Thursday, May 5, 2016

Cinco de Mayo

You certainly won't hear this in a Trump administration -- Obama offering praise for Mexico on its national holiday.  The speech is from 2014, but he celebrates the day every year, and a big event is planned today as well.

Unfortunately, all Trump and many Republicans see is a wall between us and Mexico when it has been a very fluid border throughout the centuries.  One that has benefited us far more than it has Mexico.  It took decades to finally get the Colorado River flowing into Mexico again, after all the dams we had built upriver to supply US farmland and provide electricity.  This was a signature moment for the Obama administration when it signed the US-Mexico Water Pact, the kind of relationship we should have with Mexico.

Instead, many of us see Mexico as an enemy, forever evoking the Alamo, which paved the way for one of the biggest land grabs in American history.  Not only did we take Texas, but all of the New Mexico territory and California, after the "Lone Star Republic" infamously declared independence from Mexico.  Abraham Lincoln and other Whigs were staunchly against the Mexican War, as they saw it as nothing more than imperial ambition.

We had a growing cotton plantation system that desperately needed more land, so expansion was inevitable.  Mexico had only recently gained independence from Spain and was struggling to build a nation state out of its far-flung territories.  It was poorly equipped to defend them, so President James K. Polk saw a golden opportunity to give his Southern brethren what they wanted.

Mexico was in danger of being overrun by France during the American Civil War, but the Mexican Army stood tall at the Battle of Puebla, beating back the unwanted invaders.  This is the moment it honors from its six-year war with France.  Given the highly festive ways in which Mexicans celebrate Cinco de Mayo it is easy to confuse it with Independence Day, which is celebrated September 16.

It is nice that we share in this holiday with Mexico, making us all Latinos at least for one day.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Obama drops the mic

What a week!  The President offered his farewell address to White House correspondents and a wide variety of guests, many of whom he singled out during the evening.  One person wasn't there, Donald Trump, but he had his two sons represent him, with Eric saying he was looking forward to his father addressing the White House Correspondents Association next year.

It may have seemed like a far-fetched idea last June, when he descended his escalator, but that reality came a step closer yesterday when Ted Cruz bowed out of the race, failing to hold the firewall in Indiana against the raging Trump fire.  It's too bad, we were all looking forward to the dream ticket in California.

First, the good news.  The President was in fine form, playfully teasing his audience, including Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican National Committee, who seemed to take the jokes in stride.  Obama even singled out Kendall Jenner, noting how his twitter followers will increase now that he has referenced her.  The White House Correspondents Dinner has become a virtual who's who of politicians and celebrities that now spills over into a garden brunch, the so-called "pre-game."  Helen Mirren saved her Prince tattoo for that evening.

There no longer seems to be any line between entertainment and politics, which helps explain how Trump was able to sweep through the Republican primaries.  Politicians have long courted celebrity endorsements, and love nothing more than having events like this that allow for engaging photo-ops, but now it seems celebrities are taking over the political circles as well.  We've already been primed for a run by Kanye West in 2020.  Given the huge success of Trump this year, who is to say Kanye can't take over the Democratic Party in the same way, assuming he runs as a Democrat.

In the meantime, Bernie was able to put Hillary's nomination on hold by taking Indiana.  His narrow win gave him a +5 differential in delegates, hardly enough to cut into her overall lead in any appreciable way, but it shows that voters still want Bernie to run.  He has become the darling of this election cycle, a 74-year-old "Social Democrat" who has captivated the millennials, showing that you don't have to be a pop star to turn on the latest MTV generation.

What Bernie has working for him, which Ted does not, is that Sanders continues to run outside the establishment.  Ted has been getting political endorsements left and right, including that of Indiana's governor, Mike Pence, but all it has done is make Ted look like an insider, and this is clearly what the Republican electorate does not want.  The more Ted cozies up to the establishment, the more votes he loses.  He should have known that but it seems all Ted wanted was to be liked.  Unfortunately, he got walloped in Indiana, losing all 51 delegates to the Donald.

It was a staggering win for Trump because Indiana was not supposed to be friendly to him.  The only question now is whether Republicans will rally around him at the convention or mount a third-party campaign, as some have suggested, to ensure he doesn't win the White House.  The latest Rasmussen poll has him two points ahead of Hillary Clinton, albeit only 80 per cent of those polled chose to give a preference.

The other option is to rally around Hillary, although she took one on the chin this week when the media dredged up a rape case from 1975 in which Hillary apparently got the rapist off the hook.  It may have damaged her a bit in Indiana, where she was favored to win after her string of Northeastern primary victories.  It's the kind of story that can gain traction through an election cycle, much like Willie Horton did in 1988.

But, Obama steered away from these hot button issues, leaving it to Larry Wilmore to tackle the more contentious subject matter in his monologue.  Alas, Larry wasn't a big hit at the dinner.  He seemed to struggle at the podium as he ventured into a comedic and political no-man's land on what it means to be a nigger.  Best to leave these subjects to the round table, where he excels on the Comedy Channel.

