood system. As a teenager, he emigrated from the Ukraine. While serving in the army, he worked with the Signal Corps making short films like, “The Toothbrush” and “Posture.” (Really!) After that, he went to work under Henry King and eventually William Seiter, as editor, writer, and assistant director. And he made his debut as writer-director in 1925 with, Seven Sinners — a wacky silent comedy about a couple of thieves who rob a house, only to find that three other groups are doing the same thing. It sounds like a lot of fun, but good luck finding it anywhere.

Milestone is best known for making one of the greatest war films ever, All Quiet on the Western Front — for which he won an Academy Aware for Best Director, not that it means anything. When he is remembered, it is as a great director of war films. There were others such as Edge of Darkness, A Walk in the Sun, and Pork Chop Hill. But he was so much more than that. He did it all and he did it well. He directed an excellent version of The Front Page, a couple of Steinbeck stories (Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony), and even musicals like, The General Died at Dawn.

But in the 1950s, Milestone was “graylisted” — never called before Congress, it was generally believed that he was a commie sympathizer and so he found it hard to find work. I figure it actually all goes back to All Quiet on the Western Front. Real Americans, then as now, are supposed to love war all the time. So he was forced to work in television and in England. Eventually, he came back with Pork Chop Hill. Then he made the hugely successful Ocean’s 11. And then, he made the mistake of taking over for the great Carol Reed in the troubled production, Mutiny on the Bounty. (For the record, I quite like the film. I think the problem with it is that films often get reputations before they are released. Check it out if you haven’t seen it. In addition to everything else, it is gorgeous.) It lost money and he basically never worked again in feature films. (He was hired to direct a couple of films but was quickly replaced.)

He went back into television for a while and then retired — living another 16 years pretty much forgotten. He was, after all, old. And who in Hollywood wants to be around old people? He was brilliant. And who in Hollywood wants to be around brilliant people? And Hollywood owed him a lot. And who in Hollywood wants to be around someone they owe things to?

Happy birthday Lewis Milestone!

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Demigod Bill Gross Never Was

Bill GrossIf you follow the financial news, you are well aware that Bill Gross has left Pimco. In general, I do not follow the financial news, because it makes my brain hurt. But I’m well aware of Bill Gross. He’s a big bond trader with a huge reputation. I’ve never really understood it. People like him are never wizards. They are smart people, but usually depended upon a huge amount of luck. Let’s consider that for a moment, shall we?

The way bonds work is kind of weird because they work the opposite of the way that stocks do. Let’s suppose you have a stock and you think the stock price is going to go up. Then you hold onto it so that when it is worth more, you can sell for the higher price. But a bond just pays you a set amount of money. So if you think bond rates will go up, you want to sell. Let’s suppose you have a bond that pays you 2%. If you think the rate of new bonds will go up to 4%, you should sell your 2% bond now so that you can buy the new higher paying bonds when the rate goes up. That’s the kindergarten overview, which is about as much as I know. But it is enough to understand the politics.

Back in February 2011, Bill Gross decided that all of our government debt and the end of quantitative easing was going to cause US Treasury bond rates to go way up. If you follow economics at all, this must sound very familiar. Ever since Obama moved into the White House, conservatives have been screaming that the government is going to have to pay oh so much more to borrow money because… Well, to be honest, no one really has any good reasons for why this would be the case. For most people, it is just an excuse to do what they always want to do: cut Social Security. Bill Gross may be a smart guy, but I’m sure that he heard all of this. Or maybe he listens to Rush Limbaugh every day. I don’t know.

Regardless, at that time, Pimco’s Total Return fund had as much as 22% of its money invested in US Treasuries. Gross got rid of it all. The 10-year rate was then 3.7%. So Gross was betting big time that the rate was going to go up. It didn’t. Within eight months, the rate was down to 1.8%. (These are straight rates, not inflation adjusted.) It was around this time that Bill Gross wrote his angry column, The Ugly Side of Ultra-Cheap Money. You see, the problem wasn’t with his lack of understand of economics, it was those meanies at the Federal Reserve were keeping money too cheap.

This makes no sense. People either buy bonds or they don’t. And the quantitative easing that the Fed was doing was having at best a marginal effect on the economy anyway. But no matter. What’s really interesting is that Gross seems to think it is more important that people like him continue to make ridiculous sums of money rather than people like you and me have actual jobs. That is after all the trade-off. Most people would rather have jobs. But the super rich would rather get a great return on their bonds. Tighten that money supply so that people who already own things can make even more money off them!

