The Lone Ranger Better Than Expected

The Lone RangerLast night I watched the 2013 film, The Lone Ranger. And before I discuss it, let me just point out that even at five years old, I thought that the Lone Ranger was the most pathetic hero imaginable. Nothing since that time has changed my opinion. He is the archetype of the Good Guy™ — a character so earnest he shits puppies. So I appreciate the problems that the filmmakers faced in trying to make this film. The obvious, and correct, solution to this and many other problems with modernizing this franchise was to not make it. Obviously, they did not do that.

The Lone Ranger is brought to you by the same people who brought you Pirates of the Caribbean. And it has many of the same problems. In particular, it is quite boring whenever Johnny Depp is not on the screen. And the action sequences — just like in the second the third Pirates films — are overlong and so over-the-top that they reach escape velocity — never finding their way back to earth. In the pursuit of these action sequences, the film also commonly depends upon animation that sticks out. Finally, the film is at least forty minutes too long.

The best part of the film is when it is going for comedy. It is incredibly silly. Clearly, the filmmakers decided to go for a postmodern approach. Generally, the film is not so much about the Lone Ranger as it is a modern meditation on the Lone Ranger. And for anyone who doesn’t think much the old incarnations of it, these sequences are very funny. But for some reason, everyone thought it was a good idea to oscillate between Duck Soup silliness and The Ox-Bow Incident seriousness. I don’t think it worked, but it was an interesting idea. In a world of art, I’m sure the writers would have continued working on it. In the world of commerce, I’m sure everyone did their very best to get this thing done on schedule and budget.

In addition to the fundamental problem of the Lone Ranger being a very boring character, the film has perhaps a bigger problem: Tonto and the depiction of Native Americans in general. The problem is that genocide is hard to deal with as a side issue. In Captain America, I thought it was great and all that that over-earnest hero saved the world during World War II, but I thought maybe he might be able to do something about the genocide going on. Call me stick in the mud. Regardless, The Lone Ranger deals with the issue better: we get to see the genocide happen in real time.

Thematically, this is the best part of the film. Business interests have manage to take control of all parts of the government. The military is portrayed as basically decent, but cowardly and foolish. And in the name of protecting “civilized society” from the “savages” they use Gatling guns to wipe out the Comanche. The real reason, of course, is so the bad guys can make a bunch of money and take control of the railroad. To be honest, I was shocked about the portrayal of the military. But isn’t that pretty much what the function of the military is? When I talk about cowardice, I’m not talking about rushing into battle and killing and risking death — they clearly have that kind of bravery. But the bravery to stand up to authority? Not really. This isn’t a slight against the military. This is definitional. If you are going to have a military, you want them to do what they are told. But that is so dangerous and I don’t think Americans have given that any thought. Instead, they idealize the military as if it is the only part of the government that can do no wrong. Good God, we are doomed!

Tonto is a difficult character. Traditionally, he is Gunga Din: the good and loyal savage. Clearly, that doesn’t fly anymore. So what the filmmakers do here has now become almost as much of a cliche: they flip it so the audience sees the story largely from Tonto’s perspective. Rather than look up to the Lone Ranger, Tonto looks down on him. And we share that view because the idealism of the Lone Ranger is childish and insipid. But the film also makes Tonto insane in the same way that Jack Sparrow was. I’m not sure how we are supposed to take that.

Ultimately, I liked the film far more than I expected to. But the bar was set pretty low in that regard. About the only reason I watched it was because I wanted to see Johnny Depp play a funny character. I’d heard the film was quite bad, so I was expecting something like Wild Wild West — which really was bad. In an absolute sense, The Lone Ranger is more good than it is bad. But I will do my very best to never watch it again.

Powerful Want Good Results for the Powerful

David RobertsIt’s a mistake to ask whether this is wealthy people defending their financial interests or wealthy people expressing their ideology, or which motivation is really in the driver’s seat. The triumph of modern conservatism is that it has collapsed the distinction. The interests of the wealthy are the ideology. Fossil fuels are the ideology. They’re bubbling in the same ethno-nationalist stew as anti-immigrant sentiment, hawkish foreign policy, hostility toward the social safety net, and fetishism of guns, suburbs, and small towns. It’s all one identity now. The Kochs (and their peers) are convinced that their unfettered freedom is in the best interests of the country. There’s no tension.

Concentrated wealth wants political results congenial to concentrated wealth. It has shaped an entire movement to that end, and the movement has absorbed all ancillary institutions, including supposedly independent, knowledge-producing institutions like academia and think tanks and supposedly public-interest-serving institutions like NGOs. The money flows from the wealthy and their corporations to PACs and foundations, to nonprofits and advocacy groups, to PR firms and activists. It’s like an electric charge going through a field of iron shavings, orienting them all in the same direction.

