Three Thoughts on Game of Thrones Season 4

Game of Thrones - Season 4I watched the fourth season Game of Thrones over the last two days. It is not as good as previous seasons, I think. The biggest problem is that there are a lot more action sequences and I frankly don’t think they are well directed. They are trying to render huge scenes, but they are still ultimately limited to one on one combat. So there is a disconnect. Also, the characters seem only to get more psychopathic over time. Even little Arya is beyond a mercy killing. (You have to question what the point of vengeance is if it will just turn you into the people you hate.)

But I want to discuss three issues that came up for me while I was watching the show. Let me start with a kind of pleasant one. There are only two main characters who are consistently likable. And they just happened to be the book worms: Tyrion Lannister and Samwell Tarly. One is a dwarf and the other is fat. But if the series has heroes, they are them. I’ve noticed this among any number of other writers. I think it is very common for writers to be book worms, short, and fat. So who better to be the only characters in a psychopathic world who have empathy. This is probably the only way that Game of Thrones is true to reality. That, and the fact that dragons don’t really discriminate between sheep and humans.

The primary story in the fourth season is the murder of King Joffrey and the trial of Tyrion for doing it. But here’s the thing: everyone knows that Tyrion didn’t do it. And in particular, his sister and father use the murder to frame him just because they don’t like him. That’s all fine — that’s done every day in America. But in so doing, they aren’t the least bit interested in who actually did kill the little tyrant who all viewers were thrilled to watch die. But why is this? As I said: this happens all the time. Why do people react to injustice (not that Joffrey’s death was an injustice in an objective sense) with an irrational anger rather than a desire for, you know, justice? I really don’t understand — at least apart from the observation that people are irrational. And if that’s the case, the cause of justice is doomed.

My biggest problem with both and third and fourth seasons of Game of Thrones is the story of Ramsay Snow and his sadistic torture of Theon Greyjoy or “Reek.” The show has clearly crossed the line at times between drama and torture porn. What’s more, Ramsay’s fortune has done nothing but grow as a result of his behavior. The worst that tends to happen to truly vile characters in the series is that they have a quick death. Given that almost all the good (by the standards of the show) characters get the same, it is not very satisfying. So even if Ramsay eventually does die, it won’t much matter.

But the character of Reek has a larger significance. He has been totally broken and is now totally devoted to the psychopath who castrated him. But I don’t think that Reek is all that special. We are all Reek. He is not only what society turns us all into; he is what society proclaims is the best that we can be. Every time I hear someone gushing about how America has “the greatest healthcare system in the world,” I think of Reek. These are people who can’t see reality — who are so wedded to the approbation of their captors that they are willing slaves. Here in America, we call it, “Patriotism!”

I suspect that I will continue on with the fifth season of Game of Thrones. I want to know what happens to Tyrion and Sam. And also Arya and Varys. And there are some minor characters who I may never see again like Osha. But mostly, I don’t much care what happens. In the end, someone will unite the Seven Kingdoms. And it doesn’t matter in the least who it is. So I guess that’s another way that Game of Thrones reflects reality.

The “Poor Polling” Anti-Obamacare Argument

Jonathan ChaitIt is notable that opponents of Obamacare have fixated on the law’s poor polling. In a recent column, Reason‘s Peter Suderman quibbles halfheartedly with the law’s demonstrable success in carrying out its goals — suggesting that the astonishing drop in medical inflation may be owed to outside forces — before reveling for six paragraphs in his major point, which is continued lack of public approval. “Obamacare is simply not well liked,” he concludes, “This is the political reality — and President Obama still refuses to embrace it.”

It is telling that, having lost every substantive argument about the law’s operation, their sole remaining refuge is an argument about its perception. It’s true: their lies got halfway around the world before the truth could get its pants on. Indeed, if you google most of the factual disputes I discuss above, you’ll get a lot more hits from conservatives making hysterical and false predictions than you will find from reports showing those predictions failed to come true. Those myths still hold enormous sway over public opinion. Far more Americans believe Obamacare has death panels, which is false, than believe its costs have come in under projections, which is true. Conservatives have won the propaganda war over Obamacare. The trouble is that they think this is an indictment of Obamacare, when in fact it’s an indictment of them.