But I was really struck by a couple of things in a column by Michael Hiltzik today, How Bill Gross and Pimco Got Too Big for Each Other. The first is just that what Gross did with Pimco is not that surprising, if you look at what happened to US Treasuries, “Since its launch in May 1987, the yield on the 10-year US Treasury bond has fallen from 8.61% to 2.52% and bond prices have risen commensurately.” Again, I don’t doubt that he’s smart and very good at his job. But as with most things, aren’t there at least a million people on the planet who would have done as well or better given his opportunities? That isn’t something I say because he works in finance. I’d say the same thing of just about every job.

More interesting is just what a weird person Gross has turned into:

At Pimco, the peculiarities of the 70-year-old Gross’ personal management style were beginning to overshadow his storied success as an investment manager. This was exposed by his widely remarked squabbling with Mohamed El-Erian, the economist who served as co-chief executive and co-chief investment officer with Gross and was once regarded as the latter’s heir-presumptive. El-Erian left Pimco earlier this year.

In the wake of El-Erian’s departure, stories leaked out about Gross’ imperious behavior — traders were forbidden to speak to him or even make eye contact on the trading floor, the Wall Street Journal reported. He brooked no discussion or debate about his trading strategies and became hostile to rising talents on the floor.

He didn’t want the little people making eye contact with him? That’s disgusting, but entirely typical of the super-rich. Gross was apparently paid $200 million per year. He has a net worth of over $2 billion. Here in the United States, we don’t have an aristocracy. He have “job creators.” Except they don’t create any jobs. And those like Bill Gross do everything they can to destroy jobs.

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Don’t Forget Cervantes

Jáuregui's CervantesEven though we’ve already had our birthday post, the day cannot go by without mentioning that Miguel de Cervantes was born on or around this day in 1547. I often find myself reminding people that I’m a bit of a Cervantes fan, even though all they have to do is look at the header of this website. The site has had three headers since it was started almost five years ago. The first was the René Magritte header, which was super cool but took up too much of the page. Then we had the phrenology header, which was interesting but I never felt comfortable with it. That’s when we came up with the current “Lego” Don Quixote header. Or rather I should say that Andrea did. She’s done all the art and all the thinking.

But the header does give one incorrect impression. Although I think the two Don Quixote novels are amazingly awesome works, it isn’t just that. Cervantes himself was a really interesting guy. He’s a lot more than those two books. He did quite a lot of great work in his later years. I think it is because he really started showing who he was on the page. It’s clear that he was a very funny guy. He had a wry outlook on life. And especially at this point in my life, I need that.

Life and Times

Cervantes is also my kind of guy. He always wanted to be a poet, but he wasn’t from a rich family and he wasn’t a very good poet. So he joined the army and went off to war. This was at a time when soldiers had to be hunter-gatherers to get fed. They often waited years to get paid. Spain was at war with the Ottoman Empire, and Cervantes fought bravely — even heroically. In the process, he lost one of his hands. It has never been clear to me whether it was amputated or simply useless. Regardless, on his way back to Spain, he was captured by Algerian pirates. Because of some mix-ups in communication, his captors became convinced that he was well connected and thus would bring a high ransom. He wasn’t and didn’t. He spent five years in captivity, during which time he tried escaping four times — a couple of them quite involved schemes. Eventually, his family was able to provide a small ransom and get him released.

On his return, he tried to get a military commission, but the government wasn’t interested. He continued to write plays, but no one was really interested in them either. This is about the time that he and Lope de Vega became literary enemies. Cervantes was a traditionalist, as far as theater was concerned. And de Vega was revolutionizing the theater. It’s an interesting irony that when Cervantes finally found success by revolutionizing the novel, de Vega was disparaging.

Regardless, without any other way to make ends meet, Cervantes became a tax collector. This does not mean what you probably think. He would go into townships and negotiate with the entire town to pay what it owed. These negotiations could go on for months and Cervantes didn’t have a great deal of leverage. What was worse was that like being in the military, the government only paid him afterwards — often long afterwards. And they provided no stipend for him to get by on while working in the field.

