In Which I Discuss Gus Van Sant One More Time

GerryAbout a year before making Elephant, Gus Van Sant headed out into the wilderness with Casey Affleck and Matt Damon made Gerry—an improvised drama based upon the Kodikian and Coughlin story, which had happened just a few years earlier. Very little happens in the movie. Two guys go hiking. They get lost. They are near death. Affleck asks Damon to kill him and is rewarded with being strangled. Then Damon finds they are right by a highway. The film ends with him in a car, being driven away as he looks at the scenery.

I wrote before that Elephant moved at a glacial pace. Well, I need a new adjective. Gerry moves at a geological pace. There is one five minute shot of the two actors walking in profile. It is an amazing moment in the film. I could hardly believe that it went on so long. And most of the movie is like that: a long shot of the two guys walking; a close up of the two guys walking; several minutes of clouds; the two guys talk about what they should do. Repeat until running time equals an hour and forty minutes.

And yet, I found it impossible to turn away. The shots are beautiful. There is a relentless dramatic momentum. The biggest problem with the film is its dialog scenes. Most of these sound improvised by actors who are hardly masters at the art form. Nonetheless, as a viewer, I wanted to know how it was all going to go horribly wrong. Let’s face it, a director doesn’t show you long images of storm clouds gathering when a happy ending is on the menu.

Gerry is not a film you are likely to watch twice. If you want to experience something like this, you are better off with just about any Jim Jarmusch film. Dead Man comes to mind, but Down By Law would work as well. But it was an interesting artistic attempt. And it has me very eager to watch Restless, which has received bad reviews but looks to be much more lyrical than usual for Van Sant. But the main thing is that I think his work is worth checking out—just not if you’ve seen it advertised anywhere.

America Training Death Squads in Afghanistan

Glenn GreenwaldOn Sunday, I reported on Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s allegations of American military torture and murder of civilians in that country. My article mostly discussed the assumption of Americans that Karzai had to be posturing because of course Americans never do anything like that. Since then there has been more reporting. Now it looks like these acts may have been perpetrated by clandestine militias. According to Matthew Rosenberg of the New York Times, the US military and CIA have been training these “death squads” for years. And they are doing just what we taught them to do.

But it is still possible it is American forces. Glenn Greenwald directs us to an incident from 2010 when the military killed a bunch of innocents and then tried to cover it up:

As but one illustrative example: in 2010, as I wrote at the time, US forces in the Paktia Province, after surrounding a home where a celebration of a new birth was taking place, shot dead two male civilians (government officials) who exited the house in order to inquire why they had been surrounded, and then shot and killed three female relatives (a pregnant mother of ten, a pregnant mother of six, and a teenager). When local villagers loudly complained, the Pentagon lied about what happened, claiming that the dead males were “insurgents” or terrorists; the bodies of the three women had been found by US forces bound and gagged inside the home, and suggested that the women had already been killed by the time the US had arrived, likely the victim of “honor killings” by the Taliban militants killed in the attack. US media outlets, needless to say, mindlessly recited the US government’s claims (CNN: “Bodies found gagged, bound after Afghan ‘honor killing'”), but the Pentagon was finally forced to admit that its Special Forces had killed the women and then covered-up and lied about what happened.

Once again: my intent here is not to blame the United States, although even under the best case scenario, it seems that we are quite culpable. And this has nothing at all to do with making our government or military look bad. It is just that I’ve noticed that the only way to grow as a person is to admit when you are wrong. If you can’t admit this, you just keep doing the same bad things over and over. The same is true of the United States. We still haven’t really admitted that we spent much of the last ten years torturing people in our custody. And now we know that we are continuing to outsource this work to others. I have a three step plan:

  1. Admit what we did was wrong.
  2. Stop doing it.
  3. Move on.

We are not perfect. By admitting that, we can become more so. What’s going on in Afghanistan is heartbreaking. But it is also embarrassing.

God and Teen Pregnancy

Sarah KliffThis is from Sarah Kliff over at Wonk Blog. The Guttmacher Institute put together this map based upon teen pregnancy rates in 2008. For some strange reason, Kliff spends a whole article talking about how New Mexico has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any state. It turns out that the state doesn’t mandate sex education in high school. And the rate of teen women on birth control is low. But really: who cares?