What people want is a playful banter, like the President did, making as many jokes about himself as he did others.  Most amusing was his little video segment on what he would do in the Washington DC area after he left the White House.  He wants young Sasha to have the opportunity to finish Sidwell Friends School.  If only Hillary could bring a little of this levity to her campaign, then maybe fewer persons would see her as "Aunt Hillary" trying to learn how to use the social media, as Obama joked.

The Donald opts for an entirely different approach, which has endeared him to millions as the so-called "straight shooter."  For some reason, which has defied all political calculus, the Donald is seen as telling the truth whereas his opponents are seen as opportunists and liars.  He has been able to literally overturn the equations that normally govern an election cycle and make 2016 entirely about himself.

You can joke about him all you want, as Obama has done at this and previous White House Correspondents Dinners, most infamously 2011, but it doesn't matter.  The Donald is impervious to such abuse.  He uses it to motivate him, which many felt was the case with the merciless taunting he took five years ago on this grand occasion.   The time may have not been ripe in 2012 but it was perfect in 2016.  He will now represent the Republican Party in the General Election whether the GOP likes it or not.

The only question now is whether Hillary can push her rock a little further up the hill and beat him back in November.  Otherwise it could be a very black Tuesday.

Monday, May 2, 2016

A Special Kind of Stupid

Apparently Sam Elliott wasn't all that keen about being cast as another cowboy in The Big Lebowski but he has since come to embrace this prototype, taking the roles that came with it.  However, I would have to think he would be a bit chagrined by how his "stranger" has come to be one of the most popular memes on social media, most often used to advocate gun rights.  The quotes you see attributed to him can be easily generated at such meme sites as imgflip.

I had my brush with Sam Elliott many years ago, when he came to Northwest Florida to film Frogs.  I was cast along with other neighborhood kids for the child roles in the movie, but alas I lost out to my classmate for the closing scene when a little boy shows a big frog to the kids who had survived the torment of amphibian and reptilian revenge.  Still, I got to meet Sam and Joan Van Ark and glimpse Ray Milland in one of his least memorable roles.  Sam would go on to better films, leaving Frogs far behind.  However, a few of those giant South American toads lingered in the bayous.

Sam did a bit of everything in Hollywood, but his role as "the stranger" in The Big Lebowski is what most persons remember him for, thanks largely to these neverending memes.  A certain kind of politics has been attached to him whether he likes it or not.  While it does appear that Sam is a staunch gun advocate, he doesn't exactly line up with the right wing of politics as much as conservatives would like.  Just the same, they claim him as one of their own.  In a Hollywood overrun by liberals I suppose it is heartening to think there are a few conservatives among them.

For his part, Sam keeps his political views pretty much to himself.  In his interview with the New York Times, he said that his greatest missed opportunity was passing on a chance to be with Reba McEntire in Annie Get Your Gun, showing a fondness for musicals.  He also lent his voice to dinosaurs, not just the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and Coors.  He doesn't appear to take himself too seriously, something Republicans could learn.

Unlike Clint Eastwood, Sam has not endorsed any political candidate that I know of.  He prefers not to talk to chairs or go around bellyaching like Tom Selleck that he lost roles because of his politics.  Sam seems content with where he is at in life, even if he hasn't reached the same level of fame of some of his contemporaries.  He's one of those actors who gets better with age, and has been lauded for his role in Grandma, along side Lily Tomlin.

In this world of social media, it will be pretty hard for Sam to shake his iconic role as "the stranger."  It's just too bad it has been co-opted by conservatives determined to make Sam Elliott an icon for their causes.

Friday, April 29, 2016

A Dream Within a Dream

Science is an interesting topic, but you have to wonder what National Geographic hopes to accomplish by presenting doomsday scenarios, with authoritative voices like Hakeem Oluseyi to tell how we might be able to survive a neutron star or some other cosmic collision.  However, the episode that caught my eye the other night was a scenario in which an ice meteor strikes the earth and causes the sea water to rise at such an alarming rate it would take a 10,000 foot sea wall to stave off total destruction.   I was hoping to find the video but no such luck.

It's bad enough we are destroying our planet due to our own devices, causing the global temperature and sea level to rise, but here is Dr. Hakeem telling us of situations we have absolutely no control over and would require massive efforts well beyond our collective will to combat or escape our dear planet, as the case may be.  It seems nothing we are doing can prepare ourselves for these cataclysmic events, which would lead one to ask, why bother?

This hopeless world view hardly encourages our society to cut down on carbon dioxide emissions or any other efforts to prolong our lives on earth.  As far as these scientists are concerned, the death sentence has already been written.  It's just a question of when.  Apparently, with knowledge comes the enormous burden of our inability to do anything about the great forces at work in our solar system.  We are just a blink of an eye in the cosmic history of time, an aberration perhaps.

Maybe we were never meant to unlock the great mysteries of our universe but rather live out our short lives in an unquestioning state of bliss as God imagined in Eden.  Unfortunately, the serpent beckoned Eve and the rest as they say is history.