Because of this work, he was twice thrown in prison because of irregularities in his accounting. One time it was simply a matter that he deposited government money in a bank that went bankrupt. So you can see, life for people like Cervantes was not easy and it was extremely unfair. He had constant financial problems throughout his life, although things did seem to get a bit better at the end.

The way publishing was done at that time was a writer sold a work to a publisher. That was all the money the writer got. The publisher owned it. (It is technically different now, but as any writer will tell you, don’t expect to make much more than your advance.) So when Don Quixote Part 1 was a huge hit, it didn’t make Cervantes rich. But it did make it much easier for him to publish things — and for more money. And this is when he wrote his greatest works such as Exemplary Stories, Eight Comedies and Eight New Interludes, Never Before Acted, and his masterpiece, Don Quixote Part 2.

Appearance

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article, This is Not Cervantes. It is about that image at top of this article. Everyone uses it because it is the only thing we have that might be considered an image of him. In his preface to Exemplary Stories, Cervantes talks about how a young artist could have painted a portrait of him to go into the book. As Cervantes’ scholar Melveena McKendrick noted:

This innocent remark, which could be taken to mean either that Cervantes had been painted by Jáuregui or that the painter could, if asked, produce such a portrait, predictably sent posterity haring off on a wild goosechase in an effort to discover the authentic likeness of the great man. But alas, there is none, and the portrait most often reproduced as being that of Cervantes, dated 1600, bearing the name Jáuregui and entitled Don Miguel de Cervantes, is not genuine… The painting is almost certainly a nineteenth-century fraud.

We have the same problem with Shakespeare. There is no painting or etching of him from when he was alive. The closest we come is a sculpture on his tomb, where he looks rather bloated, that was doubtless done from his corpse. Better than nothing, but forget all those images you’ve seen. Regardless, it doesn’t really matter what either man looked like. At least Cervantes was good enough to provide us with a self mocking description of his appearance in Exemplary Stories:

This person whom you see here, with an oval visage, chestnut hair, smooth open forehead, lively eyes, a hooked but well-proportioned nose, & silvery beard that twenty years ago was golden, large moustache, a small mouth, teeth not much to speak of, for he has but six, in bad condition and worse placed, no two of them corresponding to each other, a figure midway between the two extremes, neither tall nor short, a vivid complexion, rather fair than dark, somewhat stooped in the shoulders, and not very lightfooted…

Plays

Cervantes wrote at least eight full length plays. They are generally not well regarded. But I wouldn’t know. I’ve never read them. Just recently, his two best regarded plays The Bagnios of Algiers and The Great Sultana have been translated by Barbara Fuchs and Aaron Ilika in, Two Plays of Captivity. More important to me, no one has ever translated Eight Comedies and Eight New Interludes, Never Before Acted. There are individual plays translated here or there. Some day I may do it myself.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about Cervantes’ short comedy, The Cave of Salamanca. It is very funny. Here is the beginning of it from a translation by Edwin Honig:

[Enter Pancracio, Leonarda and Cristina]

pancracio: Mistress, dry those tears and stop your sighing. Remember, I’ll be away four days, not centuries. On the fifth day, at the latest, I’ll be back, God preserve me. But if it upsets you so, just say the word and I’ll break my promise and give up the trip altogether. Surely my sister can get married there without me.

leonarda: Pancracio, dear lord and master, I don’t want you to be discourteous because of me. Go now, God speed you, and meet your obligation, since the matter is so pressing. My grief I’ll keep to myself and spend the lonely hours as best I can. Only, I beg you to come back and not stay any longer than you promised. Oh, help me, Cristina, I’ve a pain in my heart!

[Leonarda faints]

cristina: Ah, weddings and holidays—such dreadful things! Indeed, sir, if I were you, I’d never go there.

pancracio: Run inside, girl, and get me a glass of water to throw in her face. No, wait, I know a few magic words I’ll whisper in her ear: they can revive people who faint.

