Bertolt Brecht and My Doppelganger

Bertolt BrechtI am 50 today. I wouldn’t be so keen to tell you that, but it is public information for reasons I am still kind of fuzzy on how it came to be. But somehow it got on Wikipedia and so it is there forever. Whatever. I don’t particularly care that I’m 50 today, because I still feel about 17. What bugs me is who else is 50 today: Glenn Beck.

Now I should be clear, although I think Beck is a nutcase, there is something I like about him. He is a searcher. He really is interested in finding out the truth. I value that because I am very much the same. The problem is that Beck is a sub-genius: someone who is smart but not very smart. And that means he is smart enough to get lost in conspiracy theories. I think a lot of people miss this about Beck. They focus on his conservative politics, but he is really just Alex Jones, except a little smarter. I think that somewhere along the line, Beck read Cleon Skousen’s The 5,000 Year Leap and he thought he had found the Truth™. And everything pretty much flows from that.

In a purely commercial sense, Beck has been extremely successful. He has a large group of people who hang on (Off?!) his every word. Politically, of course, he is irrelevant. The people who follow him are already far to the right politically. Beck’s main power is to drain them of money, although if he wants, he can whip them up to vote or encourage them not to vote. I figure they already vote consistently, though.

But Glenn Beck is well worth having around to pollute our intellectual discourse because it resulted in some of the best satire ever by Jon Stewart. Here is the first part of it. In the second part, he nails exactly why Beck was fired from Fox News, “Well maybe Fox News thought it would be useful to hire some random talk radio host rehashing the same tired old John Birch Society conspiracy theories to seed an ultra-conservative viewpoints into the news cycle while making the rest of the network seem centrist by comparison. But he then began to believe his own messianic delusions and became a giant pain in the ass.” That’s about right. Click the link before for the whole thing. Or just watch the beginning:

The singer Roberta Flack is 77 today. I mention her only as an excuse for listening to Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”:

Other birthdays: naval commander William Cornwallis (1744); writer Charles Lamb (1775); great French Romantic painter Ary Scheffer (1795); saccharin co-creator Ira Remsen (1846); Russian writer Boris Pasternak (1890); actor Judith Anderson (1897); the Father of Modern Vaccines, John Franklin Enders (1897); actor Stella Adler (1901); actor Lon Chaney Jr (1906); great cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (101!); film composer Jerry Goldsmith (1929); actor Robert Wagner (84); swimmer Mark Spitz (64); and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan (47).

The day, however, belongs to the great playwright Bertolt Brecht who was born on this day in 1898. I know him mostly as the guy with all the books in the section where I’m looking for Beckett plays. Despite the fact that he didn’t live that long, he wrote a tremendous number of plays—all of which have been translated into English. He is best know, of course, for writing the book and lyrics of The Threepenny Opera. But among theater people he is ridiculously important—not only because of his plays but because of his extensive writing on theatrical theory and practice. Here is “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” from the 1931 film based on the play:

Happy birthday Bertolt Brecht!

Captain Phillips Is a Laudable Thriller

Captain PhillipsRegular readers doubtless know about my trips to the movies with my comic book loving brother. These normally end in what I refer to as my “Marxist movie reviews.” These are reviews of films as they function as government propaganda. See, for example, Marvel’s The Despots. But yesterday, I had a different experience. I took my father to see Captain Phillips, at our cheap Third Street Cinema. I was actually more interested in seeing the other Tom Hanks film, Saving Mr Banks. But dad wasn’t that keen to go to the movies, so I figured Captain Phillips was a better choice.

The film is directed by Paul Greengrass or, as I have come to think of him, the handheld Tony Scott. And it is entirely what I’m come to expect from Greengrass: a big budget film for intelligent people that will appeal to idiots as well. In fact, I think Captain Phillips is the Iliad of the American empire. It provides an excellent illustration of how men on both sides of a conflict are supposed to act. Phillips, of course, is stoic while trying to safeguard his crew and eventually even the leader of the pirates, Abduwali Muse, and its youngest member. For his part, Muse does his best in a situation he does not like—never forgetting his duty to his employer and by extension the safety of his community.