Look at the map below; do notice a pattern? There are minor patterns, of course. It seems that living in the middle of nowhere like Wyoming keeps pregnancy down—maybe because everyone knows what everyone else is doing; or maybe because everyone’s afraid that Dick Cheney will show up. It also seems that living in a crowded and urbane state tends to push up pregnancy rates—maybe its the pheromones. But that’s not the clearest pattern.

Most of the deep south, where God and abstinence only sex education are gonna keep our little uns safe has the highest levels of teen pregnancy. Like all good conservatives, they just know that their baseless, anti-scientific beliefs are true. You know the story of the little conservative who thought it so? He spent his whole life spinning his wheels and never noticed.

Teen Pregnancy Map

I think it’s so; I think it’s so; I think it’s so; I think it’s so; I think it’s so; I think it’s so…


There is also a high teen pregnancy rate in Delaware. I assume this is because of Joe Biden. The girls just can’t resist him.

Republican Winning

Greg SargentI really like Greg Sargent; I read his The Plum Line blog throughout the day. In particular, his gang (him along with Jamelle Bouie and Jonathan Bernstein) see the world pretty similarly to I.[1] But in his coverage of the Sequester, I’m afraid that Sargent is allowing Republicans to win.

The dynamic is an old one that Republicans are really good at using. They stake out some extreme proto-fascist position and insist upon it. The Democrats move to the right to meet them. The Republicans continue to insist they won’t compromise. The professional centrists, of course, lament that the two parties just can’t agree. And the liberals defend the Democrats by noting that the Republicans are being unreasonable. Eventually, a deal is reached that is far to the right of what Democrats would normally want, but all the liberals rejoice because the Democrats “won.”

The problem is that the Republicans won: they ended up with more than they could ever have reasonably expected. And this isn’t just true of particular battles. Right now, we live with an extremely conservative government. With a Democratic White House, we get policy that Nixon and even Reagan couldn’t have dreamed of. Look at Supreme Court nominees! The great “liberal” justice John Paul Stevens just retired. He was put on the court by Ford. So we won’t be dancing in the streets anytime soon.

I bring this up because this morning, Sargent wrote, The false Equivalence Pundits Are Part of the Problem. Everything he writes in the column is correct. But it is arguing on the conservatives’ ground. David Brooks isn’t make his ridiculous “Obama is to blame!” arguments because he seriously thinks that Obama is to blame. He is making these arguments so that we liberals will fight with him while the Republicans manage to pull the country ever to the right.

I don’t know what to do about this. I fall into this same trap. And let’s fact it: it is hard to get people to pay attention to an argument to eliminate the sequester altogether when the Republicans use this tactic. Also: the Democrats are the real problem here—Barack “Let’s negotiate with ourselves!” Obama especially. But there must be some way to counter the conservative offensive. The first step, perhaps, is to not accept David Brooks’ claim that he is a moderate.

[1] I know that “I” sounds awkward, but it is correct. If I used “me” it would indicate that they see the world the same way they see me.

What Republicans Do, Not What They Say

Ezra KleinEzra Klein hosted The Last Word last night and he said that he didn’t understand what the Republicans were doing regarding the Sequester negotiations (or lack thereof). As he understands it, the Republicans have five basic policy goals in the budget discussion: (1) cut the deficit; (2) cut entitlement spending; (3) protect defense spending; (4) simplify the tax code; and (5) lower tax rates. He notes that by compromising with the White House, Republicans can attain the first four of these five goals. So why aren’t they?

As I wrote about yesterday and the day before, the Republicans don’t care about the deficit. So they don’t care about policy goal number one. They do care about entitlement cuts, but hurting the poor is not nearly as important as helping the rich. What’s more, they know that entitlement cuts are unpopular so they are very careful about them, even as they constantly call for entitlement “reform.” So policy goal number two is out. Sure, they don’t like defense spending cuts, but one must have one’s priorities. And they don’t care at all about simplifying the tax code. There goes policy goals three and four!

Of the five policy goals Klein lists, number five is by far the biggest priority. And that’s the one they don’t get with the White House deal. So on the surface, it looks like such a deal is an 80% winner (4 out of 5). But if you weight the list correctly, you see it is more like a 90% loser. For the umteenth time: funneling money to the rich trumps all else for Republicans.