What I find so odd about all these alarmist scenarios is how they dovetail with apocalyptic visions from the Bible.  If we are to buy into Oluseyi's hopeless scenarios, the only thing we have left is faith in a greater power taking the souls of those who believe in him to another plane of existence.  Fortunately, we have Morgan Freeman on Nat Geo to reinforce our faith in God.

Physically speaking, we can't even sustain a flight in space more distant than our moon, so how do we expect to get persons to another solar system where there might be a planet similar to ours?  If we are to accept the premises of movies like Interstellar, our only physical hope is a wormhole in space, where on some far distant planet we can deposit our seeds and start live anew.

I suppose the real driving force behind these shows are ratings, as there is nothing Americans love more than a good Doomsday yarn, and who better to tell one than scientists, who can lend them an air of plausibility,  Nat Geo is now owned by Fox Cable Networks.  Discovery Channel is part of a conglomerate that also owns TLC, Oprah Winfrey Network, Animal Planet, among others.  Blending fact with fiction has become necessary to keep up in this competitive television market.  Even Neil Degrasse Tyson had to resort to clever new ways to present Cosmos.  There's no longer room for science for science's sake.  Science has to be entertaining.

Tyson has thrown more fuel on the fire by suggesting that maybe space is nothing more than a simulation, the ultimate "reality show" being watched by aliens getting a good laugh out of our futile efforts, or that space is a giant fun house of mirrors reflecting images or "virtual universes."   I suppose in this strange way, Doomsday becomes a reality show within a reality show, or as Edgar Alan Poe evocatively wrote, a dream within a dream.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

California here we come

Just when everyone thought we had heard the last of Carly, Ted decides to cast her as his running mate.  I suppose after his failed attempt to ally with Kasich to thwart Trump in Tuesday's primaries, this was as good as any attempt to deflect attention away from his abysmal showing.  I'm not sure what good it does picking a VP at this stage of the game, when he has no mathematical chance of winning the nomination on the first ballot, even if he were to score big in California, which seems to be his motivating reason for picking Carly to run with him.

As you might recall, Carly is a California native who unsuccessfully ran against Barbara Boxer for the US Senate seat in 2010.  She was also the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, who was fired in 2005 after running the company into the ground.  Nevertheless, she seemed to tickle conservatives' fancy in the early going of this election cycle, much the way Michelle Bachman did in 2012.

Her social and political views aren't quite as far out in right field as Bachman, but she has the "street creds" to endear her to social conservatives, notably her stance on planned parenthood and abortion.   Despite getting "punked" on the hoax PP video that was widely distributed on conservative blogs, she stuck to her guns in saying that PP was "trafficking body parts," as did Ted for that matter.  She is kind of an "anti-woman" woman candidate, a younger version of Phyllis Schlafly, who lent her endorsement to the Donald.

The problem now is that Trump has such a big head of steam coming out of the Northeast that it will take a major derailment to stop his train heading into Cleveland for the GOP convention in July.  He nearly has 1000 delegates, and polls show him ahead in California by 17 points.  I'm not convinced Carly is going to help Ted make up that huge difference.  A win in California would pretty much seal the deal for Trump on the first ballot.  We will only be left to guess who the Donald will put forward as his Vice-President.

Meanwhile, the Donald has been trying to stake out a foreign policy doctrine, which he has entitled "America First."  Not very original but sufficiently vague as to allow persons to read into it what they will.  However, a few concerns have been raised over his dismissal of the nuclear weapons agreement we have with Japan and South Korea.  He feels these countries are rich enough to buy or develop their own nuclear arsenal and that they should fend for themselves against China and North Korea.  I suppose there is little fear Japan would rebuild an imperial dynasty, but this agreement serves both our interests in many ways, and it is not like Japan doesn't pay for our "protection."

Trump wants to see a world where the United States is no longer the chief police officer, basically leaving countries to their own military means.  One can see Vladimir Putin salivating at all the opportunities here, especially if a Trump administration were to forego its commitments to Eastern Europe.  China would also find itself in a better position to bully its neighboring smaller states.

The irony of this is that many conservatives have accused Obama of taking a back seat when it comes to American foreign policy, as was the case in Libya.  The Obama administration essentially let France and Great Britain call the shots that led to the downfall of Gaddafi with no plan in place to fill the power vacuum left behind.  As a result, we found ourselves confronted with Benghazi, which the Republicans have tried to wrap like an albatross around Hillary Clinton's neck.

Most Republicans demand a bolder approach.  They no longer seem afraid to put troops on the ground wherever they might be needed to defend American interests.  But, Donald appears to only want to do so if someone pays for it, essentially a "guns for hire" approach, like a modern day version of the Pinkerton gang.

It's not like he has put much thought into it, like he has anything else in his campaign.  Trump has been effectively able to seize on the conservative electorate's imagination by giving his voice of authority to the same sentiments found on conservative blogs.  Ted Cruz has tried to do the same, but his voice doesn't carry the same weight.

