Politicians Are Not All Frauds and Liars

Russell BrandI just got a chance to read Alex Massie’s article that I referenced before, Russell Brand: an Adolescent Extremist Whose Hatred of Politics Is Matched by His Ignorance. In it, he quotes Brand as writing, “Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites.” Massie admits to sometimes feeling that way and I very much do too. But it is extremely dangerous to allow such thinking to rule a liberal.

It is common. How could it not be when most of our federal elected officials are millionaires? One of my favorite websites is Crooks & Liars. But the name does bother me. It feeds into the conservative idea that all public servers are crooks and so wouldn’t we just be better without the government given that it is all corrupt.

But even more important than that, false equivalence is the last line of defense with conservatives. I can get just about any conservative to give up their side of any argument. But they also retreat to, “Oh, the whole system is screwed up. You can’t trust any of them!” And it is pretty much impossible to counter that argument. The reason is that in general, the Republican Party is made up of people who are proudly corrupt. (You can find easy conservative rationalizations for corruption!) But the Democrats are not perfect. No actual person is perfect. And in politics, one has to make concessions. For example, I really like Bernie Sanders. But he’s done stuff I’m not pleased about. So you can always say both sides do it. And conservatives do.

What is especially terrible about the “everybody’s corrupt” argument is that in a fundamental way it is not just the last refuge of conservatives, it is their first refuge. It justifies absolutely everything that they want to do. Why support the food stamp program when it is just administered by a bunch of corrupt political appointees? So the argument we should be making is that public servants are not corrupt. (This has the advantage of being mostly true.) While many and even most Republicans are corrupt, that’s because of their ideology that wants to destroy the government. That isn’t a reason to abandon government; that is a reason to abandon the Republican Party.

Massie’s focus is on the fact that it ever was so—the Dickens Lament. And that’s absolutely right. I would even go further. What’s wrong in this country is actually pretty small compared to what’s right. Mostly, we have one big problem: income inequality. Pretty much all of the other problems stem from that: prisons, global warming, and on and on. And we can do a lot about that. If only…

Election day is 4 November 2014!

Why the GOP Can’t Criticize Itself

Ted CruzJonathan Bernstein made a funny, but we both know it is very serious. He compared two articles. First, Alex Massie‘s attack on Russell Brand’s “all those liberal politicians are really conservative” game. Second, Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry‘s attack on the “radical” wing of the Republican Party. He wrote, “One of them was about ‘an adolescent extremist whose hatred of politics is matched by his ignorance’—want to guess which one?” The joke is that although it was a description of Brand, it could easily have been a description of Ted Cruz or any number of other Republicans.

Bernstein’s article is about how it is good that Ponnuru and Lowry are calling out the Republican crazies, but that it is being done very gently. As he notes, “Indeed, Ponnuru and Lowry’s five-screen attack on the radicals is packed full of ‘on the other hand’ and ‘to be sure’ qualifications, so much so that at times it’s hard to tell whether the point is convincing convincable conservatives or if it’s to do just enough to be able to claim credit for being on the side of sanity.” My question is why this is. Why is it is that liberals have no problem calling out their own extremists but conservatives never do it.

I think I know the answer: conservatives agree on the essentials whereas liberals have a fair amount of disagreement as to where they are headed. Put another way, the Republicans have an extremely small tent and the Democrats have an unbelievable large tent. I get tired of pointing this out again and again and again. Republicans disagree about urgency. They disagree about tactics. But they do not disagree about goals. And those goals are stunningly archaic.

In a time and place where all land is owned and a man literally cannot make his own way, they want to ossify social positions because they think that they are currently about right. As I quoted social psychologist Paul Piff before, “Let’s imagine that you’re invited to a game of Monopoly. And you arrive at this game to find out that all the property’s been divided up. All of the money has already been handed out. But you’re told, ‘Hey: go ahead and sit down. Play the game; we’re going to give you a chance to play just like everyone else.'” That’s the way all Republicans want the world to be. That’s how they define “equality of opportunity.”[1]

In contrast, Democrats really do disagree about where we are going. This ranges from people who want only what we have now but with perhaps a slightly stronger safety net to people like Russell Brand who want guaranteed minimum incomes. (I’m guessing; I don’t really follow or care about Brand.) But with all of our breadth, what we don’t have are extremists like the Tea Party folk. On the left, that would be equivalent to people calling for the workers to own the means of production. The catastrophe of the Soviet Union long ago scared liberals away from those kinds of ideas. But strangely right wing military dictatorships (eg Augusto Pinochet) have not scared the right away from their path.

