Kagemusha and Our Supporting Roles

KagemushaI just got The Criterion Collection DVD of Kagemusha. I love the film — it is one of Akira Kurosawa’s most underrated. So it is great to have. Another aspect of the DVD is that it is filled with extras, including a fine commentary by a man who has taught me so much, Stephen Prince. But I found that I disagreed with his overall take on the film.

For those who don’t know the film, it is about a petty thief who happens to look just like Lord Shingen Takeda. So instead of killing the thief, they use him as the lord’s kagemusha — or double. But when the lord is killed by a sniper, the thief has to take over acting as the lord full time. Thus far, this is pretty much the plot of Dave and many other stories. But the critical element here is how the thief really does become the lord. He seems to know intuitively how the lord would act in various situations.

Prince sees the film as a communitarian take on the samurai genre, in contrast to Kurosawa’s previous individualist films. While this is generally true, I take a few exceptions to it. First, much of Kurosawa’s work is about collective action. It doesn’t matter that the collective action isn’t based upon the government. Seven Samurai and Sanjurō are both about collective action. Certainly, Ikiru is about the heroic individual — but even it is in a social context.

My bigger complaint is that Prince seems to want to think of Lord Shingen Takeda as something of a ghost who takes over — or at least guides — the thief as plays the part of the lord. This ruins the entire idea of the film’s communitarian focus. And I take offense to this because it goes against what I see in the world. The basis of communitarianism is not that we are all the same, but that we play different parts. What’s more, it doesn’t too much matter who the “actors” are. The kagemusha acts like the warrior because he knows that it is his job to do so.

So in the broadest sense, what we see is that there was nothing special about the lord. He was playing a part just as much as the thief was. They were both, in effect, kagemusha. And to take it further, we are all kagemusha: we play the parts of husbands and wives and cab drivers and beggars. But as a society, we do not want to believe this. Our entire culture is based on the idea that people deserve their lots in life. This is why we in America cling onto the childish notion of the meritocracy.

In Kagemusha, the thief is eventually uncovered. But he does not go back to his old role. The society may no longer see him as lord, but he does. And this leads to the end where he commits an act of great, but impotent, bravery. Because it is not enough for us to play our parts. We must have a cast to support our roles.

Free Markets Won’t Save Us From Global Warming

John WhiteheadThe water market will never be a “free market” in the true sense of the word. A plea to the water authority (ie, government) to price water more rationally is a plea for policy reform towards a better use of incentives. Free markets only exist when there is no government regulation of buyers and sellers, no taxes, no subsidies, and no nothing. An efficient free market for water is a difficult thing to pull off since it is a common-pool resource. It is easier for the pizza market to operate efficiently since pizza is a private good.

I don’t think adaption to climate change can be accomplished efficiently by government taking a hands off approach. You can’t privatize much of the natural environment.

—John Whitehead
Water Pricing, “Free” Markets and Climate Change

The Rich Will Not “Fix” Capitalism

The New Prophets of CapitalI just got Nicole Aschoff’s new book, The New Prophets of Capital. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I just wanted to reflect on the subject for a moment. The book looks at four really rich people who see problems with our capitalist system and want to do something about it: Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook), Bill Gates (you know), John Mackey (Whole Foods), and Oprah Winfrey (Oprah). But none of them actually want to fix capitalism, because, as Chico Escuela would say, capitalism been berry berry good to them. So Sandberg, for example, doesn’t think that capitalism ought to do anything to help the family, but that the family should be more accommodating to capitalism.

Of all these people, I’ve written the most about Bill Gates and all the money that he gives for education “reform.” It is supposedly done in the name of creating a more educated workforce. The idea is that a more educated workforce would make more money. This is a lie. All that a more educated workforce does is put downward pressure on wages. Companies have a huge selection of trained workers. At best, this ends with worker wages staying the same. The only difference is that workers are now swimming in educational debt they had to accumulate just to stay even.

Of course, Gates isn’t actually interested in a more educated workforce. He’s a sophisticated man. He understands that industry did just fine when it did its own training. What education “reform” is all about is getting rid of teachers unions. And that’s all about getting rid of one of the few remaining decent paying middle class jobs. I know this is a very negative view of Gates, but there are a lot of things that could be done to improve education in this country, and he chooses to do just those things that will enrich him and his children even more.

The main thing is that the rich are not going to solve our problems with inequality and stagnant wages. I’m not saying that they couldn’t. But their approach is to ignore the problem that stares them in the face, and nibble around the edges. As Matt Yglesias used to say, “If you want to help the poor, give them money.” But that’s the last thing that any of these people want to do. Each one of these people has more money than they could ever reasonably spend. That’s the one thing they know about: their money. And they have no interest in giving any of it up. But when it comes to the advice they give out, they have very little knowledge. But they are very generous in sharing it.

