Depression and City Lights

City LightsI’ve been really depressed recently. And as anyone who is a fellow sufferer knows: there is no reason. It is just, as a friend once put it to me, as though you are living in a world of black and white; and sun never comes out. As a result, I’ve been trying — in vain — to cheer myself up with much cinematic comedy: Wallace and Gromit, Monty Python, and most especially Charlie Chaplin. Tonight, I watched City Lights for probably the first time in thirty years. There are reasons why I’ve avoided it for so long.

I disagree with most critics. I don’t think it is the high point of Chaplin’s career. I think that both The Gold Rush and Modern Times are better films. The main problem with City Lights is that it has some distinct dead spots. I think the fact that it is an incredibly compelling story has made viewers miss the fact that a number of bits just don’t live up Chaplin’s best work. What’s more, I really do think that Virginia Cherrill as the flower girl is weak. In fact, her performance is so poor that the viewer wouldn’t know what to make of the ending if Chaplin hadn’t directed it well by focusing on the continued holding of hands.

All that said, City Lights is a fantastic film. By the end of it, I was sobbing. Like everyone, I assume, I very much identify with the tramp. What is so special about him is that he isn’t all good. He’s lazy. He’s often dishonest. But most of all, he’s self-important. He thinks rather highly of himself, as is represented here by his interactions with the newspaper boys who mock and shoot spitballs at him. Yet we forgive all these sins because ultimately, the tramp is a decent person.

A wonderful expression of this is near the end of the film. The tramp has just absconded with the rich man’s money. (It was given to him, but justice is as rare in a Chaplin film as it is on the streets of Ferguson.) He gives her money for the rent and money for her eye surgery. But he pockets one bill — I assume a hundred dollars. This is his tendency. He looks out for number one. But in the end, the better angels of his nature win out. And I think that’s universal. It seems to me that every time someone has complimented me for doing something nice, I’ve always wanted to blurt out, “Yeah, but I almost didn’t do it!” Because that’s true. My instincts are not evil, but they are also not the best of who I am.

Of course, the true brilliance of the film is found in an early scene where Chaplin manages to establish the blind flower girl thinking that the tramp is a rich man without a word. It starts with, once again, the tramp being anything but upright. Rather than cross the street like normal people, he just walks through the cars — in the door on one side and out the door on the other. It’s funny, and it’s been used by a lot of people since, but here it is used primarily to establish the sound of the door closing so that the girl thinks he is getting out of his own car. Of course the real brilliance comes on the exit when the tramp buys a flower, and while waiting for his change, a wealthy man gets in his car and goes. She thinks it is the tramp disregarding his change.

I’m not sure that watching Chaplin when I’m depressed is a good idea. It does make me feel good in its universality and the ultimate sense of goodness. But things always work out for the little tramp in ways they just don’t in the real world. And that lays heavy after the film is over.

A War By Any Other Name

Charles PierceI’ve always thought of the drone war in terms of the melon vendor and the guy in the goat cart on the other side of the road. There’s an al Qaeda operative buying a melon from a vendor. Meanwhile, a guy with a goat cart comes up the other side of the road. Suddenly, here comes death from above. The terrorist is dead. So is the melon vendor. So is the guy in the goat cart on the other side of the road. They’re all blown into equally tiny bits. How do we think the families of the melon vendor and the guy with the goat cart are going to take this? We create a desire for retribution with which our grandchildren may have to cope. And we may never know the names of the melon dealer or the guy with the goat cart, the way we now know the names of Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto. We may never know the name of the melon dealer until his grandchild blows up an airplane. And none of that should be surprising because that’s also what happens when you make war, any kind of war, in a place.

—Charlie Pierce
Drone Wars: Oops, They Did It Again

Swing State Voter Regret Is Killing Me

Scott WalkerI keep reading really annoying bits of news. This one is about Scott Walker, but it doesn’t matter. I read the same basic thing about all kinds of Republicans, “A new Marquette Law School Poll finds Governor Scott Walker’s job approval rating has fallen to 41 percent, with 56 percent of registered voters in Wisconsin saying they disapprove of how he is handling his job as governor.” This always makes me blurt out, “Then why did you vote for him?!” Well, in part, it is that only six months ago, the wise people of Wisconsin thought differently, “In the previous poll, in October 2014, Walker’s approval among registered voters was 49 percent, with 47 percent disapproving.” But really: has anything he’s done been a surprise?