There is much to like about the film. In particular, I appreciated that the US Navy was mostly not humanized. It presented it as the huge killing machine that it is. Once it is on the case, all hope is lost for the pirates. Another important aspect of the film is that Phillips is not really cast as a hero. A good comparison is John McClane in the first half of Die Hard, where all he is trying to do is get the police to notice the hostage situation. Phillips is trying to make the best of a bad situation. The role has a bit too much of the star hero, but it is surprisingly limited. And at the end, after he is safe, Phillips breaks down. So I liked all of that.

Of course, by necessity, the film is propagandistic. In the end, the Navy comes to the rescue, just like the cavalry did in bad westerns of old. And ultimately, most people will see the film as the bad pirates against the good merchant marines. The film does do a good job of showing that the pirates are also victims in this. In the end, three of them die, and nothing happens to the warlord behind it. In addition, nothing happens to those in the commercial fishing industry who destroyed the pirates’ village’s fish population. In fact, there is a great moment in the film where Phillips tells Muse that there has to be an alternative besides fishing and kidnapping. Muse responds, “Maybe in America.” But it’s still a bit subtle. For example, the actual pirates were all between the ages of 16 and 19. The film makes note of the fact that the youngest is 16, but this is made out to be different from the others. Muse was only 18, but Barkhad Abdi, who brilliantly plays him in the movie, is 28.

That’s all minor and beside the point. It isn’t the filmmakers’ fault that most people who go to see the film will have an extremely biased perspective and miss the subtleties. The fact remains that the film is largely respectful to its characters. In the end, I think the film raises important issues about equality and fairness. And it drops these issues in your lap and runs away. No one involved in this movie wants to deal with these implications. So they wrap it in an exciting thriller and figure their job is done. And they are right. But the rest of us ought to think about why we live in such an unfair world where it is just dumb luck whether you are killed at 18 because of a botched kidnapping or make millions off the hedge fund daddy gave you the money to start.

Something must be said about Paul Greengrass’ overuse of the handheld camera. I know that he is going for a cinema verite feel. And it often works, and worked the best I’ve ever seen in this film. But during non-dramatic scenes such as the car ride to the airport, it doesn’t make it feel real. The camera just calls attention to itself. That’s also the case when a beautiful helicopter shot interrupts the jitter-fest. And the camera man is clearly moving the camera more than he has to. Most camera operators can shoot scenes handheld without most observers even realizing it. So I think that Greengrass is being awfully pretentious a lot of the time. And then there is the over-cutting. It’s like he thinks that the film would die if there wasn’t a cut every three second.

That’s all meta criticism that doesn’t matter all that much. What is a bigger issue is that the film does kind of die once the pirates take Phillips hostage on the lifeboat. Much of the dynamism of the plot dies here. What’s more, most of the characters lose their interest. There are still many interesting movements like the “Maybe in America” line. But large chunks of time are taken up with all the Navy maneuvers. Given that it is based fairly closely on a real life story, this is understandable. But it was not necessary to spend so much time on kidnapping part of the story. I think the film could easily be cut down by a half hour.

Given all of this, it is still unlikely that you will see a better big budget thriller in the next several years. It is extremely engaging, the characters are well rendered, and its theme is important. If Hollywood made more films like this, we might become a better nation.

Prosecutors Never Favor Legal Reform

The Young TurksThe fine people on The Young Turks discussed prosecutors who are fighting against drug sentence reform. The video is embedded below. I agree with pretty much everything they say. However, they show a shocking lack of understanding about how the criminal justice system works. The group that came out against sentencing reform is The National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys. The Turks argue that the group only represents 25% of all the attorneys, and so is probably just a conservative group with an ax to grind. Maybe they are, but that is not at all the issue.

The way our system works, prosecutors have almost all the power. This is largely because of all the laws we have. As anyone who has ever been arrested for a serious crime can tell you, people do not face a single charge. If you take a swing at a cop, you will not be prosecuted for simply assaulting a cop. You will be facing about ten charges. If you decide to go to trial, you will be facing perhaps decades in jail. So most people just plead to the single assault charge and get the maximum penalty for that. Prosecutors love this power.