It is tiring to see people like Ponnuru and Lowry applauded every time they write articles that make the gentlest of criticism of the conservative movement. Do you know what Rich Lowry was talking about the last time I wrote about him? How Ted Cruz would flummox liberals because he was a smart Ivy Leaguer who thought like Sarah Palin. Ponnuru, of course, is a good critic of his own side. But he is careful in the extreme. And when he talks policy, he is as foolish as most other conservatives. The main thing, though, is that both men agree with Ted Cruz and company with regards to what they want. They would just like these crazies to be smarter about getting to their promised land where all the poor will get their just, painful, but brief death.

Don’t be like Russell Brand: they can only win if you do not vote. Election day is 4 November 2014!

[1] This is clearly not the case for someone like Josh Barro, but even I have a hard time calling him anything but a good old fashioned liberal. And most Republicans would balk at this description of their goals, but this is what the policies that they want would produce. In May of this year, Avik Roy wrote that “equality of opportunity” was nothing more than simply not having laws forbidding people from doing something. In other words, as long as you don’t live in a caste system, you have equality of opportunity. So it isn’t like I’m being hyperbolic here.

It’s Now Or Never for Senate GOP

Charlie CookCharlie Cook made a great point in an article yesterday in the National Journal, Why 2014 Is Do-or-Die for the GOP. This isn’t anything like the conservative claptrap about how we are on the verge of a socialist hellscape where white folk have to hand out dollar bills to every black person they see because of Obama-imposed reparations. Now, as usual with Cook, this is just clearheaded political analysis.

You see, since 2008, the Democratic Party has had a lot of seats to hold in the Senate. In 2010, there were 19 Democrats and only 15 Republicans up for re-election. In 2012, there were 22 Democrats and only 9 Republicans. And in 2014, there will be 20 Democrats and 15 Republicans up for re-election. (These numbers are probably slightly off, since they are based upon the election results from six years earlier, but they will be close.) So the fact that the Democrats have maintained Senate control all this time is something of a miracle.

But in 2016, things will be reversed because of the huge gains made by the Republicans in 2010. Cook explains:

The reason next year is so make-or-break for Senate Republicans is because in 2016, when all of the seats they won in 2010 come up—they netted a six-seat net gain that year—there will be 24 GOP seats up, compared with only 10 for Democrats, leading to some serious Republican overexposure. Seven of the 24 GOP senators up are hailing from states that Obama carried in 2012. After having had plentiful Democratic targets in 2012 and 2014, it will be Republicans in 2016 who will have the most incumbents in the crosshairs.

This is why Cook says that 2014 is “do or die” for the Republicans. I would put it more musically and say it is “Now Or Never”:

H/T: Ed Kilgore

Libertarianism Incompatible With Atheism

CJ WerlemanCJ Werleman has written an absolutely fabulous column over at Slate, Atheists Can’t Be Republicans. It is primarily an attack on what I call The Atheist Libertarian Connection. He notes, “I am acutely aware that a great number of atheists identify with the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, but this is comical.” He goes on from there to discuss how atheists claim to believe in things that have evidence, but there is no evidence for libertarianism. Unfortunately, I don’t think any atheist libertarians will be swayed by his claim.

Let me take a whack at it. The fundamental problem with libertarianism in this context is that it is a utopian ideology. It would be like believing in a communist utopia, but worse. In a communist utopia, all you need is for human psychology to be different. In the case of libertarianism, you have a system designed to appeal to the worst instincts of humans but expect that they will behave using the best instincts.

