March 29, 2013

RIP Richard Griffiths

"The old order changeth, yielding place to new / And God fulfills himself in many ways

And soon, I suppose, I shall be swept away by some vulgar little tumor. Oh my boys, my boys. We are at the end of an age. We live in a land of weather forecasts and breakfasts that set-in. Shat on by Tories, shoveled up by Labour. And here we are, we three, perhaps the last island of beauty in the world.”

- Withnail and I

March 18, 2013
Up With Chris: How the 'center' gets defined in the budget debate


Paul Ryan and the Senate Democrats released their competing visions for the federal budget last week. Ryan’s, which reprises several old proposals, is a conservative wish-list: He wants to voucher-ize Medicare, turn Medicaid and food stamps into block grant programs (which would essentially kill…

As this report confirms we have lost the meaning of the center in the post-Clinton world.

(Source: upwithsteve)

March 14, 2013
Bermuda Triangulation


Idol worship is harmful whoever the idol might be. It is one of the foremost problems I have with religion but it is not solely relegated to that domain. It is a problem to which everyone is susceptible, even those who place themselves above such matters. That is why I want to talk about Bill Clinton.

The exaltation of anyone places them above criticism and blinds us to the dangers they or their philosophy and actions may engender. These dangers can be intentional or not. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that worship blinds us to critically thinking about solvable problems because we cannot fathom implicating their cause. We cannot do this because at the root of the cause is the idol itself and the idol is beyond reproach. Not only is the idol beyond reproach, but the time we spend worshipping said idol is time we do not spend examining what is being done in the idol’s name. Next thing you know, you’ve got a real problem on your hands and no idea how to solve it or how you got there in the first place. 

We are currently stuck in a moment of political gridlock. It’s as if we have sailed into the Bermuda Triangle where everything in the ship seems to be in working order but we are going nowhere. While our governing principles and mechanisms have not changed in any radical way, the ability of our legislators to get anything done has. Politicians and pundits spend a tremendous amount of time trying to divine the reasons for this but come up with stories that are as plausible as the Bermuda Triangle. I think a major contributing factor to this mess was Bill Clinton and until liberals give up their idol worship of him we will never be able to fully explain or think our way out of it.

Now, let me take a moment to say I admire Bill Clinton. I think he is a great American and was at times a great President. To my mind he has certainly been a tremendous example of how to leverage having been President for positive social change. But I do not revere Bill Clinton. In fact I am pretty pissed at him for some things he did that led us into this mess. More than an Idol, I look at Clinton as a figure in a Greek Tragedy whose combination of tremendous gifts and hubris ultimately cause great suffering. The main gifts Clinton possessed were charisma and an unparalleled mind for politics. Clinton, more than any other Democrat understood in the early 90s that Dems were losing their moment and that the political landscape had changed. Over the course of 1978-1992 the influence of money and lobbying over how elections were funded and won had exploded as documented in Jacob S. Hacker’s Winner-Take-All Politics. Clinton knew that if Democrats were going to survive they had to appeal not just to workers but to the Chamber of Commerce and Captains of Industry as well. This was the beginning of triangulation. It was a sort of have your cake and eat it too philosophy. If Democrats could keep their liberal policies but tweak them in a business friendly way while also collaborating with the business lobby on “pro-growth” policies that did not seem to effect workers’ or civil rights then they could corner the market. Union members and minorities would stay with the Dems, but they could also fundraise from corporations and CEO’s on a competitive level with the Republicans. This combination of connecting to the people while fundraising among their bosses (combined with a recession, a directionless George HW Bush and a diminutive 3rd party candidate) won Clinton the election. But Clinton did not just use this method to win elections, it was also the way he governed as evidenced by the constant arguments in his Cabinet between Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

Now, the good part of this strategy was electoral victory and the re-birth of the Democratic Party. The bad part was that Clinton had let the money-lenders into the temple and we paid for it. When Clinton wanted to invest more in education and social welfare programs, Alan Greenspan bullied him with interest rates and threats of inflation. Fine. This was politics as usual. But Clinton now had people like Robert Rubin and Larry Summers whispering in his ear to  give Greenspan what he wanted and keep the markets happy. In fact the fate of the Dow soon seemed to determine the entire drift of domestic policy in the Clinton White House because signs of quick economic growth increased his popularity and his party’s electoral prospects. This led ultimately to the Commodity Futures Modernization Act which was Wall Street’s Holy Grail and gift from Clinton to them for their patronage. It also directly led to the crash of 2007. Because this is where Clinton’s great failing meets his tremendous gifts. His great failing is narcissism. A narcissist can only truly do something that will benefit himself. This does not mean that they will not do things that benefit others,but there has to be something in it for them. They also tend to be masters of self-justifcation.

