Tom Cotton’s Idealism Is Cheaply Bought

Tom CottonI have a certain fondness for political extremists. We have far too much middle-of-the-road thinking with few people willing to stand up for anything. This is especially true of the nominal left of the political spectrum. On the right, there are a lot more of what we might call true believers. The problem is that, in general, these people are every bit as spineless as the middle-of-the-road caucus. A great example came my way via Jonathan Chait, Tom Cotton Is Now the Perfect Republican.

Tom Cotton is currently a Republican Representative from Arkansas who is now running for Senate against Mark Pryor. But earlier this year, he voted against the Farm Bill. This did not go over very well. The president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau said that he was “disappointed” by the vote. Now, Cotton is fighting back. In the following commercial, he claims, “When President Obama hijacked the farm bill, turned it into a food stamp bill, with billions more in spending, I voted no. Career politicians love attaching bad ideas to good ones. Then the bad ideas become law, and you pay for it.” I’ll get to everything that’s wrong with this in a moment, but watch it. It’s a highly effective ad:

As everyone should know, the Farm Bill and food stamps have been bundled for decades. There was a political reason for this: it created a coalition of Representatives from rural and urban areas. But there is an ethical reason as well: much of the Farm Bill consists of price floors, which makes food cost more. As a result, it is just a matter of fairness to help the poor pay for food made expensive by government regulation. So it is a baldfaced lie to say that Obama hijacked the farm bill and turned it into a food stamp bill. Cotton and his extremist colleagues hijacked the Farm Bill and tried to make it only apply to wealthy farmers.

But here’s the thing: if that’s what you believe in, own it. I believe we should get rid of the Farm Bill and just have an independent food stamp program. The poor need help. Farmers are not poor. It is no longer the Great Depression. The Farm Bill is one of the most egregious examples of corporate welfare in the country. Cotton is like the vast majority of Republicans: he wants to shovel ever more money to the already rich and screw the poor as much as possible. If that’s what he believes — and he does — then he should own it.

But the Daily Kos polling has Cotton ahead of Mark Pryor by 4.5 percentage points. Cotton doesn’t need to stand for anything or do anything for his constituencies. All he has to do is promise that he’s going to get “those” people and he will be swept into office. For almost fifty years, the Republicans have won election after election and pushed the country far to the right by appealing to the white majority’s latent racism.

And I really don’t know what Americans think they get for all this. Reagan rode into the White House in 1981 promising to get that mythical welfare queen. And now we’ve had five consecutive presidents who have done almost nothing for average Americans even while the economy has growth quite well. Reagan and Clinton have managed to make the poor poorer, so I guess they were true to their word. But is this what the American middle class will accept? Is it good enough to see themselves go further into debt and not see their living standards rise, as long as they can have the thrill of watching the poor writhe ever more in pain?

I guess this is how great empires fall now. But I think ritual sacrifices to the gods was actually less cruel.

The Brother from Another Planet After 3 Decades

The Brother from Another PlanetSince today is John Sayles’ birthday, and I always write the article the day before, I ended up watching The Brother from Another Planet last night. I haven’t seen it since about the time it came out in 1984. I remembered liking it, but it didn’t affect me the way it did last night. It is absolutely a great film. It’s interesting. On Netflix, it’s average rating was 3.2 stars — pretty bad by Netflix user standards. It gave a “best guess” of 4.8 stars, and I ended up giving it 5 stars. I’m a pretty easy grader of films: I give out a lot of 4 star ratings, but 5 stars are rare.

The film is quite low budget — just $350,000 according to Wikipedia. And it has an episodic quality to it that could so easily turn into a boring mess. But it has what Coriolanus did not: a really compelling lead character, played perfectly by Joe Morton. It’s not that The Brother is nice and Coriolanus is not. I can be pulled through a narrative if there is something to be discovered about the main character. But there really is nothing to be learned about Coriolanus; he’s just an efficient warrior who is too filled with himself.

Of course in this film, we learn many things about The Brother. The most important thing we learn is that he is an escaped slave from another planet. And this is disclosed when he takes the little boy to an art exhibit featuring images from American slavery. It’s a beautiful moment. But there are others that range from sweet to silly, such as his detachable eye that stores video — kind of the 1984 version of Google Glasses.

It’s hard not to keep comparing The Brother from Another Planet with Coriolanus. The two films are almost complete opposites. Coriolanus is all about how a single remarkable man goes about maximizing his freedom with total disdain for the freedom of others. The Brother is all about a far more remarkable man who is worried about the freedom of everyone. And ultimately, his altruism causes the community to rally around him and assure his own freedom.

