Night Moves and the Tragic Search for the Truth

Night Moves 1975The first time I saw Arthur Penn’s 1975 film Night Moves, it boggled my mind. I don’t mean that in a methaphorical way, as in, “I didn’t know how such a great film could be made.” I mean that I had no idea what I had just seen. What’s more, I saw it with a bunch of my friends — all really smart people. And no one knew what took place in the film. So about a decade ago, I watched it again. And I got it: it’s about this big criminal conspiracy to import art treasures, and how it all goes to hell. Well, I watched it again over the weekend.

Having seen it twice, I was clear on the plot. This allowed me to get into what the film is really all about: the futility — even the tragedy — of the search for the truth. But that’s “truth” writ large. The film is downright sentimental when it comes to two people with a personal relationship who get past their nonsense and start being truthful with each other. And themselves! And that’s how this movie works so brilliantly as a modern tragedy. The main character, Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), thinks there is a big truth “out there” that will explain the world. There isn’t.

A classic trope of drama is the character who must learn the truth. In real life, such a character is insane. But there really is no easier way to get the reader or viewer to the end than this character. Otherwise, the character needs to be motivated every step of the way. If the character has a compulsion, however, it all makes sense. But in the cinematic world of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it does not make sense, because the world itself doesn’t make sense. The world is just a muddle, and we get snapshots of the truth from various angles.

A total of seven people die in Night Moves. And only two of them would have died, had Moseby just left it alone. And the film doesn’t explain if the two other deaths were murders or just unfortunate accidents. I choose to see them as accidents, because it heightens the tragedy of it all. But I think for screenwriter Alan Sharp, it is meant to be both unknown and unknowable. So Moseby is left having picked up a few snapshots of the truth: he knows these stunt people are involved with illegal imports of ancient Mexican artifacts, and he knows that Paula had ulterior motives when she slept him. And that’s about it.

At the end, Moseby doesn’t know the truth about the two deaths that he isn’t culpable in, and he doesn’t know what Paula’s true feelings towards him are. His search for the truth reveals the most unfulfilling facts. And even worse, these facts only lead to deeper questions. Even at the end, the great reveal — the mastermind who would be to blame for everything in a normal film — shows him slipping away, yelling to Moseby, but unheard. What was he saying? Was he explaining The Truth — the great narrative of the world that Moseby desperately wants to hear? Certainly not. But as The Truth slips away, Moseby wants to hear it. Because after an hour and a half and all those deaths and the breakthrough with his wife, Moseby hasn’t learned a thing.

Germany Wants to Humiliate Greece

Matt O'BrienGreece has offered an almost unconditional surrender on its bailout, but Germany might not accept anything less than a Carthaginian peace. In other words, a deal that not only forces Athens to submit, but also humiliates it in the process.

This latest melodrama, playing out in Brussels as European finance ministers meet to discuss whether or not to approve a new Greek bailout, appears so nonsensical that it can be hard to believe these people are deciding the future of Europe. Although you wouldn’t know it from the headlines, the truth is that Greece and Europe have been close to a deal for awhile now. Both sides agreed about how much austerity Athens should do, but disagreed about how Athens should do it — at least until last Thursday. That’s when Greece came up with an offer that was not only nearly identical to Europe’s, but also to the one its people had just rejected in a referendum…

Under the plan, the only way Germany would let Greece stay in the euro now is if it sells 50 billion euros of “very valuable Greek assets,” allows international observers to monitor its bailout, and puts automatic spending cuts in place in case it misses its deficit targets. Otherwise, Germany wants Greece to take at least a five year “timeout” from the euro, during which time its debts could be restructured and it could receive humanitarian aid. The entire proposal was less than a page long.

