Don Marquis and the Cockroach Poet

Don MarquisOn this day in 1878, the writer Don Marquis was born. Even though he was a prolific writer, most people have never heard of him. The only reason I know about him is that I have a habit of roaming libraries. When I had first gone to college, I was looking over the music section and came upon the score of an operetta called Archy and Mehitabel. I read the introduction and found out that it was about Archy, a poetry writing cockroach, and his alley cat chum, Mehitabel. The gag was that after all the reporters had left the office, Archy would jump around on the keys of the keyboard. Because of his limited abilities, he only typed in lowercase, except for that one time when he typed in all uppercase.

Marquis wrote far more than just cockroach poetry, however. In fact, “Archy and Mehitabel” was apparently created as a space filler, because he was writing a newspaper column six days per week. In the old days, this was considered quite the feat. Now in the internet age, it seems to be the norm. But actually, there is a lot of repetition and a lot of stuff that just isn’t worth writing. But Marquis’ output was prodigious. He wrote five novels, five plays, numerous short stories and essays, and lots and lots of poetry.

People seemed to die around Marquis. His son died at the age of six; his daughter died at 13; his first wife died after 14 years of marriage; his second wife died after ten years of marriage; and then he died at the age of 59 of a stroke, although it wasn’t his first one. He still managed to work almost to the end.

Here is a little bit of “certain maxims of archy”:

every cloud
has its silver
lining but it is
sometimes a little
difficult to get it to
the mint

an optimist is a guy
that has never had
much experience

don t cuss the climate
it probably doesn t like you
any better
than you like it

many a man spanks his
children for
things his own
father should have
spanked out of him

prohibition makes you
want to cry
into your beer and
denies you the beer
to cry into

And speaking of Prohibition, check out “a roach of the taverns” about the communal aspects of drink. Archy was a wise cockroach.

Happy birthday Don Marquis!

Paul Ryan Is the Face of False Equivalence

Paul Ryan - Reagan 2.0Finally, Jonathan Chait is back from vacation. This is a big deal because there really is no one who knows Paul Ryan as well as he does. He’s been calling him on his tricks for years, so I was really interested in what he had to say.

But given that he wasn’t around, Annie Lowrey filled in and wrote a very good article, Paul Ryan’s Poverty Plan: The Good, the Bad, and the Paternalistic. Most of the article is about how Ryan wants to put all the poverty plans together and give poor people what amounts to a parole officer. Paternalistic indeed!

As she noted:

Middle-class families don’t need to justify and prostrate themselves for tax credits. Businesses aren’t required to submit an “action plan” to let the government know when they’ll stop sucking the oxygen provided by federal grant programs. The old don’t need to show receipts demonstrating their attendance at water aerobics in order to get Medicare. Nope, it’s just the poor who need to answer for their poverty.

That’s right: the more money the government gives you, the less it looks like welfare. If they give you twenty bucks per week for food, they want to rub it in your face; if they give you $200 billion to bail out your bank, they want to make it out so you can claim you were doing the government a favor.

She also addressed the deal-breaker in Ryan’s new “poverty plan”: the block grants. Of course, the thing is that the combining of all the programs and the block granting are the same thing. It would be hard to block grant food stamps, but if he can get it to be part of an omnibus, then it gets block granted by default. She mentioned that this tends to have the effect of slowly killing the program. That’s true. But there is another aspect. That is that red states will find ways to take money away from the poor. After all, just look at the Medicaid expansion. That is free money to the states that Republican governments are passing up. They don’t care about the poor when it comes to Medicaid; they won’t care about the poor when it comes to Paul Ryan’s big ombibus block grants.

Jonathan Chait was back today with, Is Paul Ryan Still Paul Ryan? I get the impression that Chait hasn’t fully absorbed Ryan’s new gambit. And I understand: people like Chait have to maintain an open enough mind to at least consider that Paul Ryan may have changed. But come on! The parts of his plan that involve money are the same old things: block granting. He wanted to do it with Medicaid before, and for the same reason. His idea was that they would give the states their current amount of money and then increase them with inflation. But he knew full well that healthcare inflation was higher than regular inflation. So I think we can all admit that Ryan is doing the same thing that he was doing before; he’s just doing it with more subtlety.