One can only imagine the sharp barbs Trump will have for Ted and Carly in the weeks ahead.  I'm sure he will craft a clever nickname for Carly, who he has already berated any number of times for her looks.  She is pleased as punch to be back in the game after being given up for dead, so it probably doesn't matter what he calls her.  We'll see June 7 whether Ted's bold choice proves to be a game changer.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The night they drove the Grand Old Party down

Seems like the new "presidential" Donald Trump lasted all of five minutes.  When news got out that Cruz and Kasich would tag team on him, he launched into Lyin' Ted and "One for 41" Kasich, bemoaning how a man who has won only one primary could still be in the hunt.  He compared Kasich to a mama's boy, feeling he was entitled to the Presidency.  He also attacked Kasich's eating habits.

Trump is favored to win big in today's round of primaries that focus mostly on the Northeast, essentially his backyard.  It really is hard to fathom why Republican voters continue to gravitate toward the Donald in the wake of his outlandish attacks against his opponents. They have to know he stands little chance in November.

However. the base of the GOP doesn't seem to care, as it has put its faith in this dubious developer who has left nothing but a trail of empty promises behind him.  This is a guy who was going to save Atlantic City, as you might remember.  Yet, he filed for bankruptcy four times, all related to properties he over-leveraged in the ill-fated gambling city.  He may get these properties back thanks to the recent collapse and the cozy relationship he has with Chris Christie.  The same crony politics he accused others of.

Trump has successfully seized on the anger at the base of the GOP and continues to harness it in the last stages of the primary schedule, well beyond the point anyone expected him to still be in the race.  It's like a nightmare you can't escape.

How Trump has gotten to this point has been the subject of continuous speculation.  The Republican Party thought the Tea Party had drank its last sip when Sarah Palin was so badly shamed after the 2014 midterms.  The GOP had regained the Senate on its own, or so it thought, having survived TP bids to oust its ranking senators, like the amusing attempt to boot Lindsey Graham in South Carolina.  But, the TP still scored victories in 2014 and continues to exercise strong influence in Congress, as Paul Ryan's attempt to get a budget passed amply illustrated.  The Teabaggers have moved on from Palin and adopted new leaders to promote their "zero government" approach.

What you have is a core of the conservative electorate that basically is against government in any way, shape or form, and is looking for a person who can break it apart.  Donald Trump is that wrecking ball.

This is a return to antebellum politics when the Southern states fought so hard to weaken federal government and maintain its separate identity.  South Carolina threatened to secede twice before it finally did so in late 1860, feeling that Lincoln would unleash all the federal demons upon it.  We also saw the same ugly Nativism in the Know Nothing Party in the Midwest, which imagined a conspiracy directed by the Vatican to usurp the natural Protestant order in the United States.   Ignorance and fear held sway, as they do again today.

It remains to be seen if the GOP can beat back Trump before the convention, and put up a reasonable candidate for President.  Trump is clearly not "presidential," unable to even maintain the facade of one for any length of time.  Of course, Cruz isn't any better, but then the GOP has no intention of nominating him either, not if it can avoid it anyway.  But, how do they convince the majority of their party that Kasich or some other figure is the better choice?

There are a number of "secret plans" being openly tossed around in the media, including one to draft Gen. James Mattis, the so-called "warrior monk," as a third-party candidate should Trump win the GOP nomination.   One of the Koch brothers even suggested Hillary would be a far better alternative than Trump, forcing her to publicly rebuke Charlie's tentative show of support.  After all, she is trying to project herself as a progressive candidate.

It only serves to show how disjointed the Republican Party has become, which Donald J. Trump has exploited since the start of this campaign, tearing apart a 16-person field that failed to get behind a party candidate until the only choice it had left was Ted Cruz, a face that is very hard to take seriously.  Trump has exposed all the GOP's weaknesses, leaving it an empty shell of itself, making it about as appealing as Atlantic City right now.

The GOP will have a hard time coming out of the convention with any sense of unity.  Trump has morphed it into something new and terrifying that has left everyone aghast, except for his small core of vociferous supporters, who don't even measure up to one-tenth of the national electorate.  July 18 may very well be the night the Tea Party drove the Grand Old Party down!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Pistol-packin' Mama

Harriet Tubman hasn't generated this much attention since the antebellum days, when she successfully ran an "underground railroad" with such a fierce resolve that it led to a $40,000 bounty being placed on her head.

Putting her face on the $20 bill has everyone commenting pro and con with some offering alternative denominations.  It's not like Andrew Jackson is being removed.  He will still be on the reverse side of the bill, so it is really much ado about nothing, as you can always stack your bills Jackson side up if Tubman is too much for you to take.

Andrew Jackson has not always been on the bill.  It used to be Grover Cleveland before the Treasury Dept. decided to change faces in 1928 for no disclosed reason.  Some surmised it was the centennial of his first presidential inauguration.  There had been renewed interest in Jackson, a fiery Democrat who promoted state rights and pushed to have the national bank closed in favor of state banks.  There were those who thought this was a vendetta on his part, as it was the lack of bank credit that cost him his earlier business venture.  He didn't like speculation in currency and in general supported "hard money."  A popular position at his time, and one that found renewed interest with the rampant speculation taking place in the 1920s, which led to the stock market collapse in 1929.