In case there was any doubt, this is an offer Greece can’t accept. Sure, selling assets would lower Greece’s debt today, but it would make the rest of Greece’s debt harder to pay back tomorrow — which, according to the International Monetary Fund, is already unpayable. It’s the kind of thing you ask for if you want Athens to say no…

If Greece does leave the euro, though, it will only be temporary in the sense that all life is temporary. Bringing back the drachma would either be such a boon to Greece’s economy that it’d never want to go back to the euro, or be such a disaster that Europe would never want to invite it back. But in either case, Greece and Europe’s trial separation would turn into a divorce. That might actually be better for Greece now that it’s already gone through a lot of the pain of ditching the euro — like a financial crisis — but it could be a catastrophe for Europe. It wouldn’t just show that countries can leave the euro, but maybe that countries have to leave the euro to recover. So the next time an anti-austerity party wins power, it might decide to do the same, at which point the euro zone would be more like a northern euro zone, if that. Especially if France decides that this makes the euro not worth saving anymore.

What’s the German word for kicking-someone-out-of-the-euro-and-regretting-it-later?

—Matt O’Brien
Germany Doesn’t Want to Save Greece. It Seems to Want to Humiliate Greece.

There Are No More People on Disability

Paul KrugmanI recently had a conversation with my father. Or rather, I was driving my father somewhere and for no apparent reason, he mentioned that a lot of people just live on welfare their whole lives. I brushed it aside, saying that wasn’t true. But he pushed it, no doubt thinking that it was just my liberal way to think that everyone is basically good. He really should know better than to push a political point with me. It would be one thing if it caused me to yell at him. But it’s much worse than that: I use it as an excuse to educate him.

I explained that there was this president named William Jefferson Clinton. And he ended “welfare as we know it.” And as a result, there are great limits on how long any person in the country can get welfare — just a few years. So the idea of some guy getting on welfare out of high school and riding it out for the rest of his life is just not true. It might have been true in the 1970s, but it hasn’t been true for about two decades. The whole thing made me really angry, but I didn’t let it show.

Here’s why it made me so angry: no conservative change in policy ever matters. Clinton savaged welfare in this country. In so doing, he made us a much worse and un-humane country. He made us a far more conservative country. I don’t like any of that. But okay: he did it and America doesn’t seem to care. But conservatives never change. Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act on 22 August 1996. But conservatives made the same complaints in the decades before that as they have after that. But I’m not so much mad at people like my father as I am people like Bill Clinton. Because he really should have known it would turn out like this.

But after I got done with my lecture, I felt a bit bad about it. Even with all the facts on my side, I could tell that he wasn’t buying it. Like conservatives everywhere, he just “knew” what the truth was. This is because for the conservative, the fantasies created inside their minds (think: welfare queen) are far more vivid than anything in the real world. And it isn’t surprising. Most conservatives have no real experience with people on welfare. It’s always easy to vilify people who you don’t know.

One thing I admitted to not knowing much about was disability. My father took this as explaining it all. Obviously, all those lazy welfare recipients have just transferred over to disability! Note to self: never admit ignorance to a conservative because they will assume if something isn’t known, it must prove what they “know.” But Paul Krugman provided some great data on this issue in an article over the weekend, Jeb and the Nation of Takers. It turns out that the number of people on disability are increasing. But there are two reasons for that. First, our population is increasing. Second, our population is aging. The older a worker is, the more likely she is to be disabled. That hasn’t changed. So if you take both of those factors into account, what you find is that the number of people on disability has actually been falling modestly over the last two decades.

But I’m not planning to run to my father with this information. Krugman was exactly right, “But none of this will, of course, make any dent in the right-wing narrative: they just know that the rising number of bums on welfare is a problem, even though there basically isn’t any welfare and there are no more bums than there ever were.” Anyway, my father is well into his 80s now. And I think he was having a bad day.

