Iran Is a Critical Ally Against ISIS

IranWhat made Dwight Eisenhower a great leader is not so much his presidency. What made him great was how he balanced all the different interests on the Allied Forces in World War II. But he was just doing a job — a job that many politicians asked him to do. It is hard to get people who nominally want to work together to actually work together, but it is far harder to get people to be willing to even try to work together. Maybe it was just a question of desperation — the fascists in Europe were a huge threat. Throughout my life, I’ve never seen anything like it. If I were to sum up the foreign policy of the United States for my entire life, I could do it in one word: stupid.

This brings us to the problem we now face with ISIS. One thing I really don’t like about the coverage of ISIS is that it is exactly the same as the coverage of any group we don’t like: ISIS is evil and must be destroyed. I’m not saying that they aren’t. But that is hardly helpful in understanding how we might eliminate them as a threat. The main thing that is reported about the group is that they are “worse than al-Qaeda!” It has been widely noted that they are so bad that even al-Qaeda thinks they are too violent. But that isn’t even true. It’s more a political rift in the extremist Islamic world.

One thing I remember being pounded with when I was a kid was that the Soviet Union wanted to “take over the world!” The same thing is said about ISIS. Yet that not only isn’t true, it isn’t realistic. I’m sure in a fantasy sense it is true. It’s like me wanting to be a billionaire: it would be great, but I have far too many other problems I have to deal with to focus on such dreams. This is Dr No thinking. From all reports, ISIS is far too involved with securing their gains than taking over new territory. That’s one of the frightening things about ISIS: they are extremists, but they are smart — they aren’t just capturing territory for its own sake so they can be destroyed like Napoleon at Waterloo.

Last week, Zuri Linetsky wrote a fabulous article over at The American Prospect, ISIL, Iraq and Syria: Why Military Action Won’t Do The Trick. If I were King of America, I would require it read on every television channel and in every classroom in the nation. Because it explains better than any other single source what is going on in Syria and Iraq right now. And it turns out, what is going on is exactly the same thing that has gone on over and over again for the last 35 years. It is just that America is a very slow learner.

Linetsky provided a history of the rise of the Afghan Taliban and compared it with the rise of ISIS. And guess what: there really is no difference. In both cases, these extremist groups rose up in the vacuum of a failed state. Of course, that isn’t the way that we look at it here in the United States. Here ISIS is presented as a kind of virus. And that might be fine if we combined it with a weak immune system that allows the virus to take hold. What was that weak immune system? An Iraqi government that oppressed the Sunni minority when it could bother to acknowledge it at all.

I forget where I heard it, but someone said or wrote that even if we could just magically eliminate ISIS, it would do no good. There are issues in Iraq that would still be there and would only lead to another group like ISIS. (Of course, we would all be told it was “even worse” than ISIS!) Linetsky’s idea is that we get Iran to help the Shi’a not have a failed government and Saudi Arabia to give the Sunnis political support so that their needs are met without turning to dangerous groups like ISIS.

Of course, we don’t talk to Iran. We can’t talk to Iran because of something that happened four decades ago. This is despite the fact that Iran is one of the best and most stable countries in the region. They could be a great partner in the region and they could have been for at least two decades. But instead, our foreign policy seems like it was developed by a clique of high school jocks. I’m not saying that Iran is wonderful, but if a country as terrible as Saudi Arabia is our ally, I don’t see any problem with making nice with Iran.

What’s more, we managed to work with the Soviet Union under Stalin during World War II. What good is our continued anti-Iran hissy fit? It makes no sense whatsoever. And it raises an important question: just how big a threat do we claim ISIS is? It’s been pitched as existential. So was Saddam Hussein. Both of these claims are ridiculous. But if we aren’t willy to finally grow up about our relationship with Iran, then I want the US to stop the bombing in Syria and Iraq, remove everyone from those countries, abandon all aid to Iraq. Because it means we don’t care at all about them and we don’t see them as important to our interests.

Ralph Fiennes Makes Coriolanus Even More Fascist

CoriolanusIn 2011, Ralph Fiennes made his directorial debut with a filmed version of Coriolanus. Why he did this, I cannot say. My guess would be that it was ripe for the picking: it is the first filmed version of the play that I am aware of. But there is a reason that it hasn’t been filmed and generally isn’t performed that much.

