Third Time with Downton Abbey

Joanne FroggattI can’t really take anymore of this Boston business. There are things to be happy about, but mostly I’m finding my fellow citizens (including the president) disappointing. So let’s talk about Downton Abbey.

Finally, I’ve watched the whole series. But I didn’t watch it in order; I watched it in this order: first, third, second. There were really only two subplots that needed filling in. The first was the story of Ethel Parks, the housemaid with big dreams who ends up pregnant by a libertine army officer. In the third season she is your typical scarlet letter fallen woman with a heart of gold. But in season two, she starts off quite obnoxious. This is a surprisingly uncommon story arch: the brash youngster who society brutalizes to the point where she becomes a decent human being. I like that story line because it is the story of my life and I dare say that of most people. It is shocking to see people make such a big deal out of Ethel’s having a child out of wedlock. It certainly isn’t like that now; but all that has really changed is what we decide to shun people for; we actually do it more now than ever; ask a felon how it is to find a job.

The second story that needed a little filling in was, of course, Bates’ murder conviction. But I already knew the outlines. In the first season, it was established that Bates had an estranged wife who was at least a little crazy, having caused Bates to go to prison for her crime. The only thing that needed filling in was how she came back into his life. Enter: Iago Number One, O’Brien. It’s all very melodramatic. In fact, as if just to annoy me, writer Julian Fellowes, has O’Brien bring Mrs. Bates back twice.

And that gets us to my biggest realization of watching these middle episodes: it is too much of a soap opera. Too much of the characters’ motivations are based upon the dictates of the plot than any reasonable understanding of how people really act. And it is particularly bad with regard to the subplot about Bates and Anna. You may recall in my discussion of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, that one of things I most liked about the film was that I cared about all of the subplots. In the case of Downton Abbey, I don’t much care about anything other than Bates and Anna. And it seems very much like Fellowes is screwing with them in ways that don’t feel authentic.

On the other hand, the series includes delightful moments. I particularly liked a short sequence where the staff of the Crawley house opened a soup kitchen and pulled in various (and surprising) people from Downton Abbey. And I do care about the characters. Over time, I’ve come to understand O’Brien better, but of course, that’s probably more me than the series. It would be nice if Fellowes got clear on her character. Also I like that Lord Grantham is an entitled prig and yet tries very hard to be a good man. There is a sequence in the second season where he learned that he has badly wronged Bates and does his best to fix the situation.

So over all, I like the show. I look forward to the fourth season. But if he starts screwing with Bates and Anna now that they are finally settled, I will stop watching. And yes, I do have a crush on Joanne Froggatt who plays Anna. Allow an old man the few joys he has left!

Muslims? Let’s Go to War!

IntoleranceMarc Ambinder wrote a very reasonable article over at The Week, The Insanity of Blaming Islam. In it, he argues that we shouldn’t blame Islam if a Muslim commits a crime any more than we should blame Christanity when a Christian commits a crime. This is an excellent point. When Scott Roeder killed George Tiller for explicitly Christian reasons, no one talked about “radical Christianity” being responsible. So I thought there wouldn’t be much push back on the article. Man, was I wrong!

I started reading the comments and one after another they were vile. Growup commented, “The writer is insane. So blinded by his own desperate ideology that he’s unwilling to acknowledge any form of truth.” Vinney commented, “Dumbest article I’ve ever read. I get tired of leftists trying to humanize these bastards.” And Sybilll commented, “Know the difference between a radical Muslim and a moderate Muslim? The radical Muslims want to kill us. The moderate Muslims want the radical Muslims to kill us. You really are stuck on stupid, Marc.” Makes you proud to be an American, doesn’t it?

The “truth” that Growup thinks Ambinder won’t acknowledge is apparently that Islam is an evil religion. The bastards that Vinney talks about are not the people who did the bombing; they are Muslims generally. And Sybilll’s comment is so over-the-top offensive, I don’t think it needs comment. The point is that Marc Ambinder makes the truly modest suggestion that we don’t blame Islam for the vile acts of two young men and the blogosphere shouts back: no way; Muslims did this!

