Daily Archives: 29 Jan 2015

Slap Shot as Prophetic Tragedy

Slap ShotI watched the 1977 film Slap Shot the other night. It’s a George Roy Hill film, and so that’s why I decided to view it again. I didn’t like it that much as a kid, but I figured I would like it a lot more now. That wasn’t really true. But I know what I found troubling as a kid: the gratuitous violence. It is meant to be funny, but I was always very sensitive to that. And now I just don’t think it works. But I’m in the minority. A lot of people really like the film. I’m not saying that I dislike the film, however. It is just that it is deeply depressing from the vantage point of America 2015.

The film came out the year after Rocky and I think Hill was trying to get the same feel in Slap Shot. The home town in the film seems every bit as dirty and unpleasant as the Philadelphia in John Avildsen’s classic. Similarly, the indoor scenes are under lit, giving it a very natural feel. But it is easier to take in a drama than a comedy. Here it is oppressive. In fact, I felt oddly disconnected from the characters, who seemed to be a lot more sunny than I was feeling.

One aspect of the film that stands out is how working class it is. But it is hard not to see it as pandering. For example, Charlestown, where the Chiefs are located, is a one factory town. And that factory closes in the middle of the film, throwing 10,000 people out of work. But no mention is made of this later in the film. The town doesn’t seem to have been affected by it. And the people on the team are just interested in getting bought by someone else, so they can continue to play in some other town. That’s understandable, but there is absolutely no solidarity.

Maybe that’s the way it should be. Films reflect the society. And 1977 was the leading edge of America’s hard right turn. People tend to think that things started to go bad under Reagan. That’s not true. The social decay and the destruction of the middle class really took off under Reagan, but it was Carter who started the whole neoliberal process with its deregulation. If Slap Shot has a theme, it is that everyone is so desperate that they don’t have the ability to care about anyone else.

This is most demonstrated in Paul Newman’s character, Reggie Dunlop. He isn’t so much callous towards others as he is just lost in his own fantasies. Throughout the film, there is a subplot about Dunlop trying to get back together with his wife, Francine, played by Jennifer Warren. At the end, Francine is moving to New York because business is so bad in Charlestown — the only (implicit) acknowledgement of the town’s economic problems. Dunlop is going on to coach another team in Minnesota. When Dunlop is asked if Francine will be coming to join him, he says, “Oh, for sure!” But of course, she isn’t. And he knows it. Your dreams only take you so far. In 1977, it was possible to still have dreams. It is 38 years later, and dreams seem like a quaint affectation of a bygone era. There are no more factories to close. No more wives to win back. No more jobs waiting in another town.

No wonder I didn’t find Slap Shot very fun. It was created at the start of our hopelessness. When Dunlop looks out at his wife as she drives away, he’s looking decades into the future. He sees that it doesn’t get better.

Libertarians Crazy in Judiciary Too

Michael O'DonnellRoot traces the battle over judicial restraint to a notorious 1873 Supreme Court decision known as the Slaughterhouse Cases. The decision concerned a group of butchers who challenged a Louisiana law that, ostensibly for health reasons, relocated and consolidated the New Orleans slaughterhouse industry into a state-controlled monopoly. The butchers sued, claiming that the law violated their rights as small-business owners. It was the Supreme Court’s first chance to interpret the new Fourteenth Amendment, passed in the wake of the Civil War and guaranteeing citizenship, due process, and equal protection to all people born or naturalized in the United States. But the Court read the great amendment narrowly and rejected the butchers’ claims. Justice Stephen Field dissented and unwittingly became the patron saint of the libertarian legal movement.

Note what has happened here: libertarians claim as their hero a judge who from the outset saw the Civil War amendments as a shield with which white people could protect their property. Of course, the amendment is broadly and grandly worded, and encompasses far more than the antislavery intentions that propelled it into existence. And most observers today agree that Slaughterhouse was wrongly decided. But it is distasteful to raise up Justice Field as the Fourteenth Amendment’s champion: Field, who voted with the majority in Plessy v Ferguson that separate is equal; Field, whose majority vote in the Civil Rights Cases restricted the Fourteenth Amendment’s ability to target the Ku Klux Klan; Field, who outrageously suggested in Slaughterhouse that Louisiana had treated the white butchers as “slaves” under the Thirteenth Amendment. Had Field gotten his way in both Plessy and Slaughterhouse, the Fourteenth Amendment would perversely stand for property rights but not freedom from racial discrimination.