As long as policies benefitted the Presidency of Bill Clinton and his re-election they could be justified. So trade deals like NAFTA that hurt US workers and Welfare Reform that crippled communities and betrayed traditional Democratic principles were all right because they kept Clinton in office. Give-aways to corporations and Wall Street were  okay for the same reason, plus a rapidly expanding economy is a good economy. But what people like Reich and other liberal critics pointed out at the time and what we now know far too well is that this is not the case. A rising tide does not lift all boats and really this is just trickle-down economics via another metaphor. 

Then we come to Monica Lewinsky, another tremendous display of Clintonian narcissism. Regardless of any moral judgement on the incident, it was incredibly stupid politically. A move that only a narcissist could justify. Plus it tied up the last years of his Administration in an impeachment scandal and put his chosen successor Al Gore in an impossible bind; either campaign with a man of incredible charisma but no moral compass or go it in his charisma-less own.

So, by the end of Clinton’s Presidency we have a world where Wall Street and Corporations have more of a foothold in government than ever before. Democrats have become overly dependent on fundraising from them to have a shot at electoral victories. Labor and minorities are stuck with a party that is only half-listening to their concerns. Moderate Republicans have had many of their issues swiped out from under them and need a new tactic. And in one of the greatest electoral tee-up’s in American History where a popular charismatic Democrat is riding the wave a good economy, a blanked budget, and a new majority carved from his traditional base plus new “pro-business” Dems, this brilliant charismatic political strategist and campaigner who basically just has to go out amongst the people and point at his VP and say “this guy” trashes it all with a blow job. Because the blow job was about Clinton, but Gore’s Presidency, not so much.

And then when we get Florida, Bush v. Gore, Bush/Cheney, Iraq, reckless government spending, ridiculous tax cuts, no financial regulation whatsoever, the crash and a meaner more ideological GOP now bent on crashing the ship off state rather than letting anyone else steer. So the next time you get a warm feeling when the great explainer lights up a podium, remember the old punk mantra: Kill Your Idols. Or if that sounds too severe try the more homespun: You gotta take the bad with the good.

January 18, 2013
2nd Amendment's 1st Meaning


Want to know about the Founders’ intent with the 2nd Amendment?  It’s probably not what the NRA wants you to believe as Saul Cornell of Fordham University points out in this article.

The bottom line is simple: the Second Amendment requires more gun regulation, not less.

Also I love this quote:

In 2008, a closely divided Supreme Court abandoned more than 70 years of precedent and for the first time in American history affirmed that the Second Amendment is about a right to have a handgun in the home for self-defense.

So interesting considering that 4 years prior a closely divided Supreme Court abandoned precedent to declare George W. Bush our 43rd President. And later in this article Cornell writes:

These (Militia) laws also defined what type of guns you had to buy — a form of taxation levied on individual households. Yes, long before Obamacare, the state made you buy something, even if you did not want to purchase it.

Again, another ideological reading of precedent by our Supreme Court (thankfully this time in the minority). It gives me a little solace to think that, even if we don’t get it right now, history will judge this era of the Supreme Court very harshly.

January 17, 2013
"I think that all of the various fields of human inquiry; theology and philosophy, morality and psychology, meet rather beautifully in politics. And sometimes I wonder if politics isn’t exactly that. It’s the taking of all the great ineffables and trying to make them have some meaning in the actual historical moment on earth in which we live."

Tony Kushner

January 16, 2013

The director of photography is Orthodox.


The director of photography is Orthodox.

January 16, 2013
Math Hard

"One of the things about the Journal editorial that makes it so consistently entertaining is that its supply-side enthusiasts are so bad at their jobs they don’t even know how to do propaganda right.” - Jonathan Chait

January 16, 2013
Sound and Fury


The NRA is like a colony of bugs whose rock has been overturned and are scrambling for survival now that the sun is shining down on them. It is quite a sight.

For years their political power has remained unquestioned and unchallenged. As a result, they have grown into a mythic force to be reckoned with. The message to politicians has been, “Do not overturn that rock! There are monsters under there and they will destroy you!” But in the wake of Newtown and other horrible mass shootings many people have banded together to lift that rock. And guess what? It’s just bugs. Slimy, disoriented bugs who are crawling all over each other in hysterical confusion as they run for cover. How do we know it’s just bugs?  Well, ask yourself:

If the NRA were a monolithic monster would we know that 69-82% of their membership disagree with the organization’s various extremist positions on gun control?

Would a cohesive and masterful political lobby argue that the real problem is video game violence and simultaneously release a target shooting game for ages 4 and up with targets in the shape of coffins?