Oh yes, I know: he signed the “right to work” law that he always seemed to be saying that he wouldn’t sign. But there was never a question about that. And then there is his horrible budget — necessitated by his conservative policies. But again: this is not a surprise. Scott Walker wasn’t transformed into some horrible creature when he woke up on 5 November 2014. This is the man that the wise people of Wisconsin — the ones that are so unhappy with him — voted for.

Rick ScottI’ve notice recently that a lot of my articles end with something like, “But what do you expect when only conservatives vote?” And similar sentiments. I do believe that I’m going crazy. I need to install a punching bag next to my computer just so I can get through the day. My level of frustration is clearly having a negative effect on my life. Just the same, the level of sensibleness on the part of the average American is having a deadly effect on this country. And I’m going right along with the country, the world, and the shoreline in Florida.

Speaking of which, we see that Rick Scott way back in February was not liked by the people in his state, “Scott has a negative job approval rating, with 42 percent of voters approving of his performance and 47 percent disapproving.” But he still managed to win re-election last November from the wise people of Florida. Again: on 5 November 2014, he was not more horrible and scary and fit for a Wes Craven film. He was the same guy. He wasn’t hiding who he was. He was quite clear. Although I will give the wise people of Florida this: Charlie Crist wasn’t much of an alternative.

It is at times like these that I regret having stopped using expletives on this blog. Because I could really use some right now! But here is the thing. When I was a kid, I was a true believer in America. In a lot of ways, I still am. I’m far more of a patriot than a million conservative pretenders like Scott Walker, Rick Scott, or literally hundreds of others that I could name off the top of my head. But I can deal with it. I can watch as my county is destroyed even while being nominally a democracy. What I cannot take is seeing my country destroyed while the rest of my countrymen stand by and complain about the bastards that they elected just a couple of months earlier.

Fundamental Republican Problem: Competence

Chicken and EggI’m sure you know the story about the guy who goes to the doctor and says, “My brother thinks he’s a chicken.” The doctor says, “Why don’t you have him committed?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” I think that story relates to Republicans’ increasing difficulty winning elections. Yes, I know: 2010 and 2014. But they only do well in these off year elections because no one shows up. Slowly, the entire Republican base is dying off and the Democratic base is growing up and, hopefully, starting to take voting more seriously. But I don’t think this is all about bigotry as many claim. I think it is about eggs.

EJ Dionne wrote an interesting article recently in The Washington Post, Can the GOP Learn From California? It is about how California went from a swing state just a couple of decades ago to one of the bluest of states. According to the article, this is all about bigotry — especially the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 so loved by then governor Pete Wilson. But I really wonder about that. Californians have never really had a problem with bigotry. After all, Proposition 187 won by an overwhelming majority: 59-41. And Reagan and Bush Sr both won the state.

E. J. DionneI think that the bigger problem is just that the Republicans are incompetent. People everywhere are willing to vote for racists if they think the racists will do right by them. Remember: Bush won the state using the infamous Willie Horton ad. And Prop 187 was six years after that. The problem is that Republicans have gotten a reputation for not being good at their jobs. And they aren’t! Even worse: they don’t seem to care about being good at their jobs. And they don’t! I’m sure the only California Republican Congressmen you’ve ever heard of are Kevin McCarthy and Darrell Issa. McCarthy — who represents Bakersfield — is against any action at all on global warming. If there is one thing that legislators from California should care about, it is global warming. But McCarthy just cares about drilling more oil. And Issa, of course, is just a freak — and a flat out climate change denier. These are not serious men. They are ideologues who are dedicated to the interests of the rich.

I’m not suggesting that the bigotry of the Republican Party doesn’t hurt it. The lesson of Lee Atwater’s “Nigger, nigger, nigger” comment is that bigotry changes over time. And it is becoming more and more clear modern bigots need to come up with even more subtle dog whistles. Of course, a big problem is that the Republicans have gone backwards and allowed rather direct bigotry to creep back into their lexicon. And it isn’t so much that the voters of America disagree or, in any event, have a problem with it as a practical matter. But they do have a problem with being associated with it. The point of dog whistles is that they provide plausible deniability. Being in favor of deporting honor students in the name of the “rule of law” just doesn’t provide much cover.