If Field is Root’s hero, then Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr is his villain. This again is a strange choice. Holmes is regarded across the political spectrum as one of the great justices in the history of the Supreme Court. His elegant opinions on subjects from contracts to torts to habeas corpus did more for the development of American common law than those of perhaps anyone since John Marshall. And, alongside Louis Brandeis — another justice whom libertarians disdain — Holmes helped establish a strong First Amendment. Freedom of speech being the most elemental of rights, one would think that libertarians would embrace Holmes. But they dislike him because he was the Court’s leading proponent of judicial restraint; he famously dissented in Lochner. Courts should not dream up constitutional rights where none exist and interfere with legislatures, said Holmes. Yes, they should, libertarians retort.

Root completely misses the reason that Holmes is revered. Unlike most proponents of judicial restraint, Holmes did not let his politics interfere with his judging. It is well and good for a social conservative like Robert Bork to call for a restrained court when the effect of this is to uphold state laws banning abortion and contraception. Those are results that he wanted, making it impossible to tell whether his methodology was in service of his politics or vice versa. But Holmes was the closest thing to an apolitical justice that we’ve had. Root does not mention this, choosing to associate Holmes with the Progressive Movement, but the great jurist’s own economic views were distinctly libertarian. The fact that he refused to write them into constitutional law when he had a chance in Lochner reveals him to be a jurist of rare principle.

This is not the only inconsistency in judicial libertarianism. In a real sense it is a movement on a collision course with itself. Root calls for activist courts to strike down laws that hamper individuals’ freedom of contract. But states pass far more laws than Washington does. And states are supposed to be the laboratories of democracy; libertarians profess to believe in local rather than centralized government. But Root seems to think the more laws the courts invalidate, the better. Here we approach the nihilistic side of libertarianism: less government is better government, wherever the trims are made. Libertarianism, so principled, so carefully thought out, does not appear to have grappled with the conundrum of using courts to shrink local government.

—Michael O’Donnell
SCOTUS Heads Toward the Cliff

Worker Delusions and Corporate Profits

Not FedExI learned from my father today that a FedEx driver he was talking to has been greatly harmed by Obamacare. It seems the driver was complaining because he used to pay $1,200 per year for his health insurance and now he has to pay $3,000. Thanks Obama! I smelled a rat — a dead one that had been festering for a few days. I mean, how is it that Obamacare would have any effect on employer provided healthcare? I could think of a few reasons, but they weren’t compelling. It could be that the insurance the company was providing was something useless and Obamacare does require that insurance not be useless. But that was unlikely at that cost. It could be the tax on “Cadillac plans.” But that would not cause the cost to go up two and half times.

Much more likely was something we are seeing far too often. Many companies are using Obamacare as an excuse to cut worker benefits. It is very difficult for an employer to get its workforce to take a pay cut. But making them pay more for their insurance is much easier. And doing it because of “Obamacare” makes it that much easier. But could workers really be that gullible? With a willing media that has manage to confuse and distort the law, it isn’t much of a problem. And without a union to protect and inform employees, there is no one to prevent it.

There hasn’t been much coverage of what happened, but I did manage to find an article in The Commercial Appeal, FedEx Shifts Gears on Health Insurance. But based upon the article, it doesn’t look like the company was even pushing the Obamacare angle — although it may well have been internally. The only reference to it is that FedEx is making this change “to protect against Obamacare’s penalties on overly generous plans in the future.” This is a nice bit of disingenuousness, “We’re cutting your benefits now because there might be penalties in the future!” But this is a minor thing — it isn’t the main rationalization for the cuts.

The main reason for the cuts is the same as it always is: profits. The article stated, “The change is designed to slow down one of the company’s fastest-growing expenses.” But given that healthcare represents 3.5% of their expenses, that doesn’t mean quite as much as it could. What it really means is that the company wants to increase profits at the expense of its workers. There was a time 50 years ago when this would have been considered outrageous. Today it is thought of as the way things ought to be and even a great thing. As we are told all the time, “The only purpose of a corporation is to increase shareholder value!” Yea team.

But the whole affair highlights how American politics is so screwed up. Here is a worker, who in decades past would have been proudly union — in solidarity with other workers. But now, he’s repeating the lies of the corporate class. The problem isn’t that the company sees easy profits by squeezing him. It is that all those poor people are getting free healthcare and all the corporations are getting unfairly attacked.