[He speaks the words and Leonarda recovers, saying]

leonarda: Enough. It can’t be helped. I must be patient. My dear, the more you linger, the longer you delay my happiness. You friend Leoniso should be waiting for you in the carriage. God be with you and bring you back as quickly and safely as I could wish.

pancracio: If you want me to stay, my angel, I’ll be like a statue and not budge an inch.

leonarda: No, no, sweet comfort. Your wish is my desire, which means you must leave and not stay here, for your honor and mine are one and the same.

cristina: Oh, mirror of matrimony! If all wives cherished their husbands as my mistress loves hers, they’d sing a different tune.

leonarda: Go get my shawl, Cristiana. I must see your master safely off in his carriage.

pancracio: No, I beg you. Kiss me, but stay here, please. Cristina, be sure and cheer up your mistress, and I’ll get you a pair of shoes when I return.

cristina: On your way, sir, and don’t you worry about my mistress. I’ll see to it we both enjoy ourselves so she won’t miss your absence.

leonarda: Enjoy myself? Me? What a fantastic idea! Without my love beside me, I can know no bliss or joy, only grief and sorrow.

pancracio: I cannot bear this any longer. Ah, light of my eyes, farewell; I’ll see nothing to delight me will I gave upon you once again.

[Exit Pancracio]

leonarda: Good-bye, and good riddance to you! Go, and don’t come back! Vanish, go up like smoke in thin air! Good God, this time all your bluster and squeamishness don’t move me a bit!

cristina: And I was afraid your sweet nothings would keep him here and spoil our fun.

leonarda: Do you think our guest will really come tonight?

cristina: And why not? I’ve been in touch with them, and they’re just dying to come.

Cervantes was a little devil. Eventually the husband’s carriage breaks down and he comes back and it all turns into something like a Marx Brothers movie.

Translations

When it comes to Don Quixote I still get asked a lot what translation is the best — or at least which one they should read. The standard answer to that is, “Anything but Peter Motteux.” But in general, I wouldn’t even go that far. I would say you should read any copy you can get your hands on. The standard translation is John Ormsby’s, which is absolutely free and available in a number of formats from the Gutenberg Project. Walter Starkie’s 1957 translation seems to always be available in abundance at book sales for a quarter. Or you could get The Portable Cervantes, that provides Samuel Putnam’s lightly abridged Don Quixote, two stories from Exemplary Stories, and a tiny bit of The Troubles of Persiles and Sigismunda.

I don’t think it is necessary to pay more for one of the recent translations like the one by Edith Grossman. But if you do, I would recommend taking a walk on the wild side and trying one by Burton Raffel or John Rutherford. But like I said, it doesn’t too much matter. Since Cervantes is above all a character-oriented writer, his voice comes through regardless.

The main thing to remember is that both the books are a romp. They are comedies. Cervantes had a keen eye for the absurdity of life and people and it finds its greatest expression in Don Quixote. And given that, it is perfectly all right to skip the poetry, which is, with very few exceptions, mediocre. And that’s when it is well translated. Grossman, for example, doesn’t even pretend to care.

Cervantes is still alive. If you read him.

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Dean Baker on the Vicissitude of the Marketplace

Dean BakerOf course the problem of the last three decades is not the “vicissitudes of the marketplace,” but rather deliberate actions by the government to redistribute income from the rest of us to the one percent. This pattern of government action shows up in all areas of government policy.

For example an explicit goal of our trade policy is to put our manufacturing workers in direct competition with low paid workers in the developing world. This has the predicted actual result of driving down the wages of manufacturing workers and less-educated workers more generally. At the same time we deliberately depress their wages we largely protect the most highly paid professionals (eg doctors, lawyers, and dentists) from the same sort of international competition.

The government has strengthened and lengthened patent and copyright monopolies. This allows for absurdities like a treatment with the hepatitis C drug Sovaldi costing $84,000 when the drug would sell on the free market for less than $1,000. There would be no hand-wringing moral dilemmas about treating people with hepatitis C at less than $1,000 per person. If we just had a free market the government would not be putting people behind bars for 16 months for allowing people to download recorded material.

The vicissitudes of the market would also not have bailed out the Wall Street banks, ensuring that many of the top 0.1 percent or 0.01 percent did not lose their fortunes due to their own greed and ineptitude. It also wouldn’t exempt the financial sector from the same sort of taxes imposed on all other industries. And the vicissitudes of the market would not have a Federal Reserve Board that is prepared to raise interest rates in order to keep people from getting jobs and keep workers from having enough bargaining power to get wage increases.

—Dean Baker
The Vicissitudes of the Market Would Be a Big Improvement

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Tribal Atheism

Seth AndrewsOver the weekend, I heard a talk by Seth Andrews. He’s a prominent atheist who runs The Thinking Atheist podcast. He is very good, which is not surprising. He had worked in Christian broadcasting before becoming an atheist. And he has a gorgeous radio voice and he’s pretty smart and knowledgeable. But I made the mistake of listening to more of his work. None of it is bad. It is just that he presents an extremely common and troubling outlook on life.