Policymakers are surrounded by the worldview of the wealthy; it comes at them from think tanks, lobbyists, activists, media, and their own social circles, becoming like water to a fish.

—David Roberts
What We Can Learn From Dr Evil’s Attack on Obama’s Carbon Rules

H/T: DR Tucker

Conservatives Want Obamacare Do-Over

Antonin Scalia - Nazi OfficerThere was one moment in the oral arguments for King v Burwell that stood out to me. Alito and Scalia were from the beginning arguing for the plaintiffs. At one point, Alito entered into some grand apologetics for how the states themselves could fix any problems that the conservatives so want to create in the healthcare law. And then Scalia came in with a brilliant point, “What about Congress? You really think Congress is just going to sit there while all of these disastrous consequences ensue?” This led to a big laugh when Solicitor General of the United States, Donald Verrilli responded, “Well, this Congress, your honor?”

The point is that Alito and Scalia want to kill the law and then claim that it isn’t their fault — the legislature could fix the problem if it wanted. But the point is that the legislature doesn’t want to fix the law. It wants to kill the law, but it doesn’t have that power. And so the conservatives on the court are only too happy to help out. They already did that when they made the Medicaid expansion optional. And they think they have the final blow here. It wouldn’t be quite so bad if the conservatives on the court would just admit to the fact that they are nothing but political hacks in robes.

What was Samuel Alito Thinking?But notice the reasoning here. Scalia is basically demanding that Obamacare be passed twice. And he does this knowing that getting it passed once was an amazing example of legislative ballet. My understanding is that those ominous four words that this case is all about would have been changed if it hadn’t been for the fact that Teddy Kennedy died and they couldn’t make changes. So Scalia is helpfully traveling back in time and performing a filibuster to destroy the law.

I understand the annoyance of conservatives. The kind of majority that the Democrats had during the first half of 2009 was amazing. They got to do a couple of things they actually wanted. But Republicans have had the same ability in the past, but they have used it almost exclusively for evil. We Democrats haven’t spent the last three decades looking for ways to undo Reagan’s union busting. (Sadly, only too many Democrats seem to think it was great.) And no one talks about raising the top marginal tax rate back up to 75%. We move on. But that seems to be something that Republicans — and conservatives more generally — can’t do.

These are the people, after all, who still want to destroy Medicare and even Social Security. They want to take the United States back a hundred years to when the country faced a decent chance of revolution. What’s Glenn Beck’s big issue? Social Security? The income tax? No! Direct elections of Senators. That’s right: the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913. How terrible that the people actually get to elect their Senators rather than leaving it to the corrupt system of bribery in the state legislatures. So conservatives never give up. Even if we went back to John Adams’ aristocratic vision of the country, they would want to go back further. “The Magna Carta is a socialist document!”

So the people voted in a whole lot of Democrats in 2008, and regardless of how it has been spun since then, they did more or less what the people wanted. The conservatives want a do-over. Now that the political landscape is to their advantage, they want another opportunity for an Obamacare vote. And Alito and Scalia (and I assume Thomas) are eager to give them one.

My Whiteness

Whitney DowI haven’t seen any of Whitney Dow’s Whiteness Project videos. To be honest, I’m a little afraid. For one thing, I expect to feel a lot of pena ajena while watching them. But there’s also the fear that I will just embarrass myself. But I did read an excellent interview with him by Jenée Desmond-Harris.[1] But before facing the videos, I want to talk — in my overly analytical way — about what it means to me to be white. But I do think we have to be careful. The truth is that race is something that is outside of us. It is a concept. It is a way that we have of dividing up people into groups. And it is a function of our xenophobia. So it would be more correct to say that it is racism that is inside us and not race itself. On the other hand, our society is so defined by this concept of race that it is hard not to talk about it as if it were real. Ideas — even wrong ones — matter.

I self-identify as white. And what that means is that the society at large sees me as having no race. The way that society looks at race is the way the doctor looks at your chart. If you don’t have any diseases, you are healthy. In our society, if you don’t have any race, you are white. And that’s why the concept of race is so pernicious: it is thought of as a kind of contagion. This is why white supremacy is so caught up in issues having to do with purity. We see this in old terms like “quadroon” (one-quarter “black”) and “octoroon” (one-eighth “black”). The idea was to define the race of a person by the faction of “impurity.” White is pure and it is contaminated by racial impurity. The definition that these people have of the “white race” is “no race.”

This gets to the very heart of what it is to have white privilege. I have the incredible luxury of being treated by default as an individual. Yes, of course people make lots of assumptions about me. A glace is enough to tell, for example, that I’m a book worm. But if I were to go out and rob a bank, no one think, “A book worm robbed a bank!” And more to the point, no one would think, “A white guy robbed a bank!” It would just be “some guy.” People might decide that I was a “low life” or whatever. But no one would blame my actions on the white race. And that’s an amazing benefit that I get by being white.