I suppose what took people most by surprise was Tubman getting the $20 bill when it was thought she would be the new face of the $10 bill.  Maybe the new Broadway musical called long deserved attention to Hamilton, or as the Obama administration said, a letter from a 9-year-old girl inspired the decision.  Women on 20s hadn't been satisfied with the choice of the $10 bill, considering it a compromise as the $20 bill gets much more circulation.  Besides, Jackson is much less popular a figure, given  his views on slavery and his notorious Indian wars.

This led Donald Trump and others to opin that this is just another sad case of political correctness.  He suggested a new $2 bill instead, seemingly unaware there is already one in circulation with Thomas Jefferson gracing the front.  It's kind of like the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin that gets very little circulation.

I think conservatives are more upset that Reagan isn't being honored on a bill, as there has been a movement for decades to put their beloved Republican hero on the ten-dollar bill, and many thought that would be the case when Bush was President, but the pro-Hamilton backers won the battle against the Gipper note.  So, it is not so much change they are against but who is chosen for these bills.

There is a sad irony in having a two-faced bill, given what these two persons stood for.  I think it would have been better to have Tubman's pistol on the reverse side, as she always carried it by her side, and it would make gun rights' activists even happier.  If not, then a more energetic version of Tubman on the front to counter "Old Hickory" on the back.

Friday, April 22, 2016

So long, Prince

Prince never quit turning out the albums.  He released the two-phase Hit n Run last year on Tidal.  It may have seemed like a vanity project, as he re-explored his 80s music that had made him so immensely popular, but then so  many recording artists return again and again to the same themes, finding new ways to interpret their music.

His prodigious outpouring over the last three-and-a-half decades will leave a legacy like few other recording artists.  One can imagine there is much more stashed away in the vaults of Paisley Park where he was found dead yesterday.

Prince was truly an original.  He not only had a distinctive sound but a presence that belied his gentle nature.  Many persons are recounting the the ways he touched their lives, as he rarely called attention to it himself.  Like his attempt in the 90s to shed his name, Prince seemed to want to be anonymous.

Reclusion didn't really suit him, however, and he could be found teaming up with an astonishing variety of musicians for special performances like this one at the 2004 Rock Hall of Fame induction ceremony, showing off his stellar guitar playing.

He also liked putting on impromptu performances like one last year for the Minnesota Lynx, his hometown's WNBA team, after winning its third title in five years.  He was an avid basketball fan, which Charlie Murphy and Dave Chappelle humorously noted in this "True Hollywood Story."  Prince loved that sketch so much that he wrote a single for Murphy and Chappelle and put Chappelle as himself on the cover of the EP.

The sports world probably best remembers him for his halftime performance in the otherwise forgettable Super Bowl XLI.  It proved he could still bring down the house, if any proof was necessary.

These and many other videos are making the rounds on social media, as fans remember a great one.  Of course, most of us remember him best for Purple Rain, his signature album and movie that introduced us to Prince all those years ago.  The New Yorker even made a special cover.   He will most definitely be missed.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Hangover, Part V

or whose inaugural party will we be seeing?

It's understandable that New Yorkers had no time for Cruz or even Kasich, but I would have thought they would have greeted Bernie more warmly.  Even in his boyhood home of Brooklyn he was soundly rejected.  Of course, Bernie supporters are questioning the 125,000 voters who were purged from the rolls, as the number exceeded Hillary's margin of victory in the New York borough.

As usual, political pundits are calling the nomination over, claiming there is "no clear path" left for the other candidates to upstage "King Kong" Trump and "Hurricane" Hillary, but there are still 15 primaries left on the slate, and I doubt Cruz or Kasich or Sanders will drop out.  Trump and Hillary had this state in the bag, yet with so much of our news media centered in New York it was natural they would make a big deal out of these victories. The only question was whether Cruz or Kasich could dent Donald, and take away a few delegates.  Kasich did pick up 3 stray delegates.

The two biggest states remaining on the primary schedule are Pennsylvania (next Tuesday) and California (June 7).   Kasich has been keeping it relatively close in the Keystone state and Ted is making a play for California.  Bernie is also very active in these states, hoping to derail the Clinton train before it reaches Philadelphia.  There are a dozen other states and territories in play, many of them hostile to Trump and Clinton.

At this point, it appears Trump will easily clear 1000 delegates, maybe as many as 1100, which one RNC committee member hinted would be enough to push for his nomination to avoid a bitterly contested convention.  Don't tell Ted that as he will hold out even if the Donald ends up with 1236 delegates, one short of the number needed.  Cruz has been working hard to stack the delegates so that those committed to Trump on the first ballot would vote for him on the second ballot, which has had the Trump campaign crying foul the past month.