And Chait did call him on this. He mentioned that David Gregory asked Ryan why anyone should assume that these red states that are refusing free Medicaid money would be willing to look out for the best interests of their poorer citizens. And Ryan came back with a bunch of talking point logorrhea that would make Sarah Palin proud. It included his old hammock quote, but he’s rephrased it so he doesn’t look like such a jerk, “If you want to have a healthy economy and have real solutions, you have to have a healthy safety net. And a safety net needs to work to get people out of poverty.” Chait summed it up well, “This string of unrelated talking points that provides zero engagement with the question offers little reason to believe Ryan has grappled with the gaping flaw in his proposal.”

Elizabeth WarrenMy question continues to be why anyone takes this man seriously. He has no ideas. He plays at being an intellectual. If he were in the Democratic Party, no one would pay attention to him, because there are smart, knowledgeable, and well-spoken people in the Democratic Party. So basically, Paul Ryan being on television at all is yet another example of false equivalence. The truth is that no network should have any Republican on until they actually come up with some ideas that are worth discussing. But unfortunately, we are left with a system where everyone has to pretend that Paul Ryan in the Republican version of Elizabeth Warren. Let’s see now: Warren has a JD from Rutgers and Ryan has read Atlas Shrugged. Yep, I guess they are about the same!

Actually, there is something else that separates Ryan and Warren. Warren is honest about what she’s trying to do. Ryan is a total fraud who won’t admit what he’s really trying to do. The only way that Ryan’s “plan” leads to fewer poor people is if he managed to kill more of them.

Fun Horror Films With Wax

House of Wax 2005There is one young lady I follow on Google+ who has a Christian kind of name, but basically only posts videos from The Twilight Zone. I’m quite the fan of the show and that’s undoubtedly why I follow her. I often make comments, pointing out things about the production. You know me. But she posted the episode “The New Exhibit,” with a description that this was where they got the idea for the film House of Wax. We communicated back and forth and I found out that she was not referring to what I think of when I hear that title—the 1953 Vincent Price classic—but rather the 2005 film of that name. With such confusion, I thought it deserved a little discussion.

To be honest, “The New Exhibit” has nothing to do with either of these films. It tells the story of Martin Senescu (played by Martin Balsam) who works at a wax museum. When the owner decides to close it down, Martin gets the owner to let him keep the wax figures from the “murderers’ row” exhibit in his basement. He has an air conditioner installed and spends all his time tending to them. His wife is none too happy about this—especially given that they don’t even have money for food. The wife’s brother tells her to sneak down at night and turn off the air conditioner; the figures will melt and Martin will come to his senses. But when she tries to do this, one of the figures comes to life and kills her. In the end, three people are murdered. Of course, it wasn’t the wax figures. It was just that Martin had gone totally insane and the episode ends with him being immortalized in wax as part of the “murders’ row” exhibit now at a museum in Europe. It’s a typically great script by Jerry Sohl.

That’s an excellent episode, but it is almost the exact opposite of all the other wax museum films. So let’s look at them. In the early 1930s, Charles Spencer Belden was working as a salaried writer at Warner Bros. He had written a short story, “The Wax Works,” which the studio decided to option. Coming on the heals of Universal’s successes with Dracula and Frankenstein, it probably sounded like a good idea. And it was a good movie! It was directed by veteran Michael Curtiz, who most people know for directing Casablanca. He directed at least five films released in 1933, one of which was Mystery of the Wax Museum.

The film is perhaps most notable for being the last major film to use the two-color Technicolor system. The missing color is yellow, and yet it looks pretty good. As for the story, it is what people who have seen the Vincent Price version will know. A master wax sculptor, Ivan Igor, has his unscrupulous business partner burn their wax museum for the insurance money. Igor fights with him and seems to be killed in the fire. But 12 years later, he is back, although confined to a wheelchair and without the use of his hands. Of course, he has also gone completely mad and is killing people, stealing their bodies from the morgue, and covering them with wax.

This is a surprisingly bad trailer, because it gives away the “surprise” and doesn’t include the parts of the movie that I like the most:

The main difference between the 1953 House of Wax and Mystery of the Wax Museum, is that the latter has this great subplot about plucky reporter Florence Dempsey (played adorably by Glenda Farrell) who is trying to get to the bottom of the mystery. She is Hildy Johnson or Amy Archer, depending upon how old you are. And the film even manages to cram a love story in its 77-minute running time where Dempsey has to choose between the rich guy or the right guy.