—Jonathan Chait
The Obamacare Doomsday Cult Struggles to Adapt to World That Did Not End

Good Iran Deal So Conservatives Hate It

Iran Nuclear Deal

The always great Max Fisher thinks that, This Is an Astonishingly Good Iran Deal. I don’t know that I’m astonished, but I agree with him that it is a really good deal — for everyone. Well, for everyone who is interested in the well-being of the the world. I know that there are a lot of conservative politicians who will be very unhappy with this deal precisely because it is good. But I don’t think we need to worry too much about the fact that the Republican Party is unhappy because it’s suffered a political defeat. But I’ll admit: I don’t think the Iranian regime is especially interested in acquiring a nuclear weapon — but they’ve got to be pleased that the idea of it has provided leverage to allow this deal that will be good for its people. And this deal ought to make westerners who are not like me feel safer about any Iranian threat.

Fisher quoted nuclear proliferation expert Aaron Stein as saying that the inspection regime represents something of a Platonic ideal. Of course, this is just the framework deal. There is still the chance that those who will only be satisfied with war will mess the whole things up. God knows they have done their very best to do it up until now. Thankfully, conservatives have a long history of incompetence. In fact, it more than ideology is what most defines them. But there is still one real issue that could cause problems: trust. Neither side wants to go first. Iran wants the sanctions lifted first. I don’t see that there is a problem here, but you never know.

As for what is in the deal, well, it is impressive. Iran is giving up 70% of its centrifuges. And not just any centrifuges. It is giving up the best ones. The ones that remain will be the most basic 1970s models. It is also giving up 97% of its enriched Uranium. Finally, it will get rid of its Plutonium plant and replace it with a plant that cannot enrich weapons grade Plutonium. As Fisher noted, “Iran would simply not have much of its nuclear program left after all this.”

Of course, I know none of this matters to conservatives. In their minds, Iran is like a James Bond villain: super intelligent, sneaky, and totally untrustworthy. In other words, the Iranian leadership has been totally dehumanized by the conservatives. And that means they aren’t thinking straight. A good example of this is the claim I seem to be hearing everywhere that after this agreement, Iran will be able to create a nuclear weapon in just a year. What is never mentioned is that by the same calculations, Iran could currently create a bomb in two or three months.

If we listen to the conservatives who hate this deal, there is only one option: war with Iran. But as I discussed in, We Need to Think Before Bombing Iran, full-scare war with Iran would be a huge mistake, even if it were politically viable. But if we are just planning to bomb the nuclear facilities, we would have to do it constantly. And in the end, it probably wouldn’t work because the Iranians are not idiots.

But that is the key to what most conservatives in the US want. They don’t want a deal. They don’t really want to go to war. They just want to pose as the hard men (even the women) they think they are. It reminds me of Tom Clancy Combat Concepts. It’s all about presenting an image of themselves. Don’t get me wrong: we all care about that. But these are traitors who care more about looking like they are being strong for the country than they do about actually protecting the country.

The central focus of this agreement is the inspection regime, which is rigorous. As Fisher detained, the only way that Iran can build a nuclear weapon is to do it completely apart from its existing nuclear energy program. And that would be almost impossible to do without detection. And note: it would be just as possible — if not more so — if we went the route of the bombing campaign that conservatives in this country and Israel are so keen on.

What’s really interesting about this deal is that it is better than even supporters had hoped. Needless to say, it is far better than those arguing against had hoped. For example, one of the criticisms was that it wouldn’t include weapons delivery systems like ballistic missiles. But it turns out it does. Will that matter to critics? Of course not. Being against this deal is the starting point for critics; the reasons are just details added later. But it looks like the critics have lost this one — at least until the start of 2017.

Happy Christian Day!

EasterIt is Easter. When I was a kid, I never much liked the holiday. It is, after all, not nearly as cool as Christmas. But the main reason that I didn’t like it was that it came at the end of a week’s vacation from school. That never made sense to me. And since I hated school, Easter was always primarily this thing we did right before having to return to school. So I didn’t like it. But there were other problems. I didn’t like hard boiled eggs as a child. The iconography of Easter isn’t interesting. And I was not generally deprived of sweets, so there was nothing special in the sugar OD that Easter represented.