Now look at this from the other side: it is just as good to be white. If I’m watching the local news and they report that a man robbed a bank, I don’t need to cringe when I see that the guy is white. So what? It doesn’t reflect badly on me! Because society has decided that he isn’t white. Rather, he is just another human being. And I can’t be held responsible for what some other human being does.

Other than this, I am as related to other whites as any given African American is to the African American community as a whole. And this is where it gets tricky. I’m hugely biased toward a particular cultural tradition of American whiteness — namely the liberal European tradition. I might spend much of my time complaining, but the truth is that I’m obsessed with Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and so on. And this makes me as white as the people who watch 19 Kids and Counting. Also that’s part of this blog and this article. Who the hell do I think I am? Actually, that’s a question some of my friends have asked me: why do I think that anyone cares what I have to say? But it generally doesn’t even occur to white men like me to ask the question. We see ourselves the way lords saw themselves in 18th century England.

At the same time, I have the most vulgar racist instincts. I’ve been very open about that while writing here. I fight it, and I think largely tame it, with my higher brain functions. But it’s there and it poisons me like a low-grade infection. And I’m not sure how it manifests. The truth is I see white people say really ignorant things about race that show clear blind spots. The most obvious is the claim, “I treat everyone equally!” Yeah, I don’t go around screaming racist epithets either, but I’m aware enough to realize that doesn’t prove anything. But by definition, I’m not aware enough to know the things I don’t realize. But even this understanding has at least a whiff of aristocracy to it — the great man trying to understand what the little men suffer.

Of course, my whiteness is geographically dependent. When I was a kid, my family went on one of those horrible car trips through Texas. At a diner in one town, two good ol’ boys had a very loud and threatening conversation with each other about the race of my father. They couldn’t decide if he was Mexican or Spanish. They eventually agreed that it didn’t matter. And then after we left, they followed the “colored” man with his white wife and mulatto kids to the county line. I wasn’t white that day and it had nothing to do with what was inside me.

But here in northern California? I’m as white as it gets — or at least well over whatever cutoff people determine for whiteness. And I’m very aware on a personal level how this benefits me. I see myself in very individualistic terms. I am, for want of a better term, a “curious fellow.” I go about my life as if I had no race. And I think that is, at rock bottom, what defines being white.

[1] That’s right: another Jenée Desmond-Harris article. What can I say? She’s really great, and I’m beginning to think that Vox is the best political website around. And yes, I think that is a pretty typical thing for a white guy to say.

Morning Music: Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John HurtGiven that it is Mississippi John Hurt’s birthday, I figured we ought to listen to of him this morning. I love his finger-picking style. His voice is kind of weak, but it’s more authentic than a thousand American Idol screechers. He recorded a few songs in the late 1920s, but nothing much came of them. He went back to sharecropping for the next three and a half decades. But in the early 1960s, an ethnomusicologist was able to track him down. As a result, Hurt spend the remaining three years of his life as a minor celebrity.

The only live performances of his that I’ve fond online are from when he was on a short-lived television program, Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest. And here is “Spike Driver Blues” — his own version of the John Henry legend. But I don’t much care about the lyrics. The music is just brilliant. As usual with Hurt, it’s kind of hard to classify it. There’s blue but also country and even some bluegrass. Beautiful stuff.

Actually, it is possible that Hurt was born on 3 July.

Birthday Post: Joseph Hardy

Joseph HardyToday, the great theater director Joseph Hardy is 86 years old. I originally learned who he was because when I was a kid, I was mad about You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. And Hardy directed its original Off-Broadway run. In fact, he won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director for it. And he deserved it! The production was as chaotic as a production could be. When they started, they had no script. They just had a few songs by Clark Gesner and some Peanuts books. They built it from the ground up, which probably explains why it is more a review than a musical. (I also think that a great deal of credit has to go to Joe Raposo.)

Hardy also won a Tony Award for his original production of Robert Marasco’s incredibly creepy Child’s Play. Also of note, Hardy directed the original production of Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam (which also starred Allen). But he spent most of the rest of his career directing television — including the pilot of The Paper Chase television series I was talking about recently. After that, he exclusively directed television movies.

He retired from television and Broadway (as far as I can tell) in the early 1980s. But as recently as 2013, he was directing a smaller production of The Dance of Death. More recently, he’s done some work at the 59E59 theaters. And he is still a figure in the New York theater scene. He was photographed at the premiere of The Rivals last year. This last one was at The Pearl Theatre, which has 160 seats. All of it combined paints a picture of serious productions of older works. So I assume Hardy is involved with the kind of theater that he loves. And that speaks rather well of him.

Happy birthday Joseph Hardy!