There are two reasons that I prefer Mystery of the Wax Museum to House of Wax. First, it runs at a frenetic pace. Yes, it is a horror film, but it’s also a screwball comedy. No one is taking any of it too seriously and it is just a lot of fun. Second, House of Wax was shot in 3-D, and there are some very annoying segments in the film as a result. Most especially, there is a scene with a guy with a paddle ball that goes on far too long. None of this is to say that House of Wax is bad. It isn’t. It’s great! It’s a horror film with Vincent Price. And even though I do not think that combination can result in a bad film, House of Wax is definitely closer to the best that he did.

Unfortunately, the trailer for House of Wax didn’t show any scenes from the movie. It was all about how great 3-D was going to be. By the way, 3-D sucks. Even today, it mutes the colors that you would see. I don’t know why anyone likes it. But if you do, apparently you can get House of Wax 3-D on DVD or BluRay. Here is a scene from the end of the film that gives away the “surprise” that was already given away in the previous trailer:

Now I must admit to having not seen the 2005 film House of Wax. But luckily, we have Wikipedia, and so I can tell you that it is nothing at all like the earlier films. It is basically a slasher film where the victims are covered in wax. It is exactly the kind of film being parodied in the excellent Tucker & Dale vs Evil. Roger Ebert wrote of it, “House of Wax is not a good movie but it is an efficient one, and will deliver most of what anyone attending House of Wax could reasonably expect, assuming it would be unreasonable to expect very much.” Not really my kind of thing, but it sounds good enough.

It is probably because I tend to get too involved with films, that I overload on things like this and just see them as funny. So for me, late 1960s and early 1970s horror is just perfect. I especially like a bit of wit as in Theatre of Blood. (Horror, revenge, and Shakespeare!) But whatever. The three films I have discussed here that I’ve also seen each work. And I suspect the 2005 House of Wax works quite well in its own way.


There is a version of the 1953 House of Wax that includes a very nice transfer of Mystery of the Wax Museum. If you want it, buy it from Amazon and throw a few pennies my way!

KCTV 7: Satire When You Least Need It!

KCTV7: Satire When You Least Need It!Some things in the publishing industry are just wrong. And Catherine Thompson at Talking Points Memo, brings my attention to one, News Sites Get Duped By Satire About Bachmann “Americanization” Camps. What happened was that the website KCTV 7 published a story, Michele Bachmann Suggests Labor Camps for Immigrant Children. And such prominent websites as Daily Kos and Crooks & Liars picked up on it. The question is, why?

Well, let’s start with the fact that Michele Bachmann saying crazy things like this is not at all surprising. In fact, her mixing up of John Wayne Gacy and John Wayne to this day sounds like a brilliant joke written by one of Jon Stewart’s better writers. And we live in a world where conservatives gather at the border yelling at kids and holding up signs, “Not Our Problem!” We also live in a world where Newt Gingrich called for poor kids to do janitorial work at their schools. So Bachmann saying that we ought to set up work camps for the child refugees just isn’t much of a stretch.

The article originally ran in National Report, a well known satirical site that it usually quite good. I wrote about them less than two weeks ago, Cruz and Beck Distribute Crisp, Refreshing Dasani Sparkling Water to Brown Children. But I have to say, the Bachmann article contains very little satire. There is an over-emphasis on learning English, a casual dismissal of putting four-year-olds to work, and a subtle but funny reference to school vouchers. I doubt I would have caught the satire if I hadn’t known. It does end with a very funny paragraph about Jose Antonio Vargas accusing her of wanting to indoctrinate future Republican voters—just as silly an idea as the actual Republican belief that immigration reform is really all about winning elections two decades from now.

If the websites had been fooled by National Report, however, I wouldn’t be all that sympathetic. It is a well known satirical site, although I have to admit that I can’t find any actual indication on the site that says this. The Daily Currant is very clear about it being a satirical outlet, even though it gets more than its fair share of people taking it seriously. But National Report is big enough to have a Wikipedia page where you can check. That brings us to KCTV 7.

KCTV 5 is an actual CBS-affiliated television station serving Kansas City (both of them). Clearly, KCTV 7 is meant to deceive. What’s more, there is absolutely no indication on their site that it is satirical. Nor is there any indication that the Bachmann story first ran in the National Report. So of course, I understand the outlets that got confused. But it really does seem that the people at KCTV 7 are a bunch of jerks. But it may be that they simply haven’t been doing this for very long. Maybe their idea of good publicity is to confuse as many people as possible.