Coriolanus is perhaps Shakespeare’s most difficult play because its title character is a symbol of everything that liberal democracy stands against. It shows total contempt for the masses and goes out of its way to make them look bad and so justify the title character’s total disdain for them. It is not in the least surprising that the fascists loved the play. France banned its performance in the 1930s because of this. But more than a hundred years earlier, William Hazlitt described the character perfectly with all its problems:

Coriolanus complains of the fickleness of the people: yet the instant he cannot gratify his pride and obstinacy at their expense, he turns his arms against his country. If his country was not worth defending, why did he build his pride on its defence? He is a conqueror and a hero; he conquers other countries, and makes this a plea for enslaving his own; and when he is prevented from doing so, he leagues with its enemies to destroy his country. He rates the people “as if he were a God to punish, and not a man of their infirmity.” He scoffs at one of their tribunes for maintaining their rights and franchises: “Mark you his absolute shall?” not marking his own absolute will to take every thing from them, his impatience of the slightest opposition to his own pretensions being in proportion to their arrogance and absurdity.

The story itself is very much like an Ayn Rand novel. Coriolanus is an uncompromising warrior who despises the people. When they don’t love him as he feels they ought to, he joins the Volsci and attacks Rome. Think about how ridiculous that is. The Volsci army could not conquer Rome, but with the addition of a single man, they are invincible. This is not how war works. In war, the stronger army wins except when there is some special circumstance like a new technology (for example, Battle of Agincourt) or geography (for example, Battle of Stirling Bridge). So this idea that Coriolanus would simply revolutionize the fighting prowess of the Volsci is rubbish of the worst kind of romantic fiction. The Iliad — itself highly romantic — is a far more accurate representation of war.

In addition to this, those people who pushed Coriolanus out of Rome are presented as the very worst kind of politicos. They, and the people they cynically claim to represent, are Ayn Rand’s “moochers.” Coriolanus is cast as a “marker,” even though he doesn’t make anything. He is a warrior. He takes. Yet he is a near perfect character for Rand’s proto-fascist philosophy. And I’m not alone in seeing it that way. A commenter over at Quick Translator wrote:

The first time I read it was in college. My kindly professor laid out the case for seeing Coriolanus as a kind of fascist strongman brought down by his contempt for the people, and I went away comforted in my small-L liberalism. This time, however, reading it on my own, it was hard not to see Coriolanus as something else entirely, a deserving elitist brought down by an envious, parasitic mobocracy who couldn’t bear to see him succeed. In short, John Galt in a toga.

The writer clearly doesn’t understand Rand very well, or he would see that Coriolanus is both a fascist strongman and John Galt. Both are men who hate almost everyone and feel very wronged that they are not better treated — despite the fact that they are very well treated indeed. And when they don’t get all that they think they deserve, they rebel. In Galt’s case by going home and taking his toys with him and in Coriolanus’ by attacking his homeland.

But the problem is not with the hero. The problem is the way that everyone else is portrayed as evil and lazy. Coriolanus, his familiy, and Menenius (his father figure) are presented as good. They are juxtaposed with Brutus and Sicinius who are so smarmy that there is really no way to like them. And they are the defenders of the plebs — the Roman middle class. You know: the small businessmen and workers who keep the whole of society functioning. But not in the play! No, here they are just a bunch of people who stand around and complain.

Note that this play is not exactly an outlier for our good friend Shakespeare. His plays are riddled with attacks on the lower classes and praise for the upper classes. If a poor character acts nobly, you can be certain that by the end of the play, we will find out that he is really the long lost son of royalty. It’s actually quite disgusting and is one of the reason that I prefer the more radical Christopher Marlowe and Lope de Vega.

As for the film, it is well made. The acting is superb. The various technical departments make it a far more engaging film than I would have expected. Still, I have problems with the modernization of the play. John Logan is an excellent screenwriter. But it is hard to make this play work in the present. I’m tired of seeing television screens in movies, and this one is full of them. Yet despite all of the work to make the commentary come to life, it is hardly clear what is going on. The play is very long and Logan has knocked it down to two hours, much of which has no dialog. So it is all very simplistic: the moochers push out Coriolanus when they should be licking his boots and he gets all hurt and turns traitor.