Again and again, he talks about atheism in terms of science and what we can prove. Most annoyingly, he claims to base his life on rational thought. It is such an arrogant view. And untrue! We humans are very strange and how we make decisions is only very slowly coming into any kind of focus. But what we do know is that we aren’t nearly as rational as we think we are.

Belief in God, at least today, is more silly than irrational. Most people believe in God for the same reason they vote Republican or root for the Raiders — it’s a cultural thing and they really don’t think much about it. The houses build by fundamentalist Christians are generally as sound as those build by atheists. So theists may be misguided in their belief in specific myths, but they aren’t irrational in a general sense.

I never believed in God. From a fairly young age — from about the time I understood what death was — I wanted to believe in God. But it always seemed too stupid to believe in. Even at the age of ten, I could not see any more reason to believe in Jesus than to believe in the Greek myths I read about in school or the Norse gods I saw in comic books. So perhaps I have a different approach to atheism. I didn’t start off in one culture and move to another. So it isn’t necessary for me to make religious belief or non-belief into a tribal issue. And I believe this is what Andrews has done.

Hemant MehtaThat doesn’t mean that Andrews is bad. He’s actually charmingly inclusive. One thing I really like is that when I listen to him, I feel like I am an atheist. Too many in the atheist community make me feel like I’m a heretic. But a big part of why Andrews includes the great range of non-believers is just that he is so focused on his former Christianity. And I’m glad he clawed his way out of that tribal association. But let’s not go too far in claiming the intellectual high ground.

Much better than Andrews is Hemant Mehta of The Friendly Atheist. Of course I would think that: he is a former math teacher. But as much as I like him, he exhibits some of the same issues. For example, I came upon the following video, “Atheists, where did the universe come from?” I was very exited to see that title, because too few atheists will even engage with the question. But I was really unhappy with his answer:

I don’t have a problem with the answer, “We just don’t know!” That’s a perfectly fine, if incredibly boring, answer. But he makes a critical mistake in framing the question as he does. He says, “Scientists can come up with theories of what may have been there [before the big bang], but the truth is, right now — and maybe forever — we won’t be able to answer that question definitively.” This makes the same mistake that theists make when they claim that God created the universe: it just pushes the question back a step. What if scientists proved that our universe is just part of a multiverse? That would be no more final an answer than the Big Bang is.

When it comes to this ultimate ontological question, I find science and theology equally useless. But theologians understand that the existence of “God” is a real problem — that it must exist in a form that we cannot comprehend because of our being locked into this universe. Scientists largely don’t see the real problem. They are like mechanical engineers thinking that they might figure out the structure of the periodic table by building better bridges. They won’t, because they aren’t even approaching the question.

I understand that we ask the kind of questions that we have tools to answer, and we really don’t have the tools to answer this question. But what a great opportunity this provides! There ought to be common ground here among scientists and theists. The scientists ought to look out at the universe as the theists look out at “God.” Because it is the same thing: the great unknown. I understand that theists are, in general, annoying in their dogma and fear of anything that might counter it. But they aren’t any more irrational than anyone else. What’s irrational is the universe.

I think that people who claim to be science-based and rational are generally people who don’t understand science all that well. Science is a fantastic tool for learning things about the universe. But it is, thus far, limited to the universe. And math has shown us that logic itself is not necessarily consistent if you push it far enough. Thus I see no contradiction between science, atheism, mysticism, and macro-scale rationality. Who wants to join my tribe?

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Brutal and Brilliant Life of Caravaggio

Detail of Supper at Emmaus of Caravaggio - CaravaggioOn this day in 1572 (maybe), the great Baroque painter Caravaggio was born. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that he was the inventor of Baroque painting. There is no doubt that he was hugely influential in its earliest development. Baroque painting was a response to Mannerism. Where as Mannerism was highly intellectual and artificial, Baroque painting was dramatic. Artists played a lot with light and shadow and they showed scenes in medias res — things were already happening.