A Really Bad Representative Democracy

Representative DemocracyI’m not sure if it is the state of politics or the state of my mind, but I am trying to avoid politics. It is so depressing for reasons that are more implicit in my writing than explicit. But let me see if I can make it more explicit here. At one time, politics was almost exclusively retail. That doesn’t mean it was good. To a large extent, that just meant that so few people qualified as voters that any given politician didn’t have to work all that hard to have actual interactions with the voters.

But I still think that the size of the electorate does matter. This is why I have long been for greatly increasing the size of the House of Representatives. And it turns out, there is a group that believes this same thing, Thirty-Thousand. They note that, “The framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights intended that the total population of Congressional districts never exceed 50 to 60 thousand. Currently, the average population size of the districts is nearly 700,000 and, consequently, the principle of proportionally equitable representation has been abandoned.” I don’t know just how accurate this is, but the idea is basically correct. The fewer people a politician represents, the more accountable he is.

Then we have the Senate, an anti-democratic compromise. When the United States was formed, the largest state (Virginia) had about twenty times the population of the smallest state (Tennessee, which was growing—fast). Now the largest state (California) has about 70 times the population of the smallest state (Wyoming—smaller than a California Congressional District). And that actually understates the problem because we have a whole bunch of little states now and a couple of really big ones. The 9 (18%) most populous states have more people than the 41 least populous states. In 1790, the 5 (30%) most populous states had more people than the 12 least populous. And things were improving because the new states like Tennessee and Kentucky grew rapidly after becoming states. We have the opposite now as people want to move to the two biggest states California and Texas.

So even under the best of circumstances, we do not have much of a representative democracy. But I suspect we could limp along with this. The real problem here is that politics is no longer retail. Let’s look at the 2012 California Proposition 37. It required that GMO products be labeled as such. As you probably know, I don’t really care about this issue. But what matters is that the measure was logical and it was hugely popular. And then Monsanto came in, spent millions of dollars on ads that showed small farmers who claimed that the law would put them out of business and the measure went down to defeat.

This sort of thing could never happen in a small community. For one thing, everyone would know who would be affected and how. But the ads that the GMO industry ran were total distortions. And they worked! And the truth is that when you have huge elections, people with money can distort if not destroy democracy. And I’ve seen little but that my entire life.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that local government is so great. I’m not making some kind of libertarian argument about only having local government. For one thing, if this can happen at the state level, it can happen at any level in the modern world. Even if Proposition 37 had been just for Sonoma County where I live, it wouldn’t have mattered. I don’t know any farmers and I don’t know anyone who knows any farmers. So unless we are going to go back to an agrarian economy that hasn’t existed since the 18th century, we are going to have this problem. (And libertarians are disingenuous when they claim that local control is better; they are just trying to destroy government piecemeal.)

Anyway, this is why each day I dread even reading about politics. That’s not to say that I don’t still do it obsessively. But even if our political trajectory is positive, it is only barely so. And it will take decades to repair the damage done by the last four.

Marcel Duchamp Descending a Staircase

Marcel DuchampOn this day in 1887, the great French artist Marcel Duchamp was born. He is hard to talk about though. Because I use the term “artist” in its widest possible sense. He worked in most mediums, but he was also a writer and eventually a chess player. In his early 30s, after a very successful artistic career, he decided he wanted to play chess. He went on to be a Master level player—for those of you who do not know, that means he was better than you can possibly imagine. But he is better know for his writing about chess theory.

Duchamp was born into a rich family. This allowed four of his parents six surviving children to go on to be successful artists. The family was very much into culture, so it isn’t surprising. It does make me wonder about what I see as the modern American rich who seem only to be interested in creating a new kind of aristocracy. The Koch brothers looked at their lucky fate and said, “I want to just make more money and influence politics so that even more comes to me.” The Duchamp children used their lucky fate to do something interesting. And all the Duchamp children did compelling work. What will the Koch children leave us? Oh, that’s right: a potentially catastrophically changed climate. I guess I’m forced to admit that the Koch’s legacy will be more profound than that of the Duchamps, even if it is a tragic legacy.

When I was a kid, I was never that much into modern art. The painting that really turned me onto it was Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. I love the use of line, the movement (not surprisingly from the early days of film), and the limited palette. It works as well for me today as it did 35 years ago:

Nude Descending a Staircase - Duchamp

Most of his other work is more conceptual in nature and not as interesting to me. Part of the problem is that once he started playing chess, he didn’t pursue art all that much. Still, he was still very much part of the art world. There is a great quote from him, however, “I am still a victim of chess. It has all the beauty of art—and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position.” I understand the feeling, although as a sport it has managed to be commercialized. But it certainly indicates that his love of art was pure and he didn’t like the way it became commodity.