Much of the second half of the film is about The Brother becoming something of a private detective to find out the source of drugs on the street. This too is presented as a kind of slavery, as indeed it is — even if I think it is not so much the pushers as the laws of the power elite that enslave people.

Above all, The Brother from Another Planet is a romp — and a very funny one too. It is the most creative fish out of water film I’ve ever seen. You don’t need to see that it provides a kind of gritty utopian vision of the world to fall in love with it. Of course, if you are looking for realism or serious science fiction, you won’t find it here. The Brother from Another Planet is more like a fable or a tall tale. I think it is a wonderful film for kids too, but I just checked and it is rated “R” for “language, some drug content, and brief nudity.” Maybe so, but there is an opportunity cost: your children will miss out on this beautiful imagining of the world as it could be. Regardless, more adults need to see it. We can make the world a better place — together.

Why Ayn Rand Was a Proto-Fascist

Ayn RandI was thinking of something while writing, Ralph Fiennes Makes Coriolanus Even More Fascist. In that article, I referred to “[Ayn] Rand’s proto-fascist philosophy.” And I fear that many people would take exception to this. I know that my first wife would argue that Rand didn’t believe in violence, for example. Well, as I discussed in Ayn Rand and Indians, this isn’t really true. Like most political radicals, she often fell into apologetics on behalf of violence for her cause.

Rand is a strange character. She considered herself a philosopher. But she is a great example of the Dunning–Kruger effect. This describes how the less someone knows about a subject, the more they overestimate their abilities in it. So Rand claimed that all of her work sprang from Aristotle and she got nothing from anyone else. At the same time, she never missed an opportunity to bash Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. She misunderstood Kant to such a level that it is quite embarrassing. But much more problematic for her was her relationship with Nietzsche.

The whole of Rand’s philosophy is pretty much Nietzsche as understood by a 16-year-old boy. And this is why I call her proto-fascist. Her idea of the übermensch goes right along with fascist thinking of the 1920s and 1930s. Her major works didn’t come until long afterward. Her philosophical work didn’t really start until the late 1950s, following Atlas Shrugged. So she was forced to spin her thinking, which was largely in accordance with fascism, as something else. Instead of the elevation (in theory anyway) of the worker in communism, she elevated the businessman. But this really is little different from fascism. And on a practical level, the elimination of the state would only lead to a country of “makers” and, not “moochers,” but serfs.

But if you find this all too theoretical. Let’s talk about rape. In The Fountainhead, Roark rapes Dominique. Rand did later justify herself against criticism by saying it was, “rape by engraved invitation.” But her notes from the writing of the novel show that this was not what she meant when writing it. Then, in her play Night of January 16th, Bjorn Faulkner rapes Karen Andre. Yes, Ayn Rand had some real emotional hangups and if you are interested in them, read Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. The point is that Rand admired the idea of Hitler’s “brutal youth.” Sure, she softened it and created apologias for it. How could she not after Hitler and Stalin? But that was what she was pitching.

The kind of social Darwinian thinking that so many on the right have is undercut by one problem: actual Darwinian evolution. Humans are animals of both individualistic traits and communal traits. So both “sides” of the debate are wrong. The communists were wrong to think that we can all work together for the common good. People need to feel special and distinguish themselves from others. But the counter to that, Rand’s thinking, or libertarianism more generally, is wrong for thinking that all that motivates us is personal gain: we are hungry, we take food; we are horny, we take a woman we find attractive. If that’s how we really were, we would have gone extinct tens of thousands of years ago.

Some will note that fascism was a communal system as well. It really wasn’t. It was a pure social Darwinian system that was sold being for the good of the masses. We mustn’t mistake the marketing for the message. Ayn Rand had the luxury of being more blunt because she wasn’t a politician — just a cult leader. But she wanted an anti-democratic world where “great” men just take what they want and everyone cowers before them as befits the demigods.

Democrats’ Senate Chances Crumbling

Psycho SenatorRecently, it’s looked rather hopeful for the Democrats holding the Senate. I am sorry to report that things look much worse now. There are two reasons for this: one not surprising at all, but the other quite surprising. The first reason is that we are finally getting some good polling out of Alaska, and Mark Begich is doing very poorly. Up until now, I’ve been skeptical about his chances, regardless. I mean: it’s Alaska. They get far more from the federal government than they pay in taxes. So of course their people would be conservative and want to get rid of all that welfare that goes to them.