Would these masterminds release a video attacking the President as a hypocrite for having Secret Service protections for his own daughters? Never mind the disgusting and crass nature of the attack and its disrespect for the Presidency in general. Just focus on the ridiculous logic of the argument! Does the NRA have any clue about the rigorous background checks and training a person has to go through to become a Secret Service agent? The invasion of privacy endured in the vetting process for the right to carry a gun while protecting any member of our government? Aren’t the safeguards for gun ownership that the Obama administration is calling for much less severe than those for a job in the Secret Service?

The NRA is currently being shown for what it is; an extremist group of bullies who use gun ownership as protection against be called to account for the consequences of their positions. They do this because there is no logic behind their argument. In a brilliant essay in the New York Times titled “The Freedom of an Armed Society,” Firmin Derabeanderg discusses Hannah Arendt’s concept that “violence is mute.” 

(G)uns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and (in) particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech…

I often think of the armed protestor who showed up to one of the famously raucous town hall hearings on Obamacare in the summer of 2009. The media was very worked up over this man, who bore a sign that invoked a famous quote of Thomas Jefferson, accusing the president of tyranny. But no one engaged him at the protest; no one dared approach him even, for discussion or debate — though this was a town hall meeting, intended for just such purposes. Such is the effect of guns on speech — and assembly. Like it or not, they transform the bearer, and end the conversation in some fundamental way. They announce that the conversation is not completely unbounded, unfettered and free; there is or can be a limit to negotiation and debate — definitively.

The discussion is ended by the threat of being shot, by the threat of violent repurcussion. This is how bullies thrive. It’s time to take this bully down.

January 15, 2013
Losing Our Religion

20% of Americans have no religious affiliation. So Americans are still more religious than the average Iranian. But the number of people who claim no religious affiliation, the “Nones”, are growing.

This information comes from the first in a series on the decline of religion in America by NPR’s Morning Edition. Something that struck me, an atheist, about the story was a quote from Robert Putnam, a Harvard Professor, trying to explain the rise in the “Nones”:

"It begins to jump at around 1990. These were the kids who were coming of age in the America of the culture wars, in the America in which religion publicly became associated with a particular brand of politics, and so I think the single most important reason for the rise of the unknowns is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue."

He also says to keep in mind that this is a generation that does not join community organizations like the Elks or Rotary Club.

While these explanations have kernels of truth in them, I think they avoid the much larger issue at hand. And I think they do so because it is taboo to talk about religion in a certain way in this country (a topic that Sam Harris has explored in great depth). The larger issue is that religion no longer makes sense in the modern era.

The more knowledge we acquire, the more cultures we encounter, the more educated we become the more holes are poked in the originating texts of world religions. The mere historical/anthropological knowledge that many different cultures created their own versions of origin stories in order to band together as tribes that could prosper pokes the largest hole possible in the idea of “one true God.” How can one cling to the belief in the dignity of others while denigrating their God in any but the most condescending and hypocritical ways?

Now this is not to say that religion has no value. There are underlying philosophies and truths in religious teachings that enabled the human race to survive and prosper. Sociological arguments can be made that human beings would not have populated the earth or created the modern world without these early adaptive organizing principles and myths. But younger Americans in ever increasing numbers are seeing that these teachings can survive apart from the organizations that espouse them. The very fact that these values were often shared amongst separate tribal societies points to their human rather than divine origin. Plus with modern religious organizations’ opposition to human rights issues like marriage equality and their attempts to cover up scandals amongst their ranks that betray their own basic philosophies, younger Americans are finding it preferable to de-couple the philosophy from the organization, the truth from the totem.

We now believe that the Sun is the center of our Universe. We now believe that it is wrong for one human being to own another. I am heartened to see that an increasing number of Americans are beginning to believe that the basis of an ethical and just society is not reliant on clinging to out-dated modes of thought and the organizations that espouse them.

January 12, 2013
Burying the #Lohan / Lede


A fascinating and juicy read,  ”Here’s What Happens When You Cast Linsday Lohan in Your Movie" is currently the "most blogged" article from the New York Times. It has appeared in my social media feeds as frequently as that dog talking about steak. But a far more accurate title would have been “Here Are the Kinds of Choices Formerly Relevant Cultural Zeitgeist Guys Like Paul Schrader and Brett Easton Ellis Make and How It Explains Why No One Wants to Work With Them Anymore.” I don’t think my title would get as many click-throughs, but it is a much better frame for the real issues present in this article. Lohan is an open wound in a town with more than its share of blood-suckers. In terms of her behavior this article has nothing new to say. But the story of Schrader and Ellis throwing their all into a nonsensical micro-budget thriller starring Lohan and a porn star and negotiating the terms of a pivotal four-way sex scene? Well that speak volumes. This story shows that two men who once brilliantly dissected the sickness of their times have now become part of the disease of ours. 

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