There is an interesting story about his personal life. He married Lydie Sarazin-Lavassor, but couldn’t stand the confinement of marriage, so they divorced six months later. But Duchamp and Sarazin-Lavassor continued their relationship for the next two decades until she died. That’s right out of Scenes from a Marriage. And very sweet.

Happy birthday Marcel Duchamp!

Faith in Experts Is More Rational Than Faith that Experts Are Wrong

Climate Change Is a HoaxI should know better than to ever even look at a post on Google+ about global warming. The reason is that I always look at the comments and it makes me very angry. I don’t especially care what people think, but from top to bottom, the denial community is rotten. You have the lowest of the low: people who just know that global warming is a crock because Fox News told them Al Gore made a lot of money off it. There is nothing to be said to these people; their belief is a kind of religious faith. But I find the more polished of the denialists most exhausting. I ran into one today.

He made a point I make quite often here: most people who accept global warming are just as faith based as those who deny it. Absolutely true. I’ve long since gotten over being shocked at just how ignorant many liberals are on the subject. But there is a big difference between deciding that you are just going to accept what the experts say and deciding you are in any position to just dismiss what the experts say.

I don’t know how many times conservatives have given me the Al Gore canard. They somehow think that only Al Gore and a couple of other popular figures have anything to gain by discussing global warming. The fact that fossil fuel companies have billions of dollars per year at stake isn’t ever mentioned. And when this fact is pointed out, they dismiss it because we all know that corporations would never lie to us. Except, of course, we don’t know that because it isn’t true.

We actually have recent experience with this. For decades, the cigarette companies trotted out their cherry picked studies to tell the world that smoking did not cause cancer. There is nothing different here. Corporations have no interest whatsoever in the safety of humanity generally. It is all about next quarter’s profits and the bonuses that the top executives will get. But does this sway the denialists? Of course not! Because they know it is a conspiracy because they’ve heard of Climategate and don’t know the first thing about the difficulties of getting temperature records from tree rings.

What really bugs me about all of this is that in their regular lives, all of these deniers do what liberals do when it comes to global warm. They don’t know how the plumbing in their houses work, so when there is a real problem, they call an expert: a plumber. When they crash their cars, they take them to an auto body shop. But when it comes to global warming, they listen to the oil companies who have an overwhelming conflict of interest.

So liberals look to people like me, who actually do understand the science. And I actually have some credibility here because two decades ago when I was working in the field, I was highly skeptical. But the data got better. The models got better. And the climate got worse. All of this made me change my thinking. But the conservative movement in this country has taken the opposite course: as the science has gotten more certain, they have become more certain that there is nothing at all to worry about. And unlike with smoking, their denial is going to hurt all of us.

See Also

More Republican Delay on Global Warming
Charles Krauthammer Doesn’t Know Science
Why Conservatives Ignore Global Warming
The Global Cooling Myth
If Global Warming’s Real Why Is It Cold?
It’s Raining, But Not for Long
Global Warming and Budget Analogy
Pretend Scientist Fred Singer
A Really Big Problem
And many more…

Dallas Buyers Club Works Well Enough

Dallas Buyers ClubI finally got around to watching Dallas Buyers Club. I really didn’t want to watch it, but a lot of people told me I should. It turned out to be exactly what I thought it would be—exactly the kind of film that I don’t need to see. More important: it is exactly the kind of film that the Academy loves. And it is a well made film. It works surprisingly well as an episodic story. And I suppose we are supposed to think that Matthew McConaughey’s performance is amazingly subtle as he goes from being a homophobic jerk to someone who embraces the gay community. But I think that’s something that is more read into the film than is found on the screen.

To me, the main character, Ron Woodroof, is a selfish jerk throughout the film. But selfish jerks often do a lot of good, as Woodroof does. He has two primary concerns: keeping himself alive and making money. And it is not until the film is almost entirely over that he seems to care about anyone except in the sense that they help him in that regard. And it is only when he is too ill to care about the financial aspect of the venture, that we see what might be considered altruism. I don’t see anything wrong with this. As played by McConaughey, he has the feel of the lovable rogue. How can you not love a man who smuggles a trunk load of drugs over the US-Mexico border dressed as a priest? Moist von Lipwig was never more adorable. (Or is that “Adora Belle”?)