If nothing else, Americans are learning how the nomination process works.  It's been a long time since we had a contested convention, which I would think would be a media boon.  Wolf Blitzer and John King would go positively "apeshit" pushing all those numbers around on their digital whiteboard, as they change from ballot to ballot at the Republican convention.  Who knows, maybe Bernie will pull close enough to Hillary that we actually go through a suspenseful first ballot at the Democratic convention.

Trump says voters are disgruntled because they think the process is being taken out of their hands and vested in a relative handful of delegates, which they had no role in picking.  Delegates are only bound to their candidates on the first ballot, after which they become more and more free to go where power brokers push them, as was the case in the old days.  Given how poorly the electorate understood their candidates this election cycle, maybe it is better this way.

It really is hard to fathom Trump's appeal, or Ted Cruz's appeal for that matter.  These guys represent a very narrow fringe, yet were able to dominate the Republican primaries from start to finish.  Together they won all but four primaries, Rubio picking up three primary victories and Kasich one.  Part of the reason was the huge field of candidates, splitting the vote and allowing Donald and Ted to pull out primary wins with as little as 28 per cent of the vote.  That would have been fine if the delegates were awarded proportionally, as they were in Iowa.  However, many states were winner-take-all, allowing Donald to take all 50 South Carolina delegates with only 33% of the vote.

At least on the Democratic side delegates are awarded proportionally, but then there is the matter of the superdelegates.  They aren't bound to their state results, and can declare themselves to whichever candidate they choose.  Bernie Sanders handily won New Hampshire in the popular vote, but thanks to the superdelegates, Hillary came away with more delegates.  Social Democracy at its worst.

The onerous nomination process along with dubious new voter laws in many states has left a lot of persons scratching their heads as to what this election cycle actually means in America.  It seems like very few persons are happy with the results, as we are getting ever closer to two nominees few people wanted to see.  Trump is highly unpopular nationally.  Polls show that a whopping 70 per cent of the general electorate rejects him, but with Hillary being the projected Democratic nominee, he stands half a chance in November, as her net favorability rating is -24 per cent.

As Ollie would say to Stan, this is a fine mess you've gotten us into.  This may turn out to be the lowest voter turnout in general election history, which means all bets are off as to who the winner might be.

Unfortunately, there are no do-overs in presidential elections.  It is an enormously costly affair.  As of March 20, nearly one billion dollars had been pumped into the Republican and Democratic campaigns, including super PACs.  That cost will double in the general election.   All this campaigning may be good for the GDP, but it hasn't helped Americans to decide who the best candidate is.

Making matters worse is the low voter turnout in primaries.  States range from 4.6 per cent in Hawaii to 52.4 per cent in New Hampshire.  The national average seems to be around 25 per cent.  For all the attention and all the money poured into this election cycle, very few people care.

The Republicans could have avoided this entire fiasco by simply selecting their nominee at a convention.  Instead, we have been subjected to the worst reality show ever imagined -- a Battle Royale that came down to Donald J. Trump and Rafael Edward Cruz, replete with an undercard that allowed such persons as Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie to pretend to run for President.

It wasn't much better on the Democratic side as the first debate showed.  Who the fuck is Lincoln Chaffee?  The Democratic primaries very quickly came down to Hillary and Bernie, with Chaffee, Webb and O'Malley clearly not ready to be prime time players.  The net result being -- you are either with Hillary or against her.  Sure Bernie raised a number of great issues and built up a groundswell that briefly made us feel it was 2008 all over again, but this election was never about him, it was about Hillary, her "judgement" anyway, which she was amply prepared to address.  All that brouhaha over her Goldman Sachs speeches blew up in Bernie's face when this video was released before the NY primary.

At least we saw issues raised on the Democratic side of the primaries.  On the Republican side, it was one of the most ghastly displays ever witnessed in American history.  You would probably have to go back to the time before the Civil War to find such ugly Nativist views being expressed.   Not a single GOP candidate offered anything resembling a coherent plan of action if elected.  They all boasted of what they would repeal their first day in office, and then offered up the same stale tax cuts and government deregulations that has become the staple of contemporary Republican thinking.  The Republicans have truly become the Know-Nothing Party.

All this leaves the average voter with a very sick feeling -- that of having to choose between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the general election.  This was what most voters were hoping to avoid, yet thanks to their lack of interest and low voter turnout is what we got.  The Hangover will only get worse in November.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Of Clouds and Men

Lately, I've found myself in a Vonnegut frame of mind.  Maybe it is all these X-Files episodes I've been watching with my daughter, but mostly it is the desire to read something that spurs the imagination.  I've been feeling a bit uninspired as of recent.

The Brothers Vonnegut looks interesting.  Not exactly The Brothers Karamazov, but then there were only two of them and patricide wasn't the issue here as it was the ethical ramifications of cloud-seeding around 1947 when Kurt and his brother Bernard worked for GE.  Kurt's brother was a scientist engaged in a government-funded Project Cirrus, later dubbed Project Stormfury, in which the military hoped to redirect weather.  This was the same year, an alien ship supposedly crash-landed at Roswell.   So, one can definitely see Chris Carter trying to draw a parallel.