If Republicans could actually deliver the goods, they could overcome this. But Obama beat Romney in 2012 by a shocking margin of 60-37. And I think Romney’s anti-immigrant stance has been way overstated. He was for self-deportation. That was a dog whistle to the immigrant community, “I’m not going to do dick!” But it was kind of hard to take Romney’s economic policies seriously when they are the same as the ones Republicans were pushing in 1980. Then, the top marginal tax rate was 70%. When Romney was running, it was 35%. In the meantime, average Americans had seen no improvement in their lives. But yet another tax cut for the rich was going to help?

Another problem with the focus on Republican bigotry is that it is pretty much all they have. Look at the states that Romney won. It’s a map of the deep south and those other states where the racists have gone and the Klan still lives:

Electoral Map 2012

How long are those states going to vote Republican if the party doesn’t constantly assure the voters that as bad as its policies are, at least it will always proclaim the white race supreme? Not long. And the idea that the Republican Party could change its image is ridiculous. Even the most outspoken Republicans for change only want to do the bare minimum — and to hold their noses while they do it. If the Republicans really want to start winning elections outside of huge economic downturns, they should start governing like they actually thought it was a worthwhile endeavor. Until then, they won’t deliver the eggs.

Morning Music: Jay Z

Hard Knock LifeIt is not just because I’m a middle aged white man that I know so little about hip-hop. The universe of music is large, and I tend to push backwards, even while new music piles up. But many years ago, I heard a hip-hop song that used what I could clearly hear was was “It’s a Hard Knock Life” off the original cast album of Annie. You could just hear Andrea McArdle’s powerful voice ringing out above the chorus. And the hip-hop song was probably my first indication that there really was something different about the music.

I decided to look up the song last night and I found out that it was by Jay Z. Understand: pretty much the only thing I know about him is that he’s married to Beyoncé (who I also don’t know anything about), and that they are friends of the Obamas. Oh, and I know that they are hugely wealthy and popular. So it is a little embarrassing that the song that really impressed me almost two decades ago turns out to be someone who is so widely admired that his net worth — even without Beyoncé — is over a half billion dollars.

Just the same, I have nothing against artistry and craft. And all this money is due to the fact that we have a broken intellectual property system combined with a really effective distribution system. Clearly, he ought to be rich. Just not as rich as he is. But he’s a whole lot more deserving than Bill Gates. Windows 2.01 doesn’t age like this:

Anniversary Post: YouTube

YouTubeYouTube is ten years old today. Well, kind of. Today, ten years ago, the first video was uploaded. It was called, “Me at the Zoo.” At just 18 seconds long, it set the tone for the following decade. It consists of a young man — YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim — at the zoo, in front of the elephant enclosure. With only the slightest hint of facetiousness, he says, “All right, so here we are in front of the, uh, elephants. The cool thing about these guys is that they have really, really, really long, um, trunks. And that’s, that’s cool.” Yes it is!

But not all people would agree. I am reminded of my favorite #SlatePitch joke headline, “What’s the giraffe’s most distinctive feature? Hint: It’s not the neck!” One might even say that an elephant’s proboscis is not that long compared to certain insects — not to mention those of invertebrate. And while the trunk is cool, so are those ears! Dumbo anyone?

I do think that YouTube is cool. I still think the best thing about it is little idiosyncratic videos like, “Me at the Zoo.” But I certainly appreciate the fact that I can usually find television commercials from the 1970s. And if I want, I can watch episodes of Lou Grant. I remember a friend of mine back in 1996 saying, “The only thing that the internet is good for is porn.” That wasn’t even true then, but it was more true. YouTube really has been a welcome addition to the internet — even with it being a corporate toady with a ridiculously biased approach to copyright. And it raises huge questions about inequality. And the abuse of market share. Actually, YouTube is a political nightmare. But look: elephants!

Happy birthday YouTube!