This morning, Jonathan Chait notes in a longish article about the Republican plans for the Sequester, he notes something important about policy goal four, simplifying the tax code:

Republicans in Congress never actually wanted to raise revenue by tax reform. The temporary support for tax reform was just a hand-wavy way of deflecting Obama’s popular campaign plan to expire the Bush tax cuts for the rich. Conservative economists in academia may care about the distinction between marginal tax rates and effective tax rates. But Republicans in Congress just want rich people to pay less, period. I can state this rule confidently because there is literally not a single example since 1990 of any meaningful bloc of Republicans defying it.

This is the same thing that happened with the individual mandate that became Obamacare. The Republicans were never actually for it. They were only offering it up as a policy they hated less than some of the good policies liberals were then pushing like a single-payer system. Once they didn’t have to worry about any liberal plan being enacted, they were against the conservative plan.

I can’t call what Ezra and Matt are doing false equivalence. But it is related. They are scratching their heads trying to figure out why Republicans are behaving so strangely. It doesn’t equate them to the Democrats, but it does give them more credit than they deserve. The reason why some of us see this more clearly is that we don’t listen to what Republicans claim; we watch what they do. And that is painfully clear.

Stuart Stevens’ Bizarre Apologia

Stuart StevensStuart Stevens was Romney’s chief campaign strategist. And I have a certain fondness for him, which I’ve discussed before. But he just wrote a bizarre OpEd over at the Washington Post, The GOP Revival Must Go Beyond Joining Twitter. He does give some lip service to this question. But really: is this what anyone is saying? Republicans lost the last election because they didn’t have good enough social networking? What is bizarre, however, is that he quickly drops discussion of this issue at all.

For the rest of the OpEd, he just rambles on about this and that. At the beginning, he seems to be defending himself against the argument that Romney lost because his campaign was bad. I will admit that there are some who are making that argument, but I’m not one of them. Romney’s campaign was fine. And it wasn’t the 47% remark either. So I’m open to a Stevens defense on this issue. But his defense was just pathetic.

Stevens claims that young people voted for Obama because he was offering them the gift of free contraception. And old people voted for Romney because they “are more concerned with the economy than with same-sex marriage.” Yeah, those retired people on fixed incomes are really concerned about the job market, unlike those free wheeling young people! This is quite clearly the same line of argument that Romney used when he said that Obama gave “extraordinary financial gifts” to Latinos and others.

The big problem with this is not that Obama didn’t give political gifts to voters. The problem is that this is what all politicians do. More to the point: this is what Romney did in a much more obvious way. All that talk about putting back the $700 billion that Obama took out of Medicare? Does Romney really what us to believe that he was doing that because it was good policy rather than just politics? But even more concerning: does Stuart Stevens believe this same claptrap?

After that shameful display, Stevens finally says something smart, “A Republican renaissance will inevitably be driven by policy.” But that’s the extent of his intelligence. He then goes on to argue that the Republican Party will be just fine. They are just one election cycle away from being relevant again. There is an ounce of truth here. Given the right circumstances, the Republicans could win the White House in 2016 or 2020. But that hardly means that the party is back. It still faces big challenges that a demographics defying presidential race win will only make harder to solve.

To top it off, he dismisses the Democratic Party in 2016 as being either of the old candidates Clinton or Biden. He contrasts them to the usual list of supposedly great young Republicans (e.g. Rubio). He’s making a couple of mistakes here. One is that someone like Nikki Haley stands out because she’s good rather than because the Republican field doesn’t have much to offer. Most of the people he names would be back benchers if they were in the Democratic Party. But the biggest mistake is that he seems to think that with the same policies these candidates can gain the White House with their charm. And like I said: with the right environment (Economic crash in September 2016?) any one of them can win. But it won’t mean the Republican Party is back.

So Stevens tells us that technology will not save his party. But anyway, it isn’t surprising that Romney lost with all the gifts Obama was handing out. But what really matters are the party’s policies. But they don’t need to change them. Because they have these great young Republicans who are going to beat the Democrats who only have old people to run in 2016.

See what I mean: bizarre.