Ginger Strand takes a more conventional approach.  Kurt had been hired as a PR man to help promote GE projects, getting their products in major papers like the New York Times and the Boston Globe.  According to the reviewer, the author stretches her thesis a bit too far in trying to find a direct link between the brothers' time at GE and Kurt's fiction.  Still, it looks like a fun read.

Kurt's first book, Player Piano (1952) does make fiction out of his time at GE, which was met with a less than rousing review from the New York Times.  It wouldn't be until Cat's Cradle {1963) that Vonnegut established himself as a notable writer, exploring the ramifications of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki through the fictional Dr. Hoenikker.  Given that Project Stormfury hit its stride in the early 60s, Strand sees Cat's Cradle as being drawn upon his earlier experiences with GE, but it seems that Vonnegut had bigger fish to fry than some highly suspect cloud seeding experiment, which was never determined to have actually succeeded, whereas the nuclear bombings were all too real.

One can make their own parallels as the Library of America has graciously bounded Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night and other stories from 1950-1962 into one volume.  One would have to purchase the second volume to find Cat's Cradle along side Slaughterhouse Five and other novels, which made him famous.

Anyone up for Vonnegut?

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Bernie's Hail Mary

It has been difficult to discern what Bernie Sanders gains from his impromptu visit with the Pope, but apparently his campaign consultant, Jeffrey Sachs, thought it might give him some heft on the foreign policy front.  Sachs was the one who arranged Sanders' appearance at a conference staged by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.  Sachs was also speaking at the conference.  All this was arranged through the Pope's "right hand man," Bishop Marcel Sanchez Sorondo, the chancellor of PASS.  

According to the NYTimes, it was at dinner the night before that someone whispered into Sorondo's ear that the Pope would give Bernie an audience if he was in the lobby of the Casa Santa Maria at 6 am before he flew out to Greece.  That was all the time Bernie needed to make this trip worth the effort.  After all, what's a trip to the Vatican without an audience with the Pope, be it ever so brief.

What Bernie gains from it remains to be seen, as the two days probably would have been better spent campaigning in New York where he trails Hillary Clinton.  Some felt it was a cynical attempt to court Catholic voters in New York, but that's not really Bernie's style.  More likely, he wanted to communicate that he was on the same page as the Pope when it came to economic and social equality. 

The Pope had been burned once before by Kim Davis, and I'm sure was not overly happy about the impromptu visit arranged by Bishop Sorondo.  The Pope probably knows that Bernie is spreading a message similar to his, but made it abundantly clear it was nothing more than courtesy greetings that were exchanged, as he did not want anyone to think he was playing favorites in America's election cycle.  

The bigger concern is Bernie's speech at the PASS convention, as he was pretty harsh on the American economic system.  This no doubt went over well with this Vatican audience, but he has been sharply criticized back home.  Bill Clinton quipped that Sanders' fans "would shoot every third person on Wall Street."  Not a bad idea actually, however most Americans still haven't warmed up to Sanders' vision of Social Democracy, and it would probably be better if Bernie found some kind of middle ground, especially with so many delegates at stake in New York.  Bernie is once again being seen as the grumpy socialist.  

Nevertheless, the visit did deflect attention away from Thursday night's debate, which pundits felt he was unable to shake Hillary on the question of judgement.   Continually bringing up her vote on the Iraq War is the equivalent of holding her to blame on Benghazi, which the Republicans do.  Bernie has to find other matters to question her judgement on.  

Unfortunately, the impromptu trip comes across as a Hail Mary, a last desperate gesture before the New York primary this Tuesday to pull out a miracle victory.  Bernie would have been much better off pushing his message on the stump rather than at a Vatican convention, which only served to put his motives in question.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Kobe's last game

or 25 million reasons LA sucks

If you haven't been following basketball this year you might be forgiven for not knowing all the records that were set because of the media attention given Kobe Bryant.  You might call Kobe the Donald Trump of basketball, denying other players and teams their due despite their spectacular performances this season.

Steph Curry hit a staggering 400 three-pointers in leading Golden State to a record 73 wins against only 9 losses.  He also set the record for consecutive games in scoring three-pointers - 128, which he will be able to add to next year.  Russell Westbrook set the record for triple-doubles, the last against the Lakers three days ago, which Kobe even had to acknowledge.  There were many other records broken as well in what has been one of the best years in the NBA in a long long time.

Kobe could have retired last year, except that he had to sit most of it out due to a torn right rotator.  He also missed much of the previous year because of injuries.  This denied him the opportunity to catch up to Karl Malone on the all-time scoring list, having to settle for third place ahead of Michael Jordan.  There wasn't any chance he would catch Karl this year, but he could pad his advantage over Michael and get the send off he felt he deserved.  For that the Lakers paid him $25 million.