But it would be one thing if it were just the internet. I overheard Bill O’Reilly on The Factor today. He said, “They want to kill Americans.” That’s just great. Let’s make it all about America. We don’t have enough jingoism in this country, so let’s get everyone worked up for war. Right now, people in Boston are on the TV chanting “U-S-A!” Apparently, the Boston Marathon bombing wasn’t a terrible crime that killed and wounded many innocent people; it was an attack on America itself. Where is Patton?! Let’s go to war! I’ll get the guns, you pick the country.

This is madness. And now I’m more concerned than ever that we will get bad new laws to protect us from terrorism and nothing at all to protect us from guns, workplace accidents, and environmental catastrophe.

Profits Before People

Surveillance StateIt looks as though the fire and explosion at the West Fertilizer Company near Waco, Texas was not intentional—no terrorist act as I feared. It seems to be just another tragic industrial accident. And as such, it makes for a good comparison with the Boston Marathon bombing. The bombing killed 3 people and wounded 183. The Fertilizer explosion killed 12 and wounded more than 160. Human suffering and the unnecessary loss of life is always tragic. But I’m mathematically inclined, so I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the Waco explosion is more tragic than the Boston bombing.

But as a country, we won’t treat it that way. It is very likely that the bombing will lead to changes in our privacy and even immigration policies. I don’t think we will see any such “action” as a result of the fertilizer explosion. For example, it just isn’t likely we will increase funding of OSHA, which last inspected the West Fertilizer Company facility in 1985. Because that’s just how we roll. There was no long term limit to deep water driller after the BP oil spill. There are never any laws at all passed after the almost weekly mass shootings. Why would we care if workers or the public at large is safe from exploding manufacturing facilities?

Don’t think that these are very different. The three tragedies I mentioned all have one thing in common: doing something about them would hurt corporate profits. But the ever increasing surveillance state? Why, that’s a corporate opportunity! Look at those x-ray machines at the airport: they don’t make us a lick more safe, but they sure as hell made some people rich (or richer).

And that’s about all you need to know about America: we only care about people in as much as they can be profited from.

Update (18 April 2013 5:27 pm)

According to USA Today, the death toll in Texas is now up to 14 and those wounded is stated as “about 200.”

Reuters Plans Character Assassination After Soros Dies

George SorosI just love the liberal media in the United States. It is so liberal that when a conservative dies, they provide blanket hagiographic coverage. But when a liberal dies, it is “both sides now” coverage, “On the liberal side of the political spectrum he was consider a champion of worker rights, but on the conservative side he was hated for not be pro-corporate enough.” I mentioned this when Margaret Thatcher died: we were bound to be deluged with stories about what a great woman she was, even though, you know, she wasn’t. I wonder what the US press would have said if Hitler had managed to maneuver his way past the second World War, “Many criticized his genocide, but even they had to admit that he made the trains run on time”?

As you probably noticed, George Soros did not die on Monday. But Reuters accidentally published their “file obit” that day. Newspapers write obituaries for famous people before they die. This is why they are able to put out 3,000 word obituaries within an hour of someone’s death. For whatever reason, they screwed up and published Soros’ obituary while he was (and is) still alive. For those of you who don’t know, Soros is a billionaire investor who is somewhat liberal. As a result, he is not only reviled by conservatives, he is a notable figure in their conspiracy theories. But Reuters is a mainstream media organization, or as conservatives call it, a part of the liberal media. (Note: in conservative speak, “liberal” means “not as conservative as I am.”)

So what did those liberals have to say about the parting of Soros? Thankfully, Matt Yglesias got a screen capture before they removed it. It started:

George Soros, who died XXX at age XXX, was a predatory and hugely successful financier and investor, who argued paradoxically for years against the same sort of free-wheeling capitalism that made him billions.

Compare this to what Reuters published when Milton Friedman actually died:

Milton Friedman became a towering figure in modern-day economics, a Nobel Prize winner whose view that controlling the money supply was the key to economic health became a central plank of economic theory.