Take for example, everyone’s favor Old Testament story: Judith’s Beheading of Holofernes. It tells the story of the Jewish widow Judith who is none too happy about what pussies the Israelite men are being about the Assyrians. So she goes and visits the Assyrian commander, Holofernes. She gets cozy with him, promising him intelligence about the Israelites, and probably more, if you know what I mean. So she enters his tent one night when he is passed out drunk. And she cuts off his head and brings it back to the Israelites to inspire them. It’s amazing that people not only let their children read this stuff, they tell them it is the most moral Book in the world.

Anyway, a great example of a Mannerist approach to this painting was done by Cristofano Allori, where we just see it after the fact, with Judith holding Holofernes’ head while her maid looks on. (It’s still a great painting!) Caravaggio, provided a Baroque approach, which I think you will agree is very dramatic:

Judith Beheading Holofernes - Caravaggio

Not all of Caravaggio’s work is so cold blooded. Much of it is really quite sweet. But it is always quite dramatic with very rich colors and lots of light and shadow.

As for his character, well, it seems to not have been so great. He was a hard drinking man, much inclined to bar brawls. In 1606, he killed a young man in a brawl, and had to flee Rome. He continued to work and to get into trouble. And along the way, unsuccessful attempts were made on his life. He made a lot of enemies. He died in 1610 at the age of only 36. It is unclear exactly why. Murder is a good possibility. Despite his brief life, there are over 80 known paintings of his. And given the great detail of them, that is a lot. He was probably the greatest painter of his time — and extremely fast.

Happy birthday Caravaggio!

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Tom Cotton’s Idealism Is Cheaply Bought

Tom CottonI have a certain fondness for political extremists. We have far too much middle-of-the-road thinking with few people willing to stand up for anything. This is especially true of the nominal left of the political spectrum. On the right, there are a lot more of what we might call true believers. The problem is that, in general, these people are every bit as spineless as the middle-of-the-road caucus. A great example came my way via Jonathan Chait, Tom Cotton Is Now the Perfect Republican.

Tom Cotton is currently a Republican Representative from Arkansas who is now running for Senate against Mark Pryor. But earlier this year, he voted against the Farm Bill. This did not go over very well. The president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau said that he was “disappointed” by the vote. Now, Cotton is fighting back. In the following commercial, he claims, “When President Obama hijacked the farm bill, turned it into a food stamp bill, with billions more in spending, I voted no. Career politicians love attaching bad ideas to good ones. Then the bad ideas become law, and you pay for it.” I’ll get to everything that’s wrong with this in a moment, but watch it. It’s a highly effective ad:

As everyone should know, the Farm Bill and food stamps have been bundled for decades. There was a political reason for this: it created a coalition of Representatives from rural and urban areas. But there is an ethical reason as well: much of the Farm Bill consists of price floors, which makes food cost more. As a result, it is just a matter of fairness to help the poor pay for food made expensive by government regulation. So it is a baldfaced lie to say that Obama hijacked the farm bill and turned it into a food stamp bill. Cotton and his extremist colleagues hijacked the Farm Bill and tried to make it only apply to wealthy farmers.

But here’s the thing: if that’s what you believe in, own it. I believe we should get rid of the Farm Bill and just have an independent food stamp program. The poor need help. Farmers are not poor. It is no longer the Great Depression. The Farm Bill is one of the most egregious examples of corporate welfare in the country. Cotton is like the vast majority of Republicans: he wants to shovel ever more money to the already rich and screw the poor as much as possible. If that’s what he believes — and he does — then he should own it.

But the Daily Kos polling has Cotton ahead of Mark Pryor by 4.5 percentage points. Cotton doesn’t need to stand for anything or do anything for his constituencies. All he has to do is promise that he’s going to get “those” people and he will be swept into office. For almost fifty years, the Republicans have won election after election and pushed the country far to the right by appealing to the white majority’s latent racism.

And I really don’t know what Americans think they get for all this. Reagan rode into the White House in 1981 promising to get that mythical welfare queen. And now we’ve had five consecutive presidents who have done almost nothing for average Americans even while the economy has growth quite well. Reagan and Clinton have managed to make the poor poorer, so I guess they were true to their word. But is this what the American middle class will accept? Is it good enough to see themselves go further into debt and not see their living standards rise, as long as they can have the thrill of watching the poor writhe ever more in pain?

I guess this is how great empires fall now. But I think ritual sacrifices to the gods was actually less cruel.