For example, libertarians claim that we don’t need environmental regulations because if someone pollutes on your land, you can sue them. But that won’t stop big companies from distorting the legal system to benefit themselves. But in the libertarian utopia, they would never do that! The courts would be perfect anyway. And come to think of it, given that the big companies would not try to distort the legal system, they would never pollute in the first place. So who needs the courts anyway? Libertarianism is perfect as long as it is theoretical, but the moment you try to implement even a small amount of it, it becomes a mess.

For the Ron Paul Libertarians, however, the situation is much worse. For one thing, do these people really think that if Ron Paul became president he would implement libertarian policies? As I learned rather quickly when I was a fellow traveler: vote libertarian and get conservative policy. When President Paul nominated someone to the Supreme Court, he would have to decide if he wanted someone who wanted to deprive women of the right to choose an abortion or someone who wanted to legalize drugs. There’s no doubt that we would end up with just another conservative judge. But this brings up an important point about Ron Paul: he’s as anti-choice as you can get. That isn’t a position that comes out libertarian first principles. It is reverse engineered from his Southern Baptist faith. I suspect that Paul would lose well over half the support he does have (which is small already) if he were pro-choice.

Werleman goes on to note that the Republican Party more generally is even more an anathema to atheist thinking, “The recent Values Voter Summit demonstrated that the likely 2016 GOP frontrunners and its base wish to transform America’s secular state into a tyrannical theocracy—a nirvana absent gays, liberals, immigrants, Muslims and science books.” But there are certain things that the atheist community shares with the Republican party. In general, it is white, male, and middle class or higher. That tends to make it economically conservative, having little understanding of what poor people go through in our society. And most sadly, it tends to make them raving kooks regarding Muslim fundamentalist violence while mostly ignoring both American aggression and Christian fundamentalist violence.

The last part of the article calls for atheists to see that they are really liberal and to decide to become a political force. But there is a major problem, I think, and that is the demographics of the movement. Werleman describes the atheist community very well as “white, middle class, intellectually smug and mostly apolitical.” Whether they know it or not, these are the winners in our society. They are having a good life and the only way they see to improve it is to allow themselves even more affluence and privilege. Hence: libertarianism. Sikivu Hutchinson perfectly explained the problem of the movement, “If mainstream freethought and humanism continue to reflect the narrow cultural interests of white elites who have disposable income to go to conferences then the secular movement is destined to remain marginal and insular.”

I’m actually a bit optimistic. I think that most atheists are pretty reasonable. The problem exists mostly in the “public” atheists—people like Penn Jillette, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins. And of course, one of the most offensive public intellectuals of the 21st century: Christopher Hitchens. On the left side of this spectrum is Dawkins with his status quo apologetics and on the right side we have Sam Harris and his proto-fascist imperialism. Add to this that all these men know nothing of the religions they claim to despise and you have a recipe for a modestly successful, but irrelevant movement. But there are a lot of good thinkers in the movement and if they can shake off the bullshit of the likes of Penn Jillette, they might create something great.

Wizard of Animation Ralph Bakshi

Ralph BakshiOn this day in 1861, the great painter Andrei Ryabushkin was born. He has a very distinctive style—in some ways primitive. He painted primarily ordinary working people, but not of his time—of those two centuries before. As a result, he was never really accepted. His paintings were not pretty enough for the rich nor were they political enough for the avant garde. And then he died at 42 of tuberculosis.

The great editorial cartoonist Bill Mauldin was born in 1921. He got his start working as a reporter and artist for the army during World War II. In fact, he is still best know for that work that features Willie and Joe, two infantry soldiers who struggle through the hardships of war. The following two cartoons are from later in his career. The first is in reference to the Kennedy assassination. The second one is from 1984 about terrorism. It shows Death with two meat grinders. One is marked “Terrorism” and the other “Retaliation.” The caption reads, “Women and Children first.” It’s great work.

Two Cartoons by Mill Mauldin

Other birthdays: the highly successful propagandist for the Nazis Joseph Goebbels (1897); the great sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle (1930); singer Melba Moore (68); musician Peter Green (67); actor Richard Dreyfuss (66); and actor Winona Ryder (42).