The surprise is in Colorado. Mark Udall is suddenly losing badly to Cory Gardner, who is a conservative freak. In Alaska, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. But this is Colorado. Of course, you may remember the recall election in Colorado last year. Two state senators were removed, even though what they did was hugely popular. So how did they lose? The usual way: only the right wing nut jobs came out to vote.

The only real hope for the Democrats at this point is that the big get-out-the-vote effort will make a difference. And it could in Colorado. I’m not too hopeful in Alaska. So at this point, we’d have to say that the best case scenario for the Democrats is that they hold 49 seats in the Senate. And if the Republicans have the majority, I don’t know what that means for Kansas where Orman hasn’t said who he will caucus with.

As of today, here are what the models say with the most likely number of seats and the percent chance the Democrats have of keeping the Senate:

I’m not sure what is going on with the Princeton model. The numbers I listed were the daily snapshot. But the election day model still predicts a 70% chance of the Democrats holding the Senate. And the meta-margin is Republicans +0.4%. Regardless, looking at all these numbers, it is hard not to conclude that the Democrats will have 48 seats in the Senate starting next year.

Also worth noting, it assumes that even with Republicans getting the majority, Orman will still caucus with the Democrats. That may be the case. It is almost certain that the Democrats will take back the Senate in 2016 and I expect them to hold in 2018. So long term, being with the Democrats would give him more power. But caucusing with the Republicans might make his re-election in 2020 easier. And it is not clear he’s going to win. More recent polling makes that race closer than it had been.

A couple of week ago, I read about a poll that found that a majority of Americans trust the Republicans more than the Democrats on the economy. When I read that, alarm bells went off. I think the Democrats are terrible on the economy. But what could possibly make people think that the Republicans are better on the economy? They have done nothing but drag down the economy since Obama entered the White House. Let me summarize their economic thinking:

The only way to help the economy is to give us complete control in Washington. Then we will do what we always do: savage social programs and give huge tax cuts to the rich. Until we have complete control in Washington, we will everything we can to destroy the economy.

In other words: in the majority or the minority, they will destroy the economy, but they will be more able to do it with complete power. The fact that after decades of bad Republican economic policy, the people still think it is a good idea is a good example of why our country is dying. And I fear it is like a virus that will eventually destroy the world. We don’t need dictators in the United States, when politicians can so effectively manipulate the people into voting against their own interests. And the rest of the people have become so disillusioned that they don’t even vote.

Let me make a personal appeal. If you care about my health: vote. I’m not asking much. I’m not even telling you how to vote. Because I believe in democracy. I believe when everyone votes, we get good policy. When only the cranks who want to screw all “those” people, well, we get government by, for, and of the super rich. Just vote. Vote. Vote. It’s that simple: vote.

Image altered from one by Internet Weekly.

John Sayles and Matewan

John SaylesThe great film writer and director John Sayles is 64 today. I did him last year, but I can’t think of anyone I feel more interested in doing. As it is, I’m in a bit of a creative lull. Or rather, I’ve been doing a lot of computer programming today. It’s interesting. It is also very creative, but in a different way. It seems that the more I do of either, the more I want to do. I am a man of habits.

The great thing about Sayles is that everything he does is worth doing. That doesn’t mean everything is great or even good. And he is the kind of guy who whenever I talk about him, people say, “But what about…” And sure: feel free to talk about that film, whatever it is. I’ve seen almost all of his films and I like them all to one extent or another. But I want to talk about one film today: Matewan.

It tells the mostly true story of Matewan, West Virginia coal miners in 1920 and their attempt to join the United Mine Workers. The coal company hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to handle the situation. They were basically just armed thugs. I always get angry when people talk about the violent history of unions. Yeah, funny that. The companies were just gentle as lambs and it was all the fault of those greedy and mean workers. I’ll tell you, I don’t know what is wrong with Americans. As it looks ever more certain that the Republicans will take over the Senate next year, it seems the American worker acts like an abused spouse.

The attempt to unionize ultimately led to the Battle of Matewan where three townspeople (including the mayor) and seven “detectives” were killed. The film is an epic of the working man. And Sayles does a brilliant job of rendering it. It also has a large and outstanding cast. Of particular note: it is the first film that Chris Cooper starred in. It is well worth checking out.

Of course, being that it was about an attempt by the American worker to get some small part of the American dream, it lost money. Part of that is just that it wasn’t made for 14 year olds. But I feel certain that if more adults went to the movies, it wouldn’t have done well. This is just about labor organizing and the evil corporate interests that try to stop it. It’s part of the history that created a strong middle class. It’s part of many things we now take for granted like the 40-hour work week and weekends. What American worker would be interested in that?

Happy birthday John Sayles!