Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Way We Were and the Way We Are

A movie from 1973 keeps popping up in my mind, a movie which was disavowed by the guy who wrote the original screenplay, which had multiple writers trying to rework it and which was thought to be a schmaltzy failure at the time. Actually, not everyone thought it was a failure: Pauline Kael  liked it but she thought it had been dismissed because it was a woman's fantasy rather than a male fantasy.

The basic theme had to do with political awareness and the value of social responsibility versus the obligation to simply make things work for yourself.
The pragmatist and the politically engaged

The heroine, played by Barbara Streisand is a Jewish girl from New York who is very engaged in the ideas of her time, which is 1944, so fascism, the Second World War draw her in, and then after the war, the McCarthy era of Red baiting and the Committee on Un-American activities. In college she meets a golden goy, Robert Redford, who intrigues her because, beyond his good looks, he writes very well. He also writes very easily, and he is clearly talented in a way she never could be.

There is a scene in a bar, where she finds him in his white Navy uniform, drunk on a bar stool and she brushes his blonde hair back from his eyes, which Kael pointed to, as one of the few representations of female enrapture ever depicted in film.

They eventually marry, but they travel different paths: she is caught up in fighting the forces of darkness--McCarthy, repression of Blacks, the Commie hunting, repression of free speech, and the blacklist for writers accused of communist sympathies during the House on Un American Activities witch hunt--and he is writing screenplays for sit coms, making himself a career, making money, indifferent to the causes which so inflame her.

In this, there is something similar in Dr. Zhivago, where Julie Christie just wants to live a normal life but her husband is a Bolshevik zealot. Of course, in this case, your sympathy is with the woman who wants to avoid the passions of political conflict. The Bolshevik, Strelnikov's, ardent political convictions drives him to actions which destroy his marriage, his family and his life, just the sort of thing Redford's Hubbell decries. Principles driving a doomed destiny. This is the primary conflict in Zhivago, the desire for a private life, which the Communists decry as decadent; the important thing is signing on to the big principle. The capitalist, Ayn Rand says the only moral thing is to take care of yourself, and let individual choices drive the big picture. Even George Bernard Shaw, in Major Barbara, lines up in this direction: The biggest obligation one has in life is not to society, but to not being poor.

The scene from The Way We Were I always remember shows that Redford actually does have a philosophy which drives him and it is a philosophy which rejects political activism as self indulgent.

Redford (Hubbel): This is grown up politics, Katie. And it's stupid and dangerous.
Streisand (Katie): You're telling me to shut up because it's dangerous?
Redford: I'm telling you its a waste. And that those men are only gonna get hurt. And that nothing is gonna change. And after jail, after years of bad blood, when it's practical for a fascist producer to hire a communist writer because his movie is in trouble, he'll do it.  They'll make movies, have dinner, they'll play tennis, make passes at each other's wives. What did anybody go jail for? For what? A political spat?
Streisand:  You're telling me to close my eyes and watch people being destroyed so you can work in a town that doesn't have spine enough to stand up for anything but a buck?
Redford: I'm telling you that people are more important than a God damn witch hunt. You and me. Not causes. Not principles.
Streisand:  Hubbell, people are their principles.
Strelnikov, all principle, no personal: Dr. Zhivago

And there you have it. People are their principles. That is a political person summing up.
And for Donald Trump, principles do not matter. The deal matters.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Do Ideas Matter in Politics?

I'm not sure how Trump won the election.  I'm not sure how the Tea Party took over the Republican Party.

Listening to people who voted for Trump, it's pretty clear they come from all over the place--virtually everything you heard said in his favor comes up when people explain their votes: He may be a loud mouth but he says what he believes not what he thinks people want to hear; he's not politically correct, which is a good thing; he is a good businessman and cares about jobs and he'll save the coal industry and he'll keep manufacturing jobs in America; he'll protect our borders; he'll prevent dangerous Muslims from coming here; he'll back police over Black people; he'll make America White again; he'll keep us out of other people's wars; he'll build the military so we don't have to use it.
I want my coal mining job; don't talk to me about retraining

Virtually everything negative you heard about Hillary comes out in the reasons Trump voters voted against her: She killed Vince Foster; she sacrificed those Americans at Benghazi; she cheated on her income taxes; she sold herself to Wall Street; she waffled on abortion, after saying she was for only first trimester abortions she said she was for late term abortions, which proves she has no real convictions.

All these ideas come from somewhere.
Cantor selling tax cuts

Eric Cantor, writing in the New York Times explained how he had hoped President Obama would work across the aisle, but after he extended a hand, he snatched it back and then just ran over the Republicans and didn't listen to their ideas.

And what, exactly were those great Republican ideas which Obama rejected? When the financial crisis threatened to send the country into the next great Depression, Cantor and Boehner went to the President and suggested he solve the problem by, can you guess? CUTTING TAXES! Yes, the Republican solution to everything. Just cut taxes and we would have been fine. All those belly up mortgage backed securities which collapsed banks and insurance companies and brokerage houses, just cut taxes and it all goes away.  Government spending is how Obama wanted to fight the crisis. Why we Republicans have known since Herbert Hoover government spending can only be a bad thing.
Hillary's America: Counties she won

And, oh, regulation, get rid of that, too. (Never mind it was the lack of regulation which allowed credit rating companies like Moody's and others to endorse worthless securities as "triple A.")

So the Republicans came with the same answers they had in Herbert Hoover's day--let the private sector lead the way. No government spending. That will only worsen the problem. Let the banks and Wall Street and the financial houses rescue us, as if your response to the Titanic was giving the captain a new ship.

Dark blue are the counties Trump won

What I'd like to know is how the Rush Limbaugh crowd, the Mitch McConnell crowd, the Fox News crowd gets its ideas out there. 

Why can't the Democrats study how they did it and emulate that?  The Japanese built an economy on the idea of taking apart superior products and then building better versions of the same thing. Why can't the Democrats do that?

Monday, January 16, 2017

Of Truth, Fake News and Libel

One of the best things about reading history is the reassurance it provides about the stormy present. Reading how our forbears struggled with the same problems we struggle with today, and got past them, reassures us we can do the same.

Donald Trump, offended at revelations about his personal life, his businesses, his efforts to exclude Blacks from properties he built and rented,  wanted to bludgeon his accusers using the might of his wealth, his highly paid lawyers. 
"One of the things I'm going to do..I'm going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We're going to open up those libel laws. So when the New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when the The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they're totally protected."

Before we consider any of the principles involved in libel, it should be noted that libel laws, as Mr. Trump implies, are only to protect the rich. Trump can afford to bring libel cases. The average man cannot. 

What are the limits to free speech in America? Ought there be any?
Oliver Wendell Holmes famously declared, "You have no right to cry 'Fire' in a crowded theater, when there is no fire."
The American Civil Liberties Union says there should be no limits on free speech, that the First Amendment is the first because all other freedoms depend on it.
In the Holmes example, one has to say extreme cases make bad law. How many other cases of false claim could result in such immediate loss of life and limb?

In one of the early and most famous cases of libel was brought in a New York state court against a man, Crosswell,  who published a claim by a man who said Thomas Jefferson had paid him to write pamphlets defaming John Adams. The claim was Jefferson had been libeled.
None of than Alexander Hamilton rose to the defense.

The problem Hamilton's defense team had was the judge instructed the jury the truth of the newspaper story was irrelevant; all that mattered was whether or not the story had injured (defamed) President Jefferson.

Hamilton, who had been the target of many such attacks in the press, did not argue that truth alone should be a sufficient defense against libel.  The intent of the newspaper's editor should be considered, but Hamilton argued  that intent could be inferred to be not malicious if what was said was true.

"I never did think the truth was a crime. I am glad the day is coming in which it is to be decided, for my soul has ever abhorred the thought that a free man dare not speak the truth."

Of course, there was all sorts of back ground detail to this argument. As is so characteristic of law, much gets reduced to a single rule. The rules vary by states, in the United States, but for the most part, currently, to be found guilty of libel in America you must be found to have published something which is false, that you must have been or should have been (if you'd done due diligence) aware it was false and had a malicious will to injure the party wronged.

In that setting, truth becomes an absolute defense against libel.

Hamilton and many others in the 18th century were torn, because they lived with a sense of "honor" and fought duels when they felt their reputation had been impugned.  They thought that leaders, whether church or state, should be paragons of virtue because they believed what the leaders did, the lumpen proletariat would follow. 
Thus, Philip Schuyler, the father of Hamilton's wife, urged him to take the case, because Schuyler reviled Jefferson, whom he saw as a reprobate because Jefferson was thought to be an atheist--Jefferson was in fact a Deist--and because it was reported in various Richmond papers Jefferson had fathered mixed race (mulatto) children by his slave, Sally Hemmings. 
Jefferson, Schuyler said, "disgraces not only the place he fills, but produces immorality by his pernicious example."

This idea is still alive today, although I would argue the election of Donald Trump suggests the proletariat is not so easily influenced and can see a man who has failings may serve their own purposes.
She has no trouble with Donald's character

But the idea survives. Just yesterday I heard Cokie Roberts and Lesley Stahl, interviewed about their reaction to the 1987 story they covered about Gary Hart having an affair, which destroyed his candidacy. Roberts said many of the newspaper journalists who covered that story were women and Gary Hart had "hit on them" on any number of occasions.  Stahl said he "used women like Kleenex."

For many women Donald Trump was an anathema because of his gleeful description about how he could grab any woman "by the pussy" because he was a celebrity. 
This is the pernicious example. Roberts claims we ought not try to choose Presidents  by their positions on issues, which can change with circumstances, but we ought to choose them by their "character" as if we can really know much about their characters.

You might argue you can know one thing about Donald Trump's character, and that is enough. But I am not persuaded. Nor were the 53% of women who voted for him who were either not bothered by his frat boy attitudes or who figured what mattered more was whether their husbands got their jobs back in the coal mines.
She voted for Trump, character not determinant 

If this election proved anything, I would submit, it is that "character" does not much matter in choosing Presidents; maybe it should not matter.

But if Trump benefited from that new tolerance, then he has no argument about being libeled. If having terrible things said about you can cause you no actual harm, if you can be elected and get what you seek, then the requirement for libel is lost not simply on the truth of the claim made against you but on the requirement you have suffered actual harm. Trump himself, observed how impervious he is to attacks on his character, when he noted he could shoot a man on Fifth Avenue and his poll numbers would go up the next day.

 Hurt feelings do not constitute libel.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

American Chimera

America rescued my family. I do not know the specifics of what happened to my grandparents in Europe. They never would talk about it. But it was clearly dreadful. Dreadful enough to motivate people who had lived in small villages, who survived by hiding, to risk stepping out of the shadows and dashing for the boat to America.

In America, they lived in tenements which had no hot water, where bathrooms, if there were indoor bathrooms were shared and where they worked in sweat shops all day long, six days a week.

But they survived, and their children, the "first generation" born in America went to college, got white collar jobs, and their children's children, in good immigrant fashion, took the next step up and became professionals. 

America was a good choice for my family. Can't say "America was good to my family."  There was some hate and prejudice to be overcome, but there were enough white Americans, Christian Americans, wealthier Americans who if they were not welcoming, were at least not overtly hostile, and could be friendly, even.

Then, one November 4, 2008, I watched in stunned exhilaration as Barack Obama walked onto that stage in Grant Park and opened with the words to one of the happiest, sunniest, most resounding speeches ever uttered on American soil.

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."
Barack Obama, November 4, 2008

But now, we have to recognize, while that is part of the American experience, there is the other part of this creature we call the United States, that horrific, snarling, venomous part which is captured in the article in the January 16 New Yorker about Albert Woodfox, a Black American who was kept in what can only be described as inhuman conditions by successions of colluding degraded wardens and prison guards who can barely qualify for the description as "human beings."  Nothing I'm familiar with, with the possible exception of those German concentration camp functionaries, approaches the cruelty of this American prison in Louisiana.  For sheer sustained malevolence, no people match these officers in the American "criminal justice" system.
Albert Woodfox

It is not an easy article to read, but it is a necessary exercise.  

Yes, America is all those wonderful things Mr. Obama spoke of in 2008, but it is also that other thing. We must always remember that. And starting January 20, I imagine we'll be seeing more of that side of the beast. 

Want Ad: Achilles. No Wimps Need Apply

Much as I love the "New York Times" and Timothy Eagan, I beg to differ about his assessment of our current state of affairs, in today's column he asserts:

 You know we're in trouble when the only reasonable voice in a week of capital chaos is a man whose nickname is Mad Dog.
--Timothy Eagan, "The New York Times"

I tried to not take this personally, but really, my fans in Ukraine will not be pleased. 
It is nice to know there are others out there who are seeing through Mr. Trump, with whom you can nod in silent agreement. Gives one a sense of community.

That idea of "Fahrenheit 451" keeps rising up: a group of enlightened people memorize the great books, each one reciting his or her own favorite, while walking about in the woods with other like minded people, keeping the faith alive. But the greater society, the silent majority, are just fine with the absence of books, and with firemen  rallying to the scene whenever a book or a library is discovered so the firemen can burn the books. 

The idea of a group of like minded souls, talking to each other, keeping the faith alive, is stirring, but ultimately, when those people die off, or lose their memories, the books are gone. 

No, what those woods wanderers needed was some effective strategy for opposition. They needed someone to emerge who could effectively take down the big guy or guys. When Hector is on the field, you need Achilles. 

The McCarthy era must have been similar, but worse. In the case of the Senator from Wisconsin, who did not simply accuse people of being over rated or a failure, an opponent was immediately labeled a Communist, a "fellow traveler" and job loss, ostracism or jail followed.

So the problem we have with Mr. Trump is not all that.
Ever the showman

The problem we have with Mr. Trump is not just one problem but several:
1/ The first problem is  identifying what he says.  Actually, this is not as easy as it sounds because he says so many things and there are so few ideas in his stream of consciousness obviating, you need a recorder to sort through it all.  A coworker stopped me the other day to rail about what she had heard him say but she couldn't recall exactly what it was. She was just sputtering.  People often begin with he said, "something about."

2/ Then you have to say, "No, that's not right and here's why." Actually, in the new Trump era, you really don't have to say why. Evidence is out of style. Vide Infra.

3/ Figuring out who is audience is and what you could possibly say to persuade them.  It is a bit like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." His fans look outwardly normal. They are not straight out of a zombie movie, staggering around. They have no diagnostic physical features. So you have to put something out there which will penetrate their cell walls and cure them.
Can you convince this voter?

Bernie Sanders seemed to be able to do this. He seems to do it instinctively. He is a street fighting man.  Maybe he's just a Brooklyn boy who knows how to handle schmucks from Queens.  He is every bit as entertaining and effective as the Donald, but whatever it is he's got, he's like those woods wanderers--too old, and even if he weren't he seems to have disappeared from the national stage.  
Too bad he never got on the same stage as the Donald
Why do we not see Bernie Sanders replying, every time the Donald says something? 

We've got Meryl Streep and a legion of offended, hurt sounding spokesmen--actually they are usually women--decrying Mr. Trump as dangerous, wrong and unkind.  What we need is Bernie Sanders, or better yet, someone new, making him look ridiculous.
Who has the spear and knows how to use it?

"For Donald Trump global warming is a Chinese plot."  Stuff like that.
Here are some golden oldies from Bernie: "I don't know what his relationship with women has been, but he's recently discovered women go to the bathroom, and it's been very upsetting for him."

"Here's a billionaire who thinks wages are too high."
"Trump comes along and you're scared and you're angry and he says, it's that Black guy over there. That's the guy." 
"A few months ago we were supposed to hate Mexicans. Now it's Muslims. That kind of crap isn't going to work in the United States of America."
"If you take everything else away, what does Donald Trump have the nobody else has? Five million bucks."
"What we are saying to the American people is this: No, Donald Trump is not right. No, a Mexican worker making 8 bucks an hour is not the reason the American middle class is disappearing."
When the boys come out to play...

But, you know, Bernie said all those things on the campaign trail.  He got air time then. 
But now where is he? 
Does CNN, MSNBC, CBS, NBC, PBS and all the rest not know his address at the Senate? Do they not have his phone number? Are no camera crews available at the Capitol?

Much as I love Al Franken, he's just not succinct enough.
Elizabeth Warren has her moments, but she is, frankly, too soft. Her voice carries too much hurt.
We don't need wounded, offended, hurting people.
We need someone who can deal in the same currency as the Donald.
That seems to be the only stuff people in the Rust Belt seem to crave.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Prosperity Theology: No More Pie in the Sky

Really, you have to love Donald Trump.

Did you know of the 6 ministers he's inviting to pray at his Inauguration, 4 are preachers of "Prosperity Theology?"
A message with broad appeal: Worship money

As I understand this, from Professor Google--and I will have to do my own research on this by watching some of these guys on TV--this is a school of evangelical ministers who preach some version of these beliefs:
1/ Wealth on earth is a blessing from God, which means it is the visible sign of God's will that a particular individual should be rewarded, presumably because of a pure soul or for some other worthy reason. Or maybe just because.
2/ The fact that a particular prosperity minister is rich and lives in a mansion and drives expensive cars is the worldly evidence of God's blessing on that individual.
3/ Some ministers add a twist:  While some believe you cannot know why God favors you, others believe you can purchase God's favor.
If you send that preacher money, God may be pleased with you, because, after all, you are endorsing that person he has special affection for, and your reward may be that God will make you rich right now, right here on earth.

In other words, worshiping God is a contract--you send his preacher money, and God returns your investment several fold.

Got that?
When I was in college, freshman year, some professor assigned Jonathan Edwards, who wrote that there was an "elect" among human beings and you were elect not because you had done good things or thought pure thoughts but just because. No reason given. God loved you and made your life good and took you into Heaven for reasons of his own, and none of us human beings down here on Earth need know why. That's just the way it is.

J. Edwards:  Some are simply chosen

I could not understand why the professor would have assigned this reading by someone who was clearly a lunatic, but I eventually understood the idea was look, people believe or have believed all sorts of things.  We have to be aware of these beliefs to be liberally educated.  Among these beliefs is the belief that rich people, kings, have wealth and power for a reason that transcends earthly comprehension, but inasmuch as it is God's will, we humble human beings here on Earth should accept this.
The Chosen One: God's Will Manifest in Money and now Power

So now, Donald Trump is opening my mind. He is rich because God wants him to be rich. He is President because God wants him to be President.

Send your envelop stuffed with whatever cash you can get your hands on to "God: c/o Donald John Trump,  1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC 20500

PS: Caught a little time on TV-- during which I was exhorted to join the TV church and to tithe 10% of my income to the church. And I was given a story about a woman who was earning only $35 a week and she couldn't see how she could afford to tithe, but she did anyway, and miraculously, God gave her a new job at a higher rate and so she tithed more and then another lump of money fell into her lap, and so on and now, she's rich! Yikes! These guys prey (pray) on the poorest among us. Those who can least afford it. They take a fool and his money to new heights.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Dwarf Russia

President Obama remarked, in his offhanded, no drama way, that Russia is not really a major threat to the place of the United States in the world. 
They are a much smaller country than us, he said, which shocked me.

Professor Google confirmed President Obama's numbers: Russia has less than half the population of the United States. Of course, it's land mass looks much larger, or at least longer--it covers 11 time zones. 
I was always accustomed to thinking of the Russians as vast.  They lost 20 million in the second World War. But  now Russia has roughly 144 million people to our 320 million.
Still a big guy?

President Obama went on to say: 
1. Russia doesn't innovate.
2. They don't make much of anything.
3. The only thing they have to sell  is oil and gas. 

Hell, Saudi Arabia does that. Is that all Russia's got?

Putin remarked, as he annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine, that Ukraine really isn't even a country, by which he meant, Ukraine is really just part of Russia. But, even if he could grab Ukraine, that  still would not reconstitute the Soviet Union. And, while I cannot know from this distance and with my limited knowledge of Ukraine, there is some reason to believe at least the Western half of Ukraine is populated by people who do not think of themselves as Russians. They don't even speak Russian as their first language. Ukrainian, apparently, is not Russian. I'm not even sure there's much affection for Russia in Ukraine or in any of those "Stan" countries. Not at all clear they'd send troops to Russia's aide.
Hope fulfilled 

The Russians do have lots of ICBM's with nuclear warheads. But North Korea has nuclear war heads on missiles and that remains nothing but a backwater and a bizarre anomaly. 

But the idea of Russia overwhelming Poland, Germany, France and England with a huge Red Army is just no longer in the cards. 

Nuclear weapons struck me as a good thing, when you considered a massive Soviet army overwhelming Western Europe and nuclear weapons were what stood as a wall against that,  but now that Leviathan is gone.

How little I know of Russia today. Just stories about their head of state ordering the murders of a defector in London with some radioactive cocktail, ordering the murder of journalists, of a woman dissident. They jail girl bands in Russia. As if "Pussy Riot" were a serious threat to national security. They cheat systematically by running Olympic athletes through doping programs. As if winning Olympic medals mattered enough to cheat like that. 
And their winter Olympics, where they could not even get all four Olympic rings to light up--why was that spectacle so important to them? For Hitler, in 1936, he was trying to showcase his ideas about the Master Race, but what was Russia trying to prove at Sochi?
 It's a sort of bad boy state.  
I will do what I want to do because I am big and strong and can get away with it.
Sort of a drunken frat boy, who wakes up naked and wonders why people don't respect him.

It's the classic small man syndrome: I will show you. I will make you respect me.

Never occurred to me Russia may be struggling with an inferiority complex.  Russia always seemed so big. It's amazing how you can listen to news programs so often, for so long, and never hear such a basic idea. 

I'm guessing President Obama said these things because he no longer feels constrained to follow a rule which says you don't belittle another country or another country's leader because you're just asking for trouble and why court trouble? But now. what does he have to lose? He can say whatever he wants.  

And what he's saying is Mr. Putin does not rule a superpower. He rules a second rate country. 

Japan makes great cars and lots of computers.  Germany makes cars and lots of highly engineered manufactured goods. France makes lots of high end stuff--food, clothes, the Citroen which has the world's best car seats. Britain has the City of London stock market and makes good movies, not to mention Downton Abbey.  Italy makes fashion, art, and entertainingly dysfunctional governments.  Even Finland made Nokia cell phones. Portugal makes Port and generates 100% of it's power grid by wind and solar some days. Iceland makes great sweaters. 

What does Russia make? Okay, Vodka, but really: a country with 11 time zones and the best it can do is vodka? Hell, the state of Kentucky makes moonshine, but that doesn't mean it's worth more than a bucket of warm spit.
So, great, you can murder people. Is that so admirable?

All Russia  makes, when you get right down to it,  is mischief.