The day, however, belongs to the great animator Ralph Bakshi who is 75 today. He is best known for Fritz the Cat. He created animated films not just for adults but for thinking adults. He was highly controversial throughout his career. He bounced around, doing a lot of different things. My favorite of his films is Wizards, although I wouldn’t say it was a great film. There are two things about it. First, I’m a huge Cheech Wizard fan, and Bakshi totally ripped of that character for the part of the hero Avatar. Second, it is amazing to watch how much he does with so little. Of course, it helps to have a really great voice like Susan Tyrrell’s to work with. You can see a collection of some of the interesting imagery used in the film below. It gives you the wrong idea about the film, however. It’s actually a very funny film. (It is also available complete on YouTube.) Anyway, he has produced an enormous amount of work, especially for someone who has largely worked independently. Check out any of it.

Happy birthday Ralph Bakshi!

Accidental Movie Watching

MoviesWell, I guess the title doesn’t say it all. It could mean when you are flipping channels and are about to hit the hay, when you stumble on something that looks vaguely interesting… And you wind up watching an entire movie. Has it happened to you? I’ve done it a lot. In this case, I mean confusing one movie with another, usually because of a key word or similar words in film titles. This too, I have done a lot.

One time, my friend Frank Moraes and my brother, Marlo, were going to a movie and asked if I’d like to go. They were headed to see something at the discount theater, which showed 2nd (3rd?) run movies and classics, for cheap. In this instance, they were going to see something called Blue Velvet. I wasn’t that interested in seeing a horse movie. No, you are correct: Blue Velvet is not a horse movie. I was mistaking it for being something along the lines of National Velvet or Black Beauty. Well, I went. I was entranced. I was shocked. And, to an extent, disappointed. Did I mention I have done that a lot?

Such was the case last night—late at night. At first things went the other way… I began to watch The Yellow Wallpaper, and the first three minutes confirmed it indeed was a story, of the same title, I was forced to read in college. (“Hey, layoff… I went for a few years.”) I stopped that one and fumbled through the selection for something that sounded familiar but which I had not seen, or fully seen.

I found it. The Woman in Black. That’s it. I always wanted to know more, some of the hypothetical aspect would be nice too, of that woman, the wannabe actress, who was murdered and mutilated in the outskirts of Hollywood. Um, no. Wrong again. That most recent theatrical retelling of that story is titled, The Black Dalia, and I wound up watching a much different story.

It’s the Transitional part of my story…

When I was ten (10! Ten!), my much older, adult sister, Kathleen Maxwell Abeta-Brown (now known merely as Kathy Winters) decided the next mistaken, parent-unapproved gift for her youngest brother was to be a drastically abused console television. It was within a month or two of my birthday, one way or the other (I don’t really recall).

That was it… I was off to the races with my addiction to Abbott and Costello, Lucile Ball, and the Bowery Boys. I was the most severe television fanatic of any person I’ve known or heard of, prior to the era of 200 channels we don’t watch. I watched everything. It almost never turned off. In the mornings before school; late at night, with little or no volume. The weekends were a blur of old movies, classics or not, anything that aired within reach of our antenna.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

So, that The Woman in Black was not a dramatized murder mystery and instead was a ’40s style ghost story, was familiar, almost welcomed, territory. The review of said film is mixed. All of us go into things with preconceived notions, it’s our nature… They can work for or against you. In this case, I was pleasantly surprised, but I could understand being in the minority as this is pretty classic in its pace and level of special effects. In our gilded cages, we are accustomed to bright lights, shiny objects and over-blown special effects, especially in languishing tales of woe of the likes of Harry Potter and his friends. It seems the main character of The Woman in Black is also the lead from that movie series. It also seems that people are expecting too much of an actor struggling to free himself from type-casting.

I’m not really saying you should run out for the nearest Redbox or embark on some other pilgrimage to acquire your own copy of this movie, but given the approaching holiday, if you’d like to disturb your mate’s slumber by jumping suddenly a few times here and there, it’s not a bad way to justify it.