The film does a good job of showing what it was like for people early on during the AIDS epidemic. And it is a hell of a lot of fun watching Woodroof lash out at the haters, even as he still is one himself. At one point, he comes home to his trailer to find graffiti written on it, “Faggot Blood.” The door has had a padlock placed on it and there is what looks like an official notice on the door. So he yells, “I still live here, you hear me?!” Then he gets a shotgun from the trunk of his car, and blows the lock off the door so he can get his stuff. There is another scene where he forces a former friend to shake hands with his new transvestite friend and business partner Rayon.

In end though, I’m not really sure what the film is supposed to be all about. It seems like it wants to be an issue film about the drug companies and the corrupt system of FDA approval. And it makes a point about drug trials where those running them expect half of the ill to die, even under the best circumstances. But overall, this seems tacked on and acts more as a distraction. To me, it is a given that drug companies are always evil. The issue at the time really was whether the government was going to get over itself and allow people who were dying to do whatever they wanted that they thought might help them.

But in the end, the film works pretty well. And Hollywood can pat itself on the back that 35 years after the AIDS epidemic, a couple of unknown screenwriters and a Canadian director managed to get a low budget film made about it that the people liked enough, so that the Academy could nominate it for a bunch of awards. It helps, of course, that Ron Woodroof was presented as straight, even though he probably was bisexual. But this also means that it falls into the same troubling category of a film I like very much, Mississippi Burning, where the white folks come in and save the blacks. Here the straight man saves the queers.

Dallas Buyers Club is still an engaging film. It’s sad, at the same time that it is exhilarating the same way that Dirty Harry was. It’s stylishly shot, at the same time it is lit in a highly realistic style. And I think the editing is particularly good. In a film like this, pacing is everything. Given that the thematic thread of the film is very weak, the whole thing could have disintegrated due to its inherent chaos. Regardless, the film sticks the ending with a public defeat but a private triumph. And then it tacks on a short fantasy of Woodroof riding a bull in the rodeo. It’s pretentious, but the metaphor works on so many levels that I can’t imagine anyone not using it. And it allows our last view of him to be when he was healthy, which otherwise might have been a downer of an ending.

As I’m always on about, the issue is whether a piece of art works on its own terms. And Dallas Buyers Club certainly does that. I have no intention of ever watching it again, but I’m glad that I did watch it. And I can see why a lot of people really liked it. It’s unfortunate, however, that this is what passes for a serious film in Hollywood. I had the same problem with Crazy Heart a few years back, although Dallas Buyers Club is a far better film. So maybe there’s a trend. It is pretty to think so.

Most Racists Are Good People

Ian Heney LopezIn Namibia, then under South African control and also an apartheid state, the towns were widely spaced in a desert of sere geologic beauty. A farmer who gave me a lift lived some hundred-plus kilometers outside of the next town, but recognizing that there would be little traffic and so virtually no chance that I could secure an onward ride, he drove on past his homestead in the fading sunlight. This generous act added hours of needless driving to an already long day for the farmer. As we got close to town, though, he apologized and explained he would have to drop me off several hundred meters from the outskirts. He had killed a “kaffir”—the local equivalent of “nigger”—for poaching, and the constable had asked him to stay out of town for a few weeks until pressure for his arrest subsided. I was stunned speechless. Then the routines of normal etiquette kicked in and carried me through a ritual of thanks, goodbye, good luck with your travels.

Like most, I have been conditioned to think of racism as hatred, and racists as pathologically disturbed individuals. To be sure, sadistic racists exist, and racism is frequently bound up with the emotional heat of fear and hatred. But as I began to intuit while hitchhiking through the landscape of apartheid, most racists are good people. That bears emphasizing, since it runs so profoundly contrary to the dominant conception. Even the farmer who killed another human being for the petty act of poaching, I came to understand, was not a homicidal lunatic but a complex person capable of both brutal violence and real generosity.

—Ian Haney Lopez
Dog Whistle Politics

Modern Racism

Modern RacismI have been reading Ian Haney Lopez’s excellent Dog Whistle Politics. You should expect a quote and a review of sorts coming in the next few days. But I want to talk about the issue of racism in a more general sense. The truth is that I’m feeling a bit full of myself reading the book, because what he argues in great depth with an amazing amount of documentation is what I’ve been writing about here a lot—especially recently. Racism ain’t what it used to be, and more to the point, racism has never been what it used to be.