My biggest general problem with conservatives is that they refuse to approach a problem with the available solutions. They always start by casting aside the most obvious (and usually effective) solutions because they are not acceptable ideologically. It’s the same with these billionaires (and in Mackey’s case, close enough): they refuse to look at the obvious solutions to our problems — like allowing collective bargaining. So all they are left with are marginal and often harmful “solutions.” We need to rethink the whole system, not tinker with it.

Bernie Sanders Is a Loyal Democrat

Bernie SandersTed McLaughlin over at Job’s Anger wrote, Is Bernie Sanders Really a Democrat? In it, he speculates that for many Democrats, Sanders never having been a Democrat may be a big reason why they don’t support him. In general, I am very much in agreement with McLauglin. But on this, I think he’s wrong. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that I hope that he’s wrong. There are a couple of reasons for this.

The first issue is just that I’m not a Democrat out of some sense of tribal loyalty. I’m a Democrat because it is the liberal party in the United States. If we had a parliamentary system, I would almost certainly be a member of a party that better reflected my beliefs. I have huge problems with the Democratic Party — mostly due to its right turn starting in the 1970s and really taking off in 1992. But there are two choices in the United States: the Democrats and the Republicans. The Republicans are hopeless. The Democrats have potential, and they have been moving in the right direction for the last decade.

But the name doesn’t mean anything. If the Republicans decided to push for a $15 minimum wage, universal healthcare, reproductive freedom, and an end to foreign wars, I would drop the Democratic Party faster than a hot frying pan. This isn’t a tribal thing for me. And I don’t think it is a tribal thing for most Democrats. That’s almost what defines us as a party. We aren’t authoritarian followers. What’s more, we have a long history of accepting new people who moved into our party. Even though I was none to thrilled with him, we had no problem accepting Arlen Specter back into the party.

We also need to look at Bernie Sanders’ voting record. He is a more consistent Democratic voter than many actual Democratic politicians. That is the kind of support that matters to me. If we want to take it to extremes, we could say that by this logic Joe Lieberman was more supportive of the Democratic Party than Sanders. But the truth is that Lieberman voted against the party often on really important issues. And then, the moment the party in his state said it didn’t want him to be its candidate for Senate, he dropped the party.

I understand that most Democrats don’t like Lieberman and don’t see him as a supporter of the Democratic Party. But he proudly claimed the name “Democrat” for 17 years. And what did it mean? Ultimately, nothing. So if calling yourself a Democrat means something, it is very little. And let’s not forget that support goes both ways. People run as Democrats and thus get various kinds of support — including money — from the party. In that regard, I would have to say that Sanders has given more to the Democratic Party than he has taken.

There may be Democrats around who won’t vote for Bernie Sanders because he hasn’t called himself a Democrat. And that’s fine. I don’t think it is very meaningful, however. And I want the Democratic presidential nomination to be about much more important issues than this. And I know that McLaughlin agrees with me. And I think that Sanders has already made Clinton a better candidate than she would have been without him. So we can add that to ways that Sanders supports the Democratic Party.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet…

Morning Music: The Stanley Brothers

The Stanley BrothersAlthough Emry Arthur’s version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” sold well, it was not until The Stanley Brothers released their version in 1951 that it really became popular. Their version changes the song into much more of what we know today. Specifically, they turn it into a bluegrass song with that classic howling voice. It also adds a much more lively accompaniment with that relentless fiddle. Ralph Stanley just had his 88th birthday. His brother Carter died back in 1966 at the age of only 41.

Anniversary Post: George Lincoln Rockwell

George Lincoln RockwellOn this day in 1967, the founder of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell, was assassinated. What I find interesting about him is that he was a conservative. I understand: there have been some liberal loons as well. But Rockwell worked for National Review. As I discussed early this month, The Fascism of National Review, the magazine has a long love affair with the vile movement. The magazine wasn’t pro-Nazi, of course. They weren’t idiots. But it was quite fond of the Italian and Spanish forms of fascism.

This is undoubtedly why Rockwell found the conservative movement wanting. It wasn’t willing to stand up for what he felt it really represented. And I have to say: I think Rockwell was right. I think that the conservative movement in the United States is fascist, and that the only reason it isn’t explicit about it is because of World War II. But if you look at what conservatives actually believe: the fetishizing of strength and hierarchy and purity, it’s all fascism.

Maybe if Donald Trump manages to win the Republican presidential nomination, the party can finally admit to what it is. And maybe they can create a George Lincoln Rockwell Day. Today would be a good day, because there aren’t any real holidays in August. And it would be a whole lot more honest for the Republicans to pay tribute to Rockwell than to Reagan.