It didn't really matter, as the Lakers had to pay him that amount anyway, as the two-year deal was struck the year before with all of the $48.5 million guaranteed.   You can call it a good will gesture on the part of the Laker management for all the good years Kobe gave the team, including 5 NBA titles.  However, it cost the team dearly in terms of reloading its roster, which looked very thin this year.

This is the third year in a row the Lakers missed the playoffs.  Given you only need to crack .500 to make it, that's a pretty sad statement for a team that is accustomed to winning. Before that, the Lakers had only missed one playoff in 18 years.

The Lakers tried to reload in 2012 when they brought in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, coupling the star players with Kobe, Pau Gasol and other good players, but LA could only manage a 45-37 record and were swept by San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs.  The team went through three head coaches that year, settling on Mike D'Antoni.  The Lakers kept Mike the following year, but D'Antoni said he had no control over Kobe, who refused to come out of games when asked, resulting in a late season ankle injury that compromised his career.  D'Antoni insisted he was only looking after Kobe's health.

This is vintage Kobe -- a bull-headed player who never felt he was given his due, always in the shadow of Michael Jordan.  He had a long running feud with Shaquille O'Neal, which they only patched up in 2015.  It took Phil Jackson to bring the players together for their championship run  between 2000-2002.   However, Shaq opted out in 2004, moving to Miami.

After Shaq left, LA became Kobe's team alone and the Lakers won two more championships under Jackson.  Still, he had long-running feuds with other players.  It seemed no one could match up to the standard he set for the team.  He had a legendary work ethic that included 4 am shoot-arounds.  Not surprisingly, many of these players balked, including Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, who eventually had enough of Kobe and sought less stressful teams.

One can certainly appreciate this devotion to the game, but basketball is a team effort.  LA tried its best to put together a team around Kobe for his final year.  Some big names were sought, including LeBron James and Carmello Anthony but no one wanted to play with him.  You have to find a way to mesh with your fellow players, not confront them at every turn.  So, Kobe had to make due with what he had and the result was a miserable 17 wins, the worst ever by a Laker team.

All that was forgotten on Kobe's final night at the Staples Center.  A great number of stars were on hand for his last game, including longtime Laker fan, Jack Nicholson.  The Black Mamba, as he is dubbed, put on quite a show, pulling out a win in the closing minutes in by far his best game of the season.  He scored 60 points on 22-50 shooting.  That's right 50 shots!  The rest of the team combined for 35 shots.

Still, when we look back on this season, Kobe's farewell tour will be little more than a footnote, as the playoffs should make us forget all about him.  The big game looming on the horizon is Golden State v. San Antonio, where the young Warriors go up against a veteran team that would love nothing more than a fifth NBA ring.

In contrast to the $48.5 million deal Kobe struck last year, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili accepted much smaller two-year deals ($10.8 mil and $5.8 mil respectively) so that San Antonio could bring in young talent to assure the team a long future.  Once again, this shows that Kobe puts himself first and foremost having amassed a staggering $680 million in combined earnings over his 20 years in the NBA.

The consolation prize for the Lakers is that they will have a lottery pick this year, with a 20 per cent chance of getting the top pick.  Good luck, guys!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Meet the Trumps

CNN felt we should get up close and personal with the Trumps, staging a town hall with the family last night that was met with mixed reviews.  The Donald seems to be feeling pretty good about himself after his sabbatical of several days, preparing for a final week of stump speeches before the New York primary, where he is seen as the overwhelming favorite to sweep all the districts in the state and claim its 95 delegates.

With a big victory on the horizon, he extended an olive branch by stating that he would consider Kasich, Rubio and Walker as running mates.  This was news to these three men, who categorically rejected serving as his vice-president.  I suppose this is his way of saying he is willing to work out a deal with the Republican National Committee if it drops its campaign against him, otherwise he might push for Ben Carson, Chris Christie or god forbid Sarah Palin on the ticket.

He also has his henchmen making the rounds, telling everyone how Ted Cruz uses "gestapo tactics" to get his delegates and that John Kasich has no business still being in the race.  Paul Manafort was called in to stop the bleeding of delegates to Ted Cruz, but hasn't been able to do much, losing battles in Colorado, South Carolina and Louisiana.

The oddest thing though was seeing Anderson Cooper play nice to the Trump family after grilling the Donald not that long ago on the twitter battle with Ted Cruz over their wives.  I suppose CNN head honcho, Jeff Zucker, stepped in and said we don't want to anger the beast too much.  Unfortunately for the Trumps, it didn't come across as very warm and fuzzy.  Judging by their ready answers, the family was well prepared, or so it seemed by their confidence.

Not surprisingly, Ivanka lied when asked why she and her brother, Eric, weren't registered to vote in New York.  She claimed they had to register almost a year before the primary, but the Board of Elections stipulates they had to be registered before March 25, less than three weeks ago.  She has been at her father's side throughout the campaign and is not afraid to go on talk shows defending his honor.  More impressive is that she hardly took any time off for her childbirth, ushering in the latest Trump on March 27.  This actually explains why she failed to register, as she was in the final week of her pregnancy, and registering to vote was no doubt the