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The Brother from Another Planet After 3 Decades

The Brother from Another PlanetSince today is John Sayles’ birthday, and I always write the article the day before, I ended up watching The Brother from Another Planet last night. I haven’t seen it since about the time it came out in 1984. I remembered liking it, but it didn’t affect me the way it did last night. It is absolutely a great film. It’s interesting. On Netflix, it’s average rating was 3.2 stars — pretty bad by Netflix user standards. It gave a “best guess” of 4.8 stars, and I ended up giving it 5 stars. I’m a pretty easy grader of films: I give out a lot of 4 star ratings, but 5 stars are rare.

The film is quite low budget — just $350,000 according to Wikipedia. And it has an episodic quality to it that could so easily turn into a boring mess. But it has what Coriolanus did not: a really compelling lead character, played perfectly by Joe Morton. It’s not that The Brother is nice and Coriolanus is not. I can be pulled through a narrative if there is something to be discovered about the main character. But there really is nothing to be learned about Coriolanus; he’s just an efficient warrior who is too filled with himself.

Of course in this film, we learn many things about The Brother. The most important thing we learn is that he is an escaped slave from another planet. And this is disclosed when he takes the little boy to an art exhibit featuring images from American slavery. It’s a beautiful moment. But there are others that range from sweet to silly, such as his detachable eye that stores video — kind of the 1984 version of Google Glasses.

It’s hard not to keep comparing The Brother from Another Planet with Coriolanus. The two films are almost complete opposites. Coriolanus is all about how a single remarkable man goes about maximizing his freedom with total disdain for the freedom of others. The Brother is all about a far more remarkable man who is worried about the freedom of everyone. And ultimately, his altruism causes the community to rally around him and assure his own freedom.

Much of the second half of the film is about The Brother becoming something of a private detective to find out the source of drugs on the street. This too is presented as a kind of slavery, as indeed it is — even if I think it is not so much the pushers as the laws of the power elite that enslave people.

Above all, The Brother from Another Planet is a romp — and a very funny one too. It is the most creative fish out of water film I’ve ever seen. You don’t need to see that it provides a kind of gritty utopian vision of the world to fall in love with it. Of course, if you are looking for realism or serious science fiction, you won’t find it here. The Brother from Another Planet is more like a fable or a tall tale. I think it is a wonderful film for kids too, but I just checked and it is rated “R” for “language, some drug content, and brief nudity.” Maybe so, but there is an opportunity cost: your children will miss out on this beautiful imagining of the world as it could be. Regardless, more adults need to see it. We can make the world a better place — together.

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Why Ayn Rand Was a Proto-Fascist

Ayn RandI was thinking of something while writing, Ralph Fiennes Makes Coriolanus Even More Fascist. In that article, I referred to “[Ayn] Rand’s proto-fascist philosophy.” And I fear that many people would take exception to this. I know that my first wife would argue that Rand didn’t believe in violence, for example. Well, as I discussed in Ayn Rand and Indians, this isn’t really true. Like most political radicals, she often fell into apologetics on behalf of violence for her cause.

Rand is a strange character. She considered herself a philosopher. But she is a great example of the Dunning–Kruger effect. This describes how the less someone knows about a subject, the more they overestimate their abilities in it. So Rand claimed that all of her work sprang from Aristotle and she got nothing from anyone else. At the same time, she never missed an opportunity to bash Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. She misunderstood Kant to such a level that it is quite embarrassing. But much more problematic for her was her relationship with Nietzsche.

The whole of Rand’s philosophy is pretty much Nietzsche as understood by a 16-year-old boy. And this is why I call her proto-fascist. Her idea of the übermensch goes right along with fascist thinking of the 1920s and 1930s. Her major works didn’t come until long afterward. Her philosophical work didn’t really start until the late 1950s, following Atlas Shrugged. So she was forced to spin her thinking that was largely in accordance with fascism as something else. Instead of the elevation (in theory anyway) of the worker in communism, she elevated the businessman. But this really is little different from fascism. And on a practical level, the elimination of the state would only lead to a country of “makers” and, not “moochers,” but serfs.

But if you find this all too theoretical. Let’s talk about rape. In The Fountainhead, Roark rapes Dominique. Rand did later justify herself against criticism by saying it was, “rape by engraved invitation.” But her notes from the writing of the novel show that this was not what she meant when writing it. Then, in her play Night of January 16th, Bjorn Faulkner rapes Karen Andre. Yes, Ayn Rand had some real emotional hangups and if you are interested in them, read Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. The point is that Rand admired the idea of Hitler’s “brutal youth.” Sure, she softened it and created apologias for it. How could she not after Hitler and Stalin? But that was what she was pitching.