Now Easter can come and go without my even noticing it. The main purpose it serves now is as the ultimate example of how shallow American Christianity is. Pretty much every Christian I know makes a much bigger deal out of Christmas than Easter. They even do this while complaining that, “Christ is the reason for the season.” But as many people have noted, celebrating Jesus’ birthday on Christmas is a relatively new thing. And there is certainly Biblical justification for not celebrating his birthday. But the main thing is that Jesus’ birth is just not important to the essence of Christianity.

The idea of Jesus’ virgin birth is actually hilarious. Assuming that the Gospels have some historical truth (and I don’t think they do), the virgin birth is not mentioned in the first Gospel, Mark. It seems to have been an invention of Matthew, which was copied by Luke. (I no longer accept the Q hypothesis.) So like almost everything we “know” about Jesus’ life, the virgin birth is just a whole bunch of folklore. And if Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin (and if he was, he wasn’t alone), then there is no theological content to his birth. Many early Christians thought that the Christ only entered Jesus when he was baptized. So who cares when Jesus was born?

The whole basis of Christianity is Easter. That’s when Jesus supposedly rose from the dead according to prophecy. This is the big magic trick that is supposed to wash away the sins of the world. This is what allows Christians to live their original sin filled lives and still get into heaven. Christianity really is nothing except for the Easter story. So why isn’t it a bigger deal for Christians?

I think the reason is because modern Christians have trivialized their religion and Jesus. Instead of dealing with actual theological questions, they’ve developed a kind of immature fantasy where Jesus is their best friend. “The times when you have seen only one set of footprints, is when I carried you.” And I’ll admit, Jesus does a hell of a lot of carrying for the modern American Christian. That’s because the modern American Christian is not willing to do much of any of her own carrying.

The supremacy of Christmas over Easter among Christians is a sign that the religion is little more than a cultural signifier. This is why there are so many conservative Christians who believe in Jesus, guns, and low taxes. I think for these people, the belief in the second two is much more earnest. But for those Christians who take their religion more seriously: happy Christian day!

Morning Music: Jacques Brel

Jacques BrelWe haven’t been to France in a while, so how about a little Jacques Brel? (France, Belgium, whatever!) He is really one of the favorite singers — which probably explains why I have written about him so much around here. And today, we listen to “Mathilde.” It is possibly my favorite of his songs. Musically, it has these gorgeous long melodic lines. But more than that, the lyrics have a special meaning to me.

It tells the story of a lover’s return. Mathilde has broken the singer’s heart in the past. And now that she is coming back, he is filled with dread. He talks about how he is going back to hell and entering combat and so on. Yet he cannot stop himself. The whole song is a beautiful marriage of fear and excitement. I don’t think there has ever been a more honest love song.

Mathilde est revenue!

Anniversary Post: Upper Big Branch Mine Explosion

Upper Big Branch Mine explosionOn this day five years ago, 29 men were killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion. There is nothing especially surprising about it. High levels of methane in mines have a tendency to explode. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) spent a year investigating the explosion and concluded that the company, Massey Energy, operated the mine in a “profoundly reckless manner” by not providing sufficient ventilation. But I have a serious question: why should they have?

The year before the explosion, Massey Energy had total revenues of $2.7 billion. They had profits of over $100 million. The year after the explosion, the company was sold to Alpha Natural Resources for $7.1 billion. Yet for the company’s “profoundly reckless manner” of working that cost the lives of 29 men, Massey Energy was fined $11 million — roughly 10% of their profits or less than 0.2% of the total value of the company. It did have to pay $209 million in criminal fines. The only prosecution was of a superintendent with the company. But that wasn’t for the explosion; it was for interfering with the MSHA investigation.

Workers die. The worst that happens to their employers are that they lose their jobs. And let’s not be naive: they had no trouble finding other jobs. Managers might have problems if they don’t turn a profit. But killing 29 men? No one on the management side of the industry cares about that. And if that sounds too harsh, well, prove me wrong. Show me the great John Galt who cares as much for the lives of his workers as he does his profits. But you won’t, because caring about the rights of other people goes entirely against Objectivist philosophy — regardless of what Ayn Rand claimed. And that is the prevailing philosophy of modern American business.

We mark the fifth year anniversary of the deaths of 29 men at the Upper Big Branch Mine.