With minimum mandatory sentences, it is even better for prosecutors. Now if a junkie is found with three bags of dope, he faces perhaps three years for possession along with another ten years for “intent to distribute” and on and on and on. Suddenly, our poor little junkie is looking at life in prison. He pleads and the prosecutor gets more time on the golf course. This is mentioned in the video, but the Turks don’t seem to understand its meaning. David Zlotnick is quoted as saying:

This is a biased letter with an ulterior motive—to make federal prosecutors’ jobs easier. Federal prosecutors should stand for justice and fairness as well as public safety. This letter and this organization’s position are shortsighted and biased and do not represent the views of all prosecutors.

But it isn’t just that it makes their jobs easier. Remember when I wrote about the Monopoly study where subjects who were given unfair advantages in the game came to think they deserved them? The same thing is going on here. The prosecutors believe that the totally unfair system that has benefited them all these years is right and proper. Fundamentally, these prosecutors don’t want to lose power. It has absolutely nothing to do with making the society safer or fairer.

The legal profession is based upon the idea of sophistry where the two sides try to make the best argument regardless of the truth of the matter. But in the justice system, this is wrong. The prosecutor should only argue for cases that he thinks are true. But this is not the way it works. Prosecutors have great incentives to convict as many people as possible. And they are almost never harmed by getting a false conviction—even when they knowingly railroaded a defendant. So very few prosecutors are going to think it is a good idea to take away their power to do what they see as their jobs. It’s an outrage, but sadly one that even the well informed people on The Young Turks don’t understand.

Chuck Schumer Calls Republican Bluff

Chuck SchumerAs regular readers know, I’m not keen on any of the recent proposals for immigration reform. Fundamentally, they are giveaways to big business with the bare minimum done for the immigrant community itself. And the most recent proposal to allow undocumented residents to become documented but not citizens is just madness. It would develop a kind of two-tier citizenship. Of course, I don’t suppose it really matters given that the pathway to citizenship of the other proposals was so long.

Of course, even this most recent proposal isn’t going to happen anyway. All of the Republican plans that don’t cut taxes on the rich and increase military spending are subject to what Jonathan Chait calls The Heritage Uncertainty Principle. I’ve written about this many times before, but I never came up with such a spiffy moniker. The idea is that Republicans only come up with policy plans as political cover. As soon as it looks like a plan might become actual legislation, the plan disappears because the Republicans who had proposed it turn against it. The best example is Obamacare, hence the name Heritage Uncertainty Principle.

A more recent example is immigration reform. And the newest occurrence of it was when Democrats accepted the Republican immigration reform plan that had no pathway to citizenship. As soon as it looked like it might actually pass: poof! It was gone because Republicans claimed that they can’t trust President Obama to implement it. Of course this is not surprising. The Republican base still thinks that giving legal status to undocumented residents is “amnesty.” So any immigration reform that is anything but “guard the border and deport more people” will never be acceptable.

Yesterday, Chuck Schumer called the Republicans to task on this issue. On Meet the Press, he said:

Now I think that the rap against him—that he won’t enforce the law—is false… He’s deported more people than any other president, but you could actually have the law start in 2017 without doing much violence to it.

I don’t think Schumer is serious about this. But it is a great gambit. It highlights a few things about the Republicans. First and foremost, it calls them to task. If the issue really is Obama, then let’s take Obama out of the equation. But the truth is that this isn’t about Obama. The Republicans said the exact same things about Bill Clinton. So if there is a Democrat in the White House in 2017, they won’t trust him or her.

But I don’t think that the Republicans will be willing to admit that they can’t trust any Democrat ever. Instead, I think they will fall back to what they really believe: this newest watered down plan would still reward those terrible people who risked life and limb to come to the shining beacon of opportunity that is the America of legend. You know: amnesty! And that will be that. Real immigration reform will have to wait until the Democrats are in charge. If the Republicans get control, they aren’t going to pass anything other than some minor reforms to allow more H1-B visas and more guards at the Mexico border.

The truth is that I get annoyed every time liberal commentators get excited at the prospect of immigration reform. It’s never real. Meanwhile, every time it happens, people’s expectations get lower as to what reform looks like. I fear that eventually a bill to increase H1-B visas will make Greg Sargent jump for joy. It’s important to remember that the Republicans have not done their greatest harm through legislation. They have done it by moving the entire political playing field to the right. They’ve more or less made actual liberal policy unthinkable. And they continue to do it with the Heritage Uncertainty Principle.