More and more, I’m exasperated at people who freak out when someone makes a racial slur. And sometimes these things are just a question of ignorance and don’t necessarily show any racism at all. I especially feel that when someone makes the mistake of talking about the “Jewish lobby” as opposed to the “Israel lobby.” Does this mean the speaker is antisemitic? Not this alone, that’s for sure. Israel is the only explicitly Jewish nation on the earth. It’s an easy mistake to make, but it’s come to mean a lot to people when it usually doesn’t. To me, the word “Zionism” throws up red flags, unless someone is explicitly talking about the history of Israel; when the word is used in a global sense, it is almost always antisemitic.

Regardless, all this focus on the words people use strikes me a way for public discourse to deny modern racism. The truth is that if some racist uses the n-word commonly in public, he’s going to be shunned by most people, and marginalized. That’s great. But when we are talking about politics, this kind of person doesn’t matter. What does matter is that David Duke can put away his Ku Klux Klan robes, not use any of the forbidden words, and fit easily within the Republican Party. And that brings us to Lee Atwater.

Atwater, of course, was the man who used Willie Horton so effectively for Bush the Elder against Michael Dukakis in 1988. And he is the man who explained how racism changes over time. He said (and I know most of you know the quote):

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is: blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

That’s why a couple of times I’ve gone ballistic on David Weigel, most notably in, Dave Weigel’s Racist Apologetics. The point is that politicians like Paul Ryan say things that are the newest form of racism, and Weigel is there to say, “No!” Because that’s what is so great about modern racism: you can always claim that you aren’t actually being racist.

But here’s the key: this has always been the case. When there were literacy tests, they were given with a nod and wink. The people promoting them would say, “This isn’t about race! This is just making sure that only ‘educated’ people vote.” And there were plenty of people who took that argument seriously at the time. But now, it retrospect, everyone sees it for the racist policy that it was. And people make the same kind of case about statements regarding young men in the inner city, but in another 40 years, that too will be seen as clearly racist as if the n-word had been used. And lest you think I’m reaching, what are Voter ID laws if not a new kind of poll tax? And Paul Ryan supports Voter ID laws.

David Weigel is not the problem, however. The problem is everywhere in the media. And this is why the media go crazy when someone uses an explicit racial slur. It doesn’t just indicate that there are still good old fashioned racists out there, it damages the pretense that we are post-racial. But it’s one big fiction. Racism still exists—it will probably always exist. And if Paul Ryan’s budget ever became the law of the land, it would have gotten popular support not because people were saying, “Let’s get those darkies off welfare!” It would have gotten popular support because in the minds of even many people who would be harmed by the budget (and not necessarily consciously), it was those minorities who were disproportionately being harmed. “And a byproduct of them is: blacks get hurt worse than white.”

That’s modern racism and that’s what we should be talking about. But instead, we go out of our way to deny it. And history will not look back fondly on us.

Open Debate, Rula Jebreal, and MSNBC

Rula JebrealYou know my general feelings about MSNBC. It has become too much of a mouthpiece of the Democratic Party. And like the Democratic Party, it lacks backbone and shows no loyalty whatsoever. This was clear when they fired Alec Baldwin, whose show wasn’t all that good anyway, but it was certainly better than Lockup that it replaced and was replaced by. Then there was the totally unacceptable firing of Martin Bashir. The network has the same non-offensive air that many people hate about the Democratic Party. It is also the reason that politicians like Ted Kennedy and Alan Grayson stand out.

Well, it would seem that MSNBC does have a backbone after all. It is just the backbone of top management and what they really care about. This was totally on display with the firing of MSNBC commentator Rula Jebreal. Her firing was the result of attacking the network’s biased coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. What’s shocking is that she said it on Ronan Farrow’s show—who would have known anyone actually watches that show? This immediately caused her booked appearances on a number of upcoming shows to be canceled.

Max Blumenthal at AlterNet has all the details, “Witch Hunt”: Fired MSNBC Contributor Speaks Out on Suppression of Israel-Palestine Debate. Jebreal said that she has been complaining in private to the network for the last two years with no change. What she said on the air was not different than what she has been saying privately. Blumenthal continued:

An NBC producer speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed Jebreal’s account, describing to me a top-down intimidation campaign aimed at presenting an Israeli-centric view of the attack on the Gaza Strip. The NBC producer told me that MSNBC President Phil Griffin and NBC executives are micromanaging coverage of the crisis, closely monitoring contributors’ social media accounts and engaging in a “witch hunt” against anyone who strays from the official line.