But in the end, there really is no fixing the play or the character. Coriolanus isn’t even a smart character like Richard III who we hate yet admire for his brilliance. Coriolanus is portrayed as an uncompromising warrior who just can’t deal with duplicity of politics. Who but an idiot thinks that his great skills on guitar should be all that is necessary when he decides to be a moose tracker? And who but an immature adolescent would get angry at the moose when they don’t come running when they hear the sweet sound of his blues licks? I think this is why Fiennes really plays up the “mama’s boy” aspect of the character. But this hardly makes the thoroughly unlikable Coriolanus more palatable.

Ultimately, I don’t like this film because it does everything to vilify the forces of democracy — even going so far as to have Brutus and Sicinius beaten up by two aristocratic women — and everything to humanize the forces of aristocracy. The play itself is bad enough. Fiennes has made it worse. And it really doesn’t matter that he did it with great ability. It sits in the very uneasy realm of films like The Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will. Although those films were artistically great and politically lethal. Coriolanus is artistically competent and politically noxious.

Shark Tank Needs “Business Marketing for Idiots”

Shark TankI just caught a tiny bit of the show Shark Tank. Regular readers will know that I hate this show. In November of last year, I wrote about how evil it is the way we deify these people, Business Will Not Give Up on GOP. In January, I wrote about the the vagaries of wealth, Arbitrary and Inequitable Distribution of Wealth and Incomes. In February, I wrote about how small minded the “sharks” are, Herd Mentality on Shark Tank. And in May, I returned to the deification issue from a different angle, Heroes for a Debased Culture. But today, I have something different, although mentioned in the past: the “sharks” are generally idiots.

In the clip I saw, there were a couple of guys selling socks (Bombas Socks, if you are interested, and you shouldn’t be). They had one of these stupid “social justice” kinds of businesses where for each pair of socks they sell, they give a pair to a homeless shelter or some such nonsense. Sound familiar? It is the sock version of TOMS shoes. Slavoj Žižek dealt with this in a 2009 lecture First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. In it, he talks about how people can feel good about themselves buying a five dollar cup of coffee at Starbucks because a nickel goes to help sustainable agriculture or some such. It is what it is. If the upper middle class want to feel that all they have to do to be socially responsible is to be good consumers, it’s not my fight, even though it shows them to be silly and ultimately evil people.

The point of this approach to the business is that it is a gimmick. It’s like when you were a kid and your mother sent you to get something at the store. You could go to market A where the owner gave you a sucker or market B where you got nothing. You went to market A. The lazy do-gooder goes to the coffee shop that gives a negligible amount of profit to the cause du jour. So from a business standpoint, it is just a marketing cost. See how simple it is? Even I understand it and I don’t get business at all.

Kevin O'LearyEnter the stupidest of the “sharks” (which says a lot): Kevin O’Leary. He asks, more or less, “Why should I invest in this? If you are giving away one pair of socks for each one you sell, aren’t you cutting your profits in half?” This is like saying to the CEO of Coke, “Why should I invest in your company when you are spending all this money on advertising? I mean, you’re just throwing away profits!” But it’s worse than this. And it gets at one of the reasons I hate these kinds of “social justice” companies.

If a do-gooder buys a pair of socks for four bucks (these are actually nine), he figures that half the money goes for his socks and half the money goes to help that grateful homeless man. Of course, that isn’t it at all. Let’s assume the socks only cost a dollar to manufacture and distribute. The buyer gets two dollars worth of good feeling, even as the seller only invests half that. So as long as you have the right kind of lazy idealists as customers, this is a great way to market your product.

So why is it that Kevin O’Leary didn’t understand such a basic concept in marketing? There are loads of similar kinds of ploys. There is no real difference between this sock deal and the old “buy one, get one free.” He didn’t understand because he’s not smart and he’s not very competent. None of them are. You know the old Edison saying, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration”? Well, modern business seems to be zero percent inspiration (Give away a pair of sock for every one sold? Really?!) and fifty percent connections and fifty percent just being a cold hearted bastard. The Bombas Socks segment had it all, in exactly those percentages.