The kind of social Darwinian thinking that so many on the right have is undercut by one problem: actual Darwinian evolution. Humans are animals of both individualistic traits and communal traits. So both “sides” of the debate are wrong. The communists were wrong to think that we can all work together for the common good. People need to feel special and distinguish themselves from others. But the counter to that, Rand’s thinking or libertarianism more generally are wrong for thinking that all that motivates us is personal gain. We are hungry, we take food; we are horny, we take a woman we find attractive. If that’s how we really were, we would have gone extinct tens of thousands of years ago.

Some will note that fascism was a communal system as well. It really wasn’t. It was a pure social Darwinian system that was sold being for the good of the masses. We mustn’t mistake the marketing for the message. Ayn Rand had the luxury of being more blunt because she wasn’t a politician — just a cult leader. But she wanted an anti-democratic world where “great” men just take what they want and everyone cowers before them as befits the demigods.

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Democrats’ Senate Chances Crumbling

Psycho SenatorRecently, it’s looked rather hopeful for the Democrats holding the Senate. I am sorry to report that things look much worse now. There are two reasons for this: one not surprising at all, but the other quite surprising. The first reason is that we are finally getting some good polling out of Alaska, and Mark Begich is doing very poorly. Up until now, I’ve been skeptical about his chances, regardless. I mean: it’s Alaska. They get far more from the federal government than they pay in taxes. So of course their people would be conservative and want to get rid of all that welfare that goes to them.

The surprise is in Colorado. Mark Udall is suddenly losing badly to Cory Gardner, who is a conservative freak. In Alaska, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. But this is Colorado. Of course, you may remember the recall election in Colorado last year. Two state senators were removed, even though what they did was hugely popular. So how did they lose? The usual way: only the right wing nut jobs came out to vote.

The only real hope for the Democrats at this point is that the big get-out-the-vote effort will make a difference. And it could in Colorado. I’m not too hopeful in Alaska. So at this point, we’d have to say that the best case scenario for the Democrats is that they hold 49 seats in the Senate. And if the Republicans have the majority, I don’t know what that means for Kansas where Orman hasn’t said who he will caucus with.

As of today, here are what the models say with the most likely number of seats and the percent chance the Democrats have of keeping the Senate:

I’m not sure what is going on with the Princeton model. The numbers I listed were the daily snapshot. But the election day model still predicts a 70% chance of the Democrats holding the Senate. And the meta-margin is Republicans +0.4%. Regardless, looking at all these numbers, it is hard not to conclude that the Democrats will have 48 seats in the Senate starting next year.

Also worth noting, it assumes that even with Republicans getting the majority, Orman will still caucus with the Democrats. That may be the case. It is almost certain that the Democrats will take back the Senate in 2016 and I expect them to hold in 2018. So long term, being with the Democrats would give him more power. But caucusing with the Republicans might make his re-election in 2020 easier. And it is not clear he’s going to win. More recent polling makes that race closer than it had been.

A couple of week ago, I read about a poll that found that a majority of Americans trust the Republicans more than the Democrats on the economy. When I read that, alarm bells went off. I think the Democrats are terrible on the economy. But what could possibly make people think that the Republicans are better on the economy? They have done nothing but drag down the economy since Obama entered the White House. Let me summarize their economic thinking:

The only way to help the economy is to give us complete control in Washington. Then we will do what we always do: savage social programs and give huge tax cuts to the rich. Until we have complete control in Washington, we will everything we can to destroy the economy.

In other words: in the majority or the minority, they will destroy the economy, but they will be more able to do it with complete power. The fact that after decades of bad Republican economic policy, the people still think it is a good idea is a good example of why our country is dying. And I fear it is like a virus that will eventually destroy the world. We don’t need dictators in the United States, when politicians can so effectively manipulate the people into voting against their own interests. And the rest of the people have become so disillusioned that they don’t even vote.

Let me make a personal appeal. If you care about my health: vote. I’m not asking much. I’m not even telling you how to vote. Because I believe in democracy. I believe when everyone votes, we get good policy. When only the cranks who want to screw all “those” people, well, we get government by, for, and of the super rich. Just vote. Vote. Vote. It’s that simple: vote.


Image altered from one by Internet Weekly.

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