When Chris Hayes had her on to discuss the firing, he did not do himself proud. He defended the network and said that of course it was going to protect its “stars.” This is in reference to Jebreal specifically mentioning Andrea Mitchell. But as Blumenthal noted, “MSNBC Morning Joe co-host Joe Scarborough has publicly attacked fellow MSNBC hosts and slammed the network for its support for the Democratic Party.” Of course, I’m sure that gold ol’ Joe speaks for the top management at MSNBC. They have a quasi-liberal network because there is an audience for it; it doesn’t make them liberal. And clearly Rula Jebreal got too far outside their comfort zone.

My experience with MSNBC’s recent coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict is that at its best, it is even handed. It’s usual coverage is highly biased toward Israel. What’s especially terrible about this coverage, however, is that it is better than the networks, not to mention Fox News. What is considered balanced coverage in America is that this all started with some extremists kidnapping three Israeli kids and killing them. This eventually led to Hamas firing rocks into Israel, who had to respond and ain’t it sad that so many Palestinians are getting killed. So the start of the narrative is arbitrary and picked to favor Israel. And in a horrific irony, the people who killed those kids either did it hoping for financial gain and not as a political act (and thus weren’t extremists but just criminals), or did it as a political act hoping it would lead to what is happening right now.

Regardless of any of this, the firing of Jebreal shows a fundamental weakness in MSNBC. She was a commentator, not a reporter or an anchor. She’s supposed to have opinions. And she’s the only one that was willing to voice this particular opinion. It was a great opportunity to address the issue. But MSNBC, because it is both timid and disloyal, just shut down the conversation. But if you want good coverage on just about anything, but especially the Israel-Palestine conflict, you should be watching Al Jazeera America.

See also: Dehumanizing Iranians and Jews.

Carl Jung

Carl JungOn this day in 1875, the great Swiss psychologist Carl Jung was born. When I was kid, I loved Jung. His work was so interesting. Freud seemed so bizarre to me, although there were things I liked about his work. But what I liked most about Jung was that he didn’t focus on dysfunction. He provided a description of why people were the way they were without necessarily labeling it as abnormal.

My favorite work, of course, was Psychological Types. Not only does it cover his whole system, but it provides a great deal of background information. He looked at other writers who had classified people into different types, “There are two kinds of people in the world…” What was especially nice about his system was that he didn’t classify types as normal and abnormal. That was especially important regarding introversion and extroversion, because introverts had long been labeled as damaged.

Now, of course, with the Myers-Briggs test books on the subject are everywhere. But they’ve also changed the theory somewhat. I don’t mind that, but it is interesting. Jung wasn’t some kind of oracle. And Jung thought that women were always (or nearly so) feeling types and mean thinking. That’s clearly not the case, although there does seem to be a strong tendency in that direction. I just took the HumanMetrics test and it said I was an INFP, although I am just as likely to come out as an INTP. Not that this necessarily means anything. I know the types are a model of how people are, but I’m not that sure of how fundamental they are. But it does explain to me why many (even most) perfectly nice people see the world so differently than I do.

Jung’s greatest work is undoubtedly The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious. But it is overwhelming. Again, I don’t necessarily accept it. In particular, I don’t acception the notion of a collective unconscious. But we do share archetypes that are ingrained from our evolution. I have no doubt that the other great apes share some of the same ones, and probably also sparrows and frogs. The book itself is very interesting in the the way that Jung uses eclectic knowledge to pull the theory all together. But one must be very careful with Jung, because he was very good at that kind of thing, regardless of the truth. But there is no doubt that there is at least a core truth to it.

When I was young and fearful of death, I took a great deal of comfort in Jung’s answer to whether he believed in God, “I know.” At this point, I’m not even sure what he meant. He was a mystic. And as a fellow mystic, I could easily answer that question in the same way, without it being in the least bit comforting to my frightened young self. The question is too vague. What is meant by “God”? I would be interested in hearing Jung’s answer to the question, “Do you believe a God that loves you?” That’s where we would potentially part company. But it is regardless a very good answer to the question, because he took a very boring question and made it interesting.

Happy birthday Carl Jung!