Afterword

From the experience of my business partner Will, who has a great deal of shipping experience, the US Postal Service is by far the best shipping company. Both FedEx and UPS suck. This goes along with my experience as well. And the Republican attacks on the USPS are all about providing FedEx and UPS with access to the most profitable USPS routes so they can leave the unprofitable ones to the government so that we taxpayers can pay for them. Capitalism when it is good for corporate America and socialism when it isn’t! And many American workers cheering it on.

American Double Standard on Spying

Alan GrossDuring the State of the Union address, you may have noticed a guy who was recently released from prison in Cuba. His name was Alan Gross, and President Obama told us, “[A]fter years in prison, we’re overjoyed that Alan Gross is back where he belongs.” Gross has been portrayed as a naive do-gooder, who the evil Cuban government treated like a spy. But the truth is at least a whole lot more complicated than that. And I would argue that the Cuban government treated Gross like a spy because Gross acted like a spy. He may not be a spy in the sense that he doesn’t work as an agent of the CIA. But he was working as a contractor for the US government doing espionage in Cuba.

What Gross was supposedly doing was setting up internet access for the Cuban Jewish community. That’s true in a sense. But as John Stoehr noted, “In 2009, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) paid Alan Gross, through a third party, almost $600,000 to go to the island nation to install military-grade internet equipment in Jewish synagogues that could not be detected by the government in Havana.” This is the kind of equipment that only the military and intelligence agency can get their hands on. Gross very clearly and knowingly broke Cuban law and was sentenced to 15 years for “criminal acts against the independence of the Cuban nation.” That it was — just as surely as the Bay of Pigs was.

The obvious retort to this is if Jewish synagogues want to have this kind of equipment they ought to be allowed. I totally agree! But you know who doesn’t agree? The United States government. If the Cuban government sent agents into the United States to install high tech gizmos for the purpose of evading surveillance, our government would arrest those agents and throw them in prison — very likely for a lot longer than 15 years. So it is just outrageous for the United States to claim that Cuba is in the wrong here when its government acted the same way that ours would.

Let’s remember: Edward Snowden is living in Russia right now. He not only can’t come back to the United States, he can’t even leave Russia. After Evo Morales said that he would consider giving Snowden asylum in Boliva, the US government got his plane forced down in Austria where it was searched in total disregard for diplomatic protocol. Similarly, Julian Assange is effectively under house arrest at the Ecuadoran embassy in London because the US wants to put him in prison for the rest of his life.

I’m for freedom of speech and the right to privacy — in the extreme. But until my own country shares my commitment, I’m not going to complain about other countries that are similarly small minded. (And Cuba has a much more valid reason for worrying than we do.) But this is always the way in the United States — not just with the government but also with our media. If a country is an enemy, whatever it does is bad and whatever we do to it is good. I discussed this a couple of days ago regarding the different treatment we give to Venezuela and the far, far worse Saudi Arabia, American Double Standard Regarding Democracy. So Obama and the rest can claim that Cuba was wrong to imprison Alan Gross. But they would have been all for it if the parties had been reversed.

Paddy Chayefsky

Paddy ChayefskyOn this day in 1923, the great screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky was born. I know him primarily from three films: Marty, The Hospital, and Network. I’ll admit, I’ve never really understood Marty. Mostly it is just that no one could ever think that Betsy Blair wasn’t pretty enough for Ernest Borgnine. But the screenplay is quite good. It is a very sweet film — the kind that would likely be panned if it were released today.

But it is Chayefsky’s sharp satire in The Hospital and Network that he is most known for. I think they hold up quite well. But that may not speak so much of the films as it does to the fact that the world hasn’t much changed. The Howard Beale Show and The Mao Tse-Tung Hour in Network are only different from modern reality television in that these fictional shows actually showed so creativity. All that Chayefsky missed about the future was that the people who would bring it to us would be so unrelentingly boring — and that the nation would be just fine with that.

Most people remember the admittedly great “I’m mad as hell!” speech. But it isn’t really what Network is all about. It’s sad that people don’t remember the one scene that is really important. It’s a speech that tells humans that they are meaningless. It is the speech that eventually causes Howard Beale to be assassinated. But it isn’t Beale’s speech. It is the head of CCA, Arthur Jensen, who gives the important speech. It isn’t important because we should believe it. It is important because it completely summarizes what the Jensens of the world think about the rest of us. And if we don’t stand up to those people, we will continue to live in their worlds. “There are no peoples… There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars.”

Just five years after the success of Network, Chayefsky died of cancer at 58 years old. It’s sad because he was on a roll. It would have been interesting to see what he went on to do.

Happy birthday Paddy Chayefsky!