Dead 18 Years

Cool Air - Bernie WrightsonI don’t know if are aware of the H P Lovecraft short story “Cool Air.” In it, the narrator explains why it is he has an aversion to cold. He tells the story of meeting a doctor who lived upstairs from him. Through the use of a refrigeration system he has built and continues to build, he keeps his entire apartment extremely cold for unknown reasons. Eventually, the system breaks down and the narrator is forced to help the doctor stay cold with buckets of ice. But in the morning, after getting back with the replacement parts for the air conditioner, he finds the doctor in a hideous state of decomposition because he had actually been dead for 18 years, just keeping himself “alive” with his various chemical concoctions and the cool air.

I find the doctor’s plight very compelling. This constant effort to stave off death. It has a certain similarity to what a junkie does each day to stave off withdrawal. But it is also the way I feel right now with my work. I am producing stuff at an alarming rate. Although I complained recently that I felt like my work was becoming hackish, it is also undeniably true that it is becoming longer and deeper. And to some extent, I see it as an effort to avoid thinking about my life.

The only reason I’m even aware of this is that when I exercise, I am left to my own thoughts. I’ve noticed that the speed that I run is determined by exactly how disturbed I am about whatever it is I am thinking about at a given moment. Much of it is quite trivial. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, it is all trivial. I’ve even begun to wonder if all the conservatives are right when they talk about the poor — but not about the poor generally. When John Boehner says the poor don’t want to work, he’s kind of right about me. The truth is that I am not interested in doing yet more work that gets destroyed by the money men. And that is the more pleasant and high paying work. I am also not interested in getting a soul crushing job at the local gas station. All of it makes me think that we have a pretty screwed up society when the vast majority of people do actually pointless work. Really, we should all be working on farms an hour a day and spending the rest of our time writing stories and trying to understand Galois theory.

So I suppress this kind of reflection on the practical matters of my life with mental strip mining. I read and write and read and write. It is an extremely selfish thing. I often think that since others are so interested in practical matters, it isn’t really necessary for me to do so. Isn’t it the case that everyone is expected to have a soul crushing job simply because everyone is expected to have a soul crushing job? Most people think the 40 hour work week was on those clay tablets Moses brought down off the mountain. Tenth commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. And you shall not work more than 40 hours per week unless your employer payeth unto you one and a half time.” The truth is the 40 hour work week is relatively new. So why not a 30 hour work week? Or 20? Or 10? You’ve got to ask yourself why you work so much and why so many people now work on Christmas. We do it because we lack freedom — we lack the freedom that hunter-gathers had twenty thousand years ago.

At the same time, I fear all the excessive “unproductive” work that I do is the only thing that is keeping me from having a nervous break down. Or at least a break down of some kind. And maybe that’s what everyone is doing. The clerk at the gas station goes to work not just because he needs the money (I do understand the practical side of life) but because he’s afraid that if he doesn’t keep working, he may find himself dead. Actually: more than dead. He may find that he died 18 years ago.

This World’s Greatest Magician Carl Ballantine

Carl BallantineOn this day in 1917, the great magician Carl Ballantine was born. He is not best known for his magic, however. He is best know for playing Gruber on McHale’s Navy. In fact, he is mostly known as an actor. He had one of the most recognizable voices and deliveries of anyone in film or television. He was a very funny guy.

One interesting thing about him is that he didn’t work in vaudeville — he was just a tad young for that. But he created an entire career out what is essentially a vaudeville act. I actually think we’ve really lost something with that approach to entertainment. Now pretty much everyone has to have an hour and a half of material. But the truth is that very few people have anywhere near that amount of good, much less great, work. Ballantine had five minutes of absolutely perfect magic.

Apparently, through the depression, he helped support his family by doing straight stage magic professionally. But he learned rather quickly that he would never be of quality of other magicians — people like Cardini. And one time while performing, he blew a trick. So he covered with a joke, the audience laughed, and a new act was born. Here it is. I’ve seen it many times. It is pretty much exactly the same every time, including the ending where they throw the broom at him:

My favorite line is, “This takes a lot out of an artist! Oh course it don’t bother me too much.” It’s a funny act for any audience, but if you know the kind of act he is lampooning, it is so much better. For example, the torn and restored newspaper is a very beautiful trick. But Ballantine not only can’t perform the trick, he can’t even succeed at tearing the newspaper. Also, he adds a move with the platter that distinctly looks like he does a switch before, “There’s a trick I wish I could do!”

He died only a couple of years ago at the age of 92, and he was performing up almost to the end.

Happy birthday Carl Ballantine!