Saving Money Is Not the Point of Complex Welfare

Matt BruenigMatt Bruenig wrote an interesting article, A Basic Welfare Framework. He was arguing against the idea that welfare states have to be “dizzyingly complicated.” He noted that it was actually pretty simple to create a welfare state, and he provided a four part framework for providing one: healthcare for all; education and childcare for all; income for all; and leave for all. This does cover pretty much everything that we think of as the welfare state. But uncommonly for Bruenig, it wasn’t put in the larger context of these discussions.

The question to me is not that welfare is complicated. Rather, it is why it is complicated. And the reason it is complicated is because we choose to make it so. The biggest issue is that we are so concerned that welfare might go to the undeserving. This is why a guaranteed minimum income is such a great idea. Rather than deciding how many children a woman ought to reasonably have, we could (if we were humane) just decide that all people deserve a basic lifestyle. And everything would flow from there. But rather than that, we decide that we must micromanage the poor. And the micromanagement can get bizarre, as it is in many states where ex-felons who did drugs can’t get food stamps, but ex-felons who murdered people can.

Of course, the whole thing is actually a kind of bait and switch that conservatives do. The whole idea that we must pay close attention to the poor so that they don’t bleed us dry is a conservative obsession. What was the whole “Welfare Queen” meme other than a myth told about undeserving people getting welfare, only to be used to stop deserving people from getting it? The idea was never that there are some people who don’t deserve welfare, but that all of them were like the “Welfare Queen” to one extent or another.

But it is more than that. One of the most frustrating conservative attacks on Obamacare has been that it so complicated. “Why does it have to be over 9,000 pages long?” they whine. Leave aside the fact that the length of a law is a completely irrelevant criterion to judge it on. The reason it has to be so complicated is because it’s a neoliberal law. It is a “partnership” between the public and private sectors. It couldn’t be a straight government program like single-payer insurance. As it was, conservatives call it the worst thing that ever emanated from Stalin’s anus — “Socialism! Socialism, I tell you!” We would have had Civil War II otherwise.

The main thing is that conservatives (including many in the Democratic Party) want welfare to be an extremely painful thing. People like Stuart Varney have been complaining for years that poor people own refrigerators. They want to be able to spot the poor people by their lack of shoes and socks — or even better: the presence of government mandated yellow arm bands. They certainly don’t want poor people to have the dignity of being part of the same government programs that everyone else is. I don’t think we save money by making welfare complicated. But I don’t think saving money is the point.

Morning Music: Bob Seger

Night Moves - Bob SegerI have an active dislike of Bob Seger. Really, his work is mostly just crap. And I’ll admit, part of it is not his fault, because he didn’t write “Old Time Rock and Roll.” But I got thinking about him because I just watched Night Moves again. I’ll probably write about it later. I have a few things to say about it. The song, of course, has nothing to do with the film.

Anyway, I do think that “Night Moves” is a song that transcends its artist, much the same way that “Jack & Diane” transcended the then John Cougar. But ultimately, both songs are typical rock posing: we are young and have sex. Still, there are worse things to listen to. This is an indictment of the music business. “I awoke last night to the sound of thunder; how I got this rich really makes you wonder…”

Anniversary Post: New York City Draft Riots

New York City Draft RiotsOn this day in 1863, the New York City draft riots started. Basically, it was Irish immigrants who were rioting. There is a just side to this and an unjust side to it. Let’s start with the just side.

During the Civil War, young men in the north could avoid the draft by hiring someone to go in their place. That wasn’t generally possible because most of the men around were also being drafted. Or they could just pay a $300 commutation fee. Well, plenty of young working men were angry that rich men could just buy their way out of the war. They were understandably upset. So that’s the just side. The unjust side is that things turned ugly.

Very soon, the draft riots turned into the race riots. The rioters started attacking African Americans. A total of 116 people ended up dead when the riots were put down by the US military three days later. But the whole thing is entirely typical. The working class whites had an actual grievance against the rich elite. But it quickly turned into an attack on African Americans, and even more oppressed group than the working class whites. And we see this same narrative replay itself over and over today in the US.

So we mark the start of the New York City draft and race riots.