Friedman, who died on Thursday of heart failure at a hospital in the San Francisco area at age 94, was regarded as one of the most influential conservative thinkers that America and the famed Chicago school of economics ever produced.

I don’t have an especially strong hatred of Friedman, but the words “pernicious” and “General Augusto Pinochet” would certainly be in the first paragraph or two if I wrote it. It is certainly true that Friedman’s aggressive prosthelytizing for “free” markets harmed far more people than Soros’ trading ever did.

Regardless, there is absolutely nothing paradoxical about Soros’ work and his political ideas. In the mainstream press, if you are a liberal, you must be a communist. You must not believe in a market economy. You just believe that the state should own everything and give an equal share to everyone in the country. The fact that this idea shines through from our major media outlets says a great deal about our political problems: this is the conservative caricature of liberals—not exactly “objective” or “moderate.”

After all this, Reuters regretted only that they had published the obituary. No mention was made of the fact that they plan to assassinate his character after he dies. But that’s what newspapers do—if you’re a liberal.

Ontological Blindness of Stephen Hawking

Stephen HawkingMany years ago, I picked up a copy of an astronomy magazine at a dental office. The cover story was about the big bang. It wondered why people didn’t accept that big bang in large numbers, even though it was one of the most confirmed scientific theories ever. I know why people don’t “accept” the theory: it doesn’t answer the question that it purports to answer. Scientists like to claim that the reason the universe exists is that the universe exploded into existence out of nothing. That’s interesting as far as it goes. But what people want to know is why there existed that nothingness from which the universe could explode.

Existence itself is paradoxical, as I’ve written about before. I not only think we don’t understand the nature of existence, I think we can’t understand it. And thus, the big bang theory tells us as much as the God theory. All it does is push back the ultimate question of existence one level. So I find myself in the uncomfortable position of thinking that the theists and the atheists are trivializing the most important question of all.

Yesterday, NBC News published, Stephen Hawking Lays Out Case for Big Bang without God. It described a talk given by Hawking at the California Institute of Technology. Hawking is a funny guy and the talk seems to have been filled with jokes like, “What was God doing before the divine creation? Was he preparing hell for people who asked such questions?” And I quite agree with what he’s getting at. But I still think that he is just as limited in his understand of ontology.

The problem with people like Hawking is how arrogant they are about having found answers to very natural human questions, when they’ve done no such thing. And so I categorize him with the preachers I heard when I was kid who told me that God was begotten, not made. Both answers are about as helpful as being urged not to think about such things and to avoid masturbation because it will cause you to grow hair on your palms.

To me, it is all about humility. Existence is a paradox. I think that’s cool. But I think it is sad that so many theists and atheists think they have answers when they’re unaware of the questions.

Afterword

I go back and forth on the question of whether I am an atheist. I certainly am by the thinking of most theists: I don’t believe in a deity that I must worship or that would even have something akin to consciousness that could care about what I do or think. But I do think there is something greater than the existence that we know. So I think it is fair to say that practically I am an atheist but theoretically I am a mystic, but not a theist.

Will You Still Need Me When I’m 116?

Jiroemon KimuraIt is another weak birthday list. But let’s get on with it. Founding father Roger Sherman was born on this day in 1721. Eliot Ness was born in 1903. Darrin number two on Bewitched, Dick Sargent, was born in 1930. Jayne Mansfield was born in 1933. And Dudley Moore was born in 1935.

Stanley Fish, who wrote How to Write a Sentence which I didn’t much like, is 75 today. Keyboardist Bernie Worrell is 69. Tim Curry is 67. And Ashley Judd is 45.

But the day belongs to a man just because he’s alive. Jiroemon Kimura is 116 today, which makes him the oldest living person and the oldest documented male ever. He lives with the two widows of his son and grandson. He says that small portions of food are key to a long life. But it is notable that 4 of his 5 siblings lived to be 90, one of them to 100. My main rule for a long life: be careful crossing the street. (I’m serious!)

Happy birthday Jiroemon Kimura!

Afterword

Here is “Sloe Gin,” my favorite Tim Curry song, co-written and produced by the great Bob Ezrin with a nice guitar solo by Dick Wagner: