Category Archives: Politics

Lest We Forget

Daniel Larison at The American Conservative remembers what we ought never forget:

People that now panic about incipient caudillismo and the dangers of a nationalist demagogue didn’t care when Bush expanded the security state, trampled on the Constitution, or launched an unnecessary war of aggression, and people that yawned at the steady expansion of government and creation of new unfunded liabilities under Bush are now supposedly alarmed by Trump’s lack of fidelity to the cause of limited government. They correctly identify many of Trump’s flaws, but refuse to acknowledge the fact that the party was already killed (or at least severely wounded) years ago during the disastrous Bush era. It was that period of incompetence and ideologically-driven debacles that shattered the GOP, and for the last seven years the vast majority of die-hard Trump foes have refused to recognize that and have chosen to learn nothing from it. They lost to Trump, but the part they can’t accept is that they deserved to lose because of their role in enabling the GOP’s past failures. Now they’re touting their abandonment of the wreckage they helped to create as if they deserve applause for running away from their own handiwork. If it weren’t so serious, it would be quite comical.

This is one of the many things that worries me about Trump’s baffling GOP takeover: that the Republican establishment types, as historically amnestic as the rest of the body politic, will blame Trump for the chaos he’s wrought upon the Party, and not the very establishment who readied this bitter harvest. They’ll write this election off as a freak accident, the result of bad timing or sour national mood or misinformed voters, and mend not one bit of the destruction from the Bush years.

In reality, though, they were toast in 2012, after Obama won re-election. I wondered then if the GOP would react to a decisive defeat with a reformist self-reckoning or with more of the same denial, delusion, and demagoguery.

We now have our answer. Ain’t no way they’re winning my vote this year.

If Clinton and the Democrats manage not to screw up this golden opportunity for victory (which I’m not terribly bullish on, given Clinton’s baggage and Trump’s irrational success), they too will have a reckoning and a choice to make. Bernie Sanders didn’t get this far on a whim, and what he represents to people isn’t going to disappear. In fact, in another Goldman Sachs Clinton administration, it’ll only get stronger. Who will be 2020 or 2024’s Democratic Trump? (Maybe Trump again, given he’s actually a Democrat?)

Refer Madness: A Name that Named Names

rmRefer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

A patron who calls regularly — usually looking for the value of an old book or baseball card — had a pretty direct question for me today: “Was Lee J. Cobb blacklisted?”

Nope, but just barely.

Born Leo Jacoby (get it? Lee J. Cobb[y]?), Cobb most iconically featured in 1954’s On the Waterfront and 1957’s 12 Angry Men, two highly regarded and politically aware films that comment on the Red Scare paranoia of 1950s America. According to Victor Navasky’s 1980 book Naming Names, Cobb was accused of being a Communist in a 1951 HUAC testimony by actor and actual former Communist Larry Parks. Called to testify but refusing to do so for two years, Cobb finally relented in 1953 and named twenty former Community Party members.

Cobb’s reason for doing so, as told in Naming Names, is fascinating and blunt:

When the facilities of the government of the United States are drawn on an individual it can be terrifying. The blacklist is just the opening gambit—being deprived of work. Your passport is confiscated. That’s minor. But not being able to move without being tailed is something else. After a certain point it grows to implied as well as articulated threats, and people succumb. My wife did, and she was institutionalized. The HUAC did a deal with me. I was pretty much worn down. I had no money. I couldn’t borrow. I had the expenses of taking care of the children. Why am I subjecting my loved ones to this? If it’s worth dying for, and I am just as idealistic as the next fellow. But I decided it wasn’t worth dying for, and if this gesture was the way of getting out of the penitentiary I’d do it. I had to be employable again.

And he was, the next year, in On the Waterfront, written by Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg, two other Hollywood figures who testified to HUAC.

Sources: 1

Crunchy Cons

crunchy-cons

In Station Eleven, survivors of a global pandemic and subsequent post-apocalyptic chaos decamp to an abandoned airport in Michigan and eventually establish a Museum of Civilization, comprised of assorted artifacts from life before “year zero,” when the pandemic paralyzed the world and rendered much of the stuff that had comprised their lives useless. The Museum was a place of remembering — the old ways, the things they had once cared about — but also for preparation. Though the world of Station Eleven is dark and uncertain, if civilization were ever to rise again from catastrophe, the wares and wisdom held in the Museum, however haphazard and incomplete, would form the basis of renewal.

This wonderful and trenchant book popped into my mind as I read a different but just as wonderful and trenchant book: Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher. I’ve followed Rod’s blog for years, and read (and recommend) his memoir The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. Though Crunchy Cons was published in 2006, standing as the Republican Party now is before a dark abyss, ready to jump as soon as Donald J. Trump is named their nominee for president, Republicans need the Crunchy Con Manifesto more than ever.

As a self-proclaimed social conservative, Dreher focuses his criticism and encouragement on his fellow conservatives and those under the Republican Party umbrella. But I couldn’t believe, as a moderate independent who tends to lean left but supports some small-c conservative principles, how much I was nodding along while reading this book. Anyone who doesn’t fit into tidy political molds or abide all the shibboleths of establishment Democrats or Republicans will feel at home with one of the topics Dreher spotlights, which include consumerism, food, home, education, the environment, and religion.

The original subtitle lays out the thesis well: “How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party).” Bombast aside, the juxtaposition of otherwise contrary stereotypes establishes the general sense of counterculture that pervades the book. Whether Dreher is talking to conservative homeschoolers or liberal organic farmers, their common refrain is a disillusionment or dissatisfaction with the status quo, with the cult of the bottom line and efficiency, or with how “everybody else” does things. It’s why Dreher can find more common ground with liberals on anti-consumerism than the free-trade fanatics in his own party, and why he feels more comfortable spending a little more for quality food at Whole Foods than get unethically produced cut-rate meat at the nearest SuperMegaMart.

Take the chapter on Home, or more specifically houses and how their style and place can affect their owners’ lives. The McMansions and cookie-cutter homes littering suburbia may be efficiently built and ostensibly indicative of financial success, but as bland, soulless carbon copies they fall short on fostering hominess and familial integrity. (One guy in the book likens getting one to dating the prom queen with a drinking problem: it’ll start out nice but quickly sour when someone prettier comes along.)

As an insecure teen I sometimes felt ashamed by my family’s simple, one-story house that wasn’t as big as some of my friends’ houses, that didn’t have its own rec room or backyard golf course or enormous kitchen. But in retrospect I’m glad for it, and glad my parents still live there, in a cozy house with character that they didn’t hastily buy with a bad mortgage and have to dump when the economy crashed. Despite my siblings and I having our own rooms, the more intimate size of the house allowed (or forced as it sometimes felt) us and my parents into closer proximity. It was harder to flee to our rooms and avoid each other. Obviously the size of one’s house doesn’t directly correlate with the quality of the family within it, but it does help create a culture — for good or for bad.

Similarly, the choices we make about education can have profound effects on the quality of the upbringing of one’s kids. The Drehers are passionate about (and financially capable of) homeschooling their children for several reasons, the biggest one seeming to be that they’d rather take responsibility for their kids’ rearing than abdicating it to others:

If you don’t educate your children for metaphysical truth and moral virtue, mainstream culture will do it for you. Absent shared commitment to these spiritual and moral verities, it is hard to see how we renew our families, our communities, and our country with an ethic of duty, self-restraint, stewardship, and putting the needs of people, not the state or corporations, first.

Though I’m a proud public school kid, and made it through without the scars others have (and may still harbor), the idea of forming my own children, rather than letting the state and wider culture do it, makes more and more sense as the state of public education gets bleaker and less hospitable to anyone who deviates from state-sponsored directives.

The same theory applies to religion. Though I didn’t go to a private religious school, those I know who did seemed to have an equal or even less chance of remaining in the faith as those who got their religious education solely from church. What matters most, I think, is the example that’s set by parents and the larger community, more than what is said or dictated. A kid whose parents set a positive example of marriage and life, who let their deeds speak for them rather than adopting a “Because I said so” strategy, will probably be much more likely to buy in to whatever religion or ideology they’re steeped in.

Whatever it is, it has to mean something more than whatever the wider culture is providing. “A religion in which you can set your own terms amounts to self-worship,” writes Dreher. “It has no power to restrain, and little power to inspire or console in times of great suffering. No matter what religion you follow, unless you die to yourself — meaning submit to an authority greater than yourself — it will come to nothing.”

Above all, according to Dreher, the crunchy con values authenticity: “In a world filled with the cheap, the flashy, the plastic, and the immediate, we hunger deeply for things that endure. We are the kind of people who long for the Permanent Things,” a phrase borrowed from Russell Kirk, the putative godfather of the crunchy con movement. The book Dreher is working on now concerns the “Benedict Option,” a model of community and cultural engagement (or lack thereof) for Christians who find the secular world increasingly hostile to people of faith. I suspect it will dovetail directly from the crunchy con impulse for smaller, enduring, and prudent living, and hope it will provide more practical wisdom for how to live out the crunchy con creed.

My fool’s hope for the Republican Party is that whatever emerges from the rubble of the modern GOP will include Crunchy Cons as a foundational text. A party that supports families fully rather than sundering them, that protects rather than pillages the environment, that promotes prudence and virtue over consumption and the bottom line, that values humanity and the living over materialism and Mammon — that’s the kind of party I could join.

But until then…

How to Win My Vote

south-park-vote

My first presidential vote was in 2008 for Barack Obama. It’s a vote I will never regret, despite the mixed results of the Obama administration. But in 2012 I didn’t vote to re-elect Obama, despite being generally supportive of his presidency and against the prospect of Mitt Romney. I voted for the libertarian candidate Gary Johnson—largely for the reasons Conor Friedersdorf laid down at the time—and wrote-in my deceased grandfather for some of the smaller offices.

All this to say: winning my vote in 2016 has become an uphill battle for the major parties. The specter of Hillary Clinton from the Democrats and (vomits) Donald Trump from the Republicans has further galvanized my already enhanced reluctance to vote for either corrupt, craven, duplicitous party.

Being a resident of a solid-blue state, my vote won’t count for much come November. But here are my (non-exhaustive) conditions for each party if they want it. I await their thoughtful reconsideration of misguided priorities having to pick between a douche and a turd.

Republicans

Stop clinging to your guns. I’m a hunter; I get it. I’ve shot and killed deer and ducks, and felt the awesome power of a gun’s blast. To a certain type of person it’s intoxicating. But saying “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” completely misses the point, which is that people are dying needlessly and at a historical rate because of them. Your Baracknophobic obsession with owning guns and proselytizing for them has become pathological. You’ve lost touch with reality, which is that literally the only purpose of a gun is destruction. This reality supersedes the cultic devotion you’ve imbued in the Constitution, which believe it or not has not existed forever and was not chiseled into stone on Mount Sinai. Besides, the Second Amendment is a gun-control amendment.

And religion. America is not a Christian nation. I say that having been a Christian all my life, one who’s frustrated with the corporatization of religion and unjust wielding of power from the pulpit. You’re not helping people of faith by crying martyr and holding hands with Kim Davis. And you actively hurt people of other faiths or no faith at all, who are citizens deserving just as much representation as you do. I strongly support religious liberty and gladly practice it, while at the same time acknowledging that other religious people around the world experience actual life-threatening religious discrimination.

Start actually, you know, conserving. Treating the earth like a garbage dump is not conservatism. Laughing at climate science is not conservatism. Bowing down to the Koch brothers is not conservatism. How about let’s just work on those three things before moving on to advanced concepts like “Oil is not a renewable resource” and “Snow does not prove global warming is a hoax.”

Acknowledge that black lives matter. “But all lives matter!” Yeah, no. Maybe in your utopian dreams. In reality, where deeds matter a whole lot more than words, black lives have been enslaved, oppressed, incarcerated, ignored, and killed a whole lot more than others. The first step to changing this is admitting that’s a problem.

Don’t nominate Donald Trump. Which is a sentence that in saner times would seem self-evident, but alas. I started writing this post in the summer of 2015, when the campaign was still young and uncertain and when Trump seemed like a fad scripted by late-night comedy shows that would eventually burn out. Now here we are in March and Trump has the Republicans by their Grand Old Parts. Part of me wants him to get the nod, just so he can push the red button on the GOP implosion and hopefully begin the process of restoring the party to something resembling respectable. But if we’re looking at the big picture, having a short-fingered vulgarian in the Oval Office would most decidedly not make America great again.

Democrats

At least pretend like abortions are bad. Because they are. Regardless of the circumstances that lead to the pregnancy, abortion is the gruesome slaying of a nascent life. Trying to defund Planned Parenthood is a stupid, short-sighted gambit by the Republicans, but the spirit behind it isn’t. Stop treating abortion as if it’s like ordering a latte and maybe its opponents won’t have to make such desperate, futile, attention-seeking ploys to stop it altogether.

Stop treating religious people like they’re all Sarah Palin. Because they aren’t. Dan Savage likes to call quiet, non-polemic religious folk NALTs, as in “Not All Like That”—like the Palins and Cruzes and Santorums of the world, who lack any discernible shade of grey in their worldview. To the skeptical outsider, a global religion like Christianity may look like one big blurry ball of bigoted buffoons; but anyone who assumes that, and can’t or won’t see the spectrum within, isn’t qualified to say so.

Put down your pitchforks. Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a great primer on the internet’s outrage-industrial complex and the irony of low tolerance among well-intentioned liberals who preach tolerance themselves. However sympathetic I am to historically oppressed people getting a voice, I cannot get behind any ideology prone to stridency and self-seriousness. Take a breath, and stop tar-and-feathering technocrats and small-town pizzerias.

Acknowledge that police lives matter. I wouldn’t want to be a cop; would you? Every one of those police shooting videos sickens me, and I almost always sympathize with whoever was the victim of overreaching power. But I never forget how fraught with danger the lives of law enforcement are, that they chose to be the person called when something bad could be happening. Please: let’s get the bad ones off the street and restrict their use of deadly force, but never forget their humanity.

Don’t nominate Hillary Clinton. I’d love to vote for a female president. Just not this female. Sure, she’s qualified and acts the part: like everyone, I loved watching her own the Republicans during the Benghazi circus of cynicism hearings and imagine we’d see a lot of that Hillary during her presidency. But that’s the problem: I prefer presidents whose lives aren’t telenovela-level public dramas, and have at least a few core beliefs they stick with even when it’s inconvenient. To paraphrase the musical Hamilton: when all is said and all is done, Sanders has beliefs; Clinton has none. (And no, I don’t “feel the Bern”… I just don’t want to climb the Hill.)

The Meal

Back in 2007, the Iraq War was experiencing a “surge” courtesy of the U.S. military and I was a college student sitting at a dining hall table, wondering how I could capture the political debate of the day in metaphor through a short film script. Thus, the following piece of trenchant political satire was born. The three characters in it—George, Harry, and John, creatively representing George W. Bush, Harry Reid, and John McCain—I recast as students at a dining hall table stuck in a debate that seemed quite similar to the one occurring at the same time in Washington. I recently found this in my files and just had to let the world see its genius. Get your popcorn out for:

THE MEAL

INT. CAFETERIA – DAY

Three guys are sitting at a table eating lunch. The conversation is pretty heated.

Continue reading

House Of Cards

As the second season of House of Cards begins Friday, it’s worth remembering that the Netflix political drama last left us with a prayer.

In last season’s finale, Frank Underwood, the politician who has schemed his way through a twisted plan of revenge, enters a church, gets on his knees and looks skyward. “Every time I’ve spoken to you, you’ve never spoken back,” he says. “Although, given our mutual disdain, I can’t blame you for the silent treatment. Perhaps I’m speaking to the wrong audience.” He then looks to the ground. “Can you hear me?” he implores. “Are you even capable of language or do you only understand depravity?”

Finally, Underwood concludes to the camera: “There is no solace above or below. Only us. Small. Solitary. Striving. Battling one another. I pray to myself, for myself.” As he exits the church he lights a votive candle in an array of lights. Then he blows them all out.

Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, doesn’t just inhabit the darkness; he creates it. And it’s darkness, along with the dirty deeds done in it, that haunts House of Cards. Set in Washington, D.C., the show follows the devious dealings of this veteran Democratic congressman, who feels betrayed by the newly elected president’s failure to appoint him Secretary of State. Embittered by the rejection, Underwood and his wife (Robin Wright) set the course for a new destination: the president’s cabinet.

“Through sardonic fourth wall-breaking asides to the audience, Underwood gives a play-by-play of his master plan as it takes shape, turning viewers into co-conspirators of his Machiavellian machinations. His ambitious plot soon ensnares Zoe (Kate Mara), a young and roguish reporter, and Peter (Corey Stoll), a freshman congressman with a sordid past.

The show’s pilot established D.C. as a place where the high-minded ideals of politicians and journalists belie a shadowy, noir-like underworld. Compromise — both political and moral — will come, like it or not. Underwood is a key player in this world, using his persuasive prowess to bend people his way in his insatiable quest for power.

But every one of Underworld’s power plays has a cost. Taking a step toward his sinister goals often means trampling whichever friend or foe is in his way. Peter was the most tragic victim of Underwood’s unchecked ambition in the first season. It was Zoe, Underwood’s former obsequious bedfellow, who by the end of the season broke free from his stranglehold and began, however unknowingly, to shine a light onto the darkness.

The teaser trailer for the second season shows Underwood taking the oath of office as the new Vice President, but he clearly learned nothing on his climb to the top. “One heartbeat away from the presidency and not a single vote cast in my name,” he says. “Democracy is so overrated.” Underwood mocked heaven and hell back in that season one finale. Yet if he had opened the book next to him then, he would have found a passage in Isaiah 14 that served as a word of warning to the king of Babylon, a ruler whose pride and arrogance would lead to his downfall:

How you have fallen from heaven,
morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!
You said in your heart,
“I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.”
But you are brought down to the realm of the dead,
to the depths of the pit.

Frank Underwood is his own conquering hero, but he now has much more to lose. House of Cards looks to continue the ongoing story of darkness versus light. Will Zoe expose Underwood’s deceit? Or will he climb even higher up the ladder? If pride, as they say, comes before the fall, then we’re in for quite a ride.

Originally published at ThinkChristian, February 2014.

Bad Tesseractors

Remember in The Avengers when it was revealed that Selvig, a scientist Loki brainwashed to do his bidding, had programmed a failsafe measure into the device he had created to harness the power of the Tesseract, and that failsafe was the villain Loki’s own scepter? Imagine that scenario with the good and evil dynamic reversed and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the new revelation, courtesy of ProPublica and The New York Times, that the NSA has been circumventing many of the encryption and security tools put in place to protect online communications from prying eyes.

NSA agent.

NSA agent.

For this disclosure we can thank former NSA agent and current Russian tourist Edward Snowden, whose data dump contained documents that uncovered the NSA’s secret efforts to undermine Internet security systems using code-breaking super computers and collaboration with tech companies to hack into user computers before their files could be encrypted.

The most nefarious aspect of this revelation, however, is the NSA’s attempt to “introduce weaknesses” into encryption standards used by developers that would allow the agency to easier hack into computers. So now, not only has the NSA flouted basic civil rights and U.S. law, they’re simply playing by their own rules. They couldn’t win the right to insert a “back door” into encryption standards in their 1990s court battles, so they gave the middle finger to the law and tried again anyway, but this time in secret. It’s a betrayal of the social contract the Internet was founded on, says engineer Bruce Schneier, and one that needs to be challenged by engineers who can design a more secure Internet and set up proper governance and strong oversight.

The worst part of all this is that there’s probably some twisted legal justification for this somewhere. Starting in Bush’s administration and continuing into Obama’s, the dark world of “homeland security” has received both tacit and explicit approval from the executive, legislative, and judicial branches for its increasingly Orwellian surveillance techniques — all in the name of “national security.” I’m sure there’s a lot of good being done behind the scenes at the NSA, CIA, and other clandestine organizations, but really, who are we kidding?

Stupid Is As Rosewater Does

If what happened to Maziar Bahari is the trend in Iran, the country just hasn’t figured it out yet. Bahari, an Iranian journalist, was imprisoned and tortured in Iran during the “Green Revolution” in Iran, which was the reformist response to the 2009 reelection of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. His memoir Then They Came For Me details his 118-day stint in one of Iran’s most feared prisons and sheds light on the controversial country’s tumultuous history (and will soon be a movie directed by Jon Stewart).

A big takeaway from Bahari’s experience, and something he writes about a lot in the book, is this: petty dictators + stringent fundamentalist religious dogma = bad, bad news. Bahari’s interrogator, whom he dubbed Rosewater due to his distinct smell, was a cruel mix of ignorant, dogmatic, pompous, and sadistic, but he was in charge of Bahari’s life. So Bahari had to stifle any hint of his anger, confusion, and religious irreverence simply to survive Rosewater’s erratic treatment and foolish reasons for falsely imprisoning innocent people. The true reason Bahari and his many of his jailed compatriots were behind bars wasn’t because they were criminals; while some were indeed drug dealers or something like that, most were merely critics of Khamenei’s regime and hadn’t been afraid to hide it.

Making the situation worse was the fact that Khamenei’s current regime, like other despotic governments, has no sense of humor. One of the pieces of “evidence” brought against Bahari during his imprisonment was a Daily Show piece he filmed a few weeks before he was arrested in which the correspondent Jason Jones pretended to be a spy and Bahari criticized Iran and Ahmadinejad. Rosewater thought Bahari was talking to an actual spy. In a cafe. On TV. As Jon Stewart said in an interview with Bahari, “we hear so much about the banality of evil, but so little about the stupidity of evil.”

Though this clearly was an experience that shouldn’t have happened, I look forward to seeing Bahari’s memoir come to life on screen, if only to understand what life is like for other prisoners who weren’t as lucky and well-connected as Bahari. The warmongering sabre-rattlers in both Iran and the U.S. will continue their campaigns for war or worse, but I believe what Bahari said in the Daily Show segment: that the two sides don’t understand each other. Here’s hoping that changes for the better.

Terror Will Lose

At the climax of The Dark Knight, Joker has Batman trapped on the top of a skyscraper while he waits for the boats full of prisoners and civilians to blow up. The clock strikes midnight — the deadline the Joker gave to those on the boat — but there’s no explosion. For the first time in the movie, the Joker looks surprised and out of control. Batman, despite being momentarily trapped and defenseless, chides him: “What were you trying to prove? That deep down, everyone’s exactly like you? You’re alone.”

I thought of this scene when reading about this brave British woman named Ingrid Loyau-Kennett who confronted the knife-wielding terrorists immediately after their barbarous acts today. They told her they wanted to start a war in London, to which she replied: “It is only you versus many people. You are going to lose; what would you like to do?”

Terror and fear don’t get to win. These men can be angry about people who are dying in Afghanistan, but propagating the “eye for an eye” principle leads only to self-destruction. These cowardly villains can make a grand show of their hate, but they won’t start a war in London nor anywhere else they wish. They won’t win converts to their twisted ideology, save for a few other confused souls. They are alone. And people like Ingrid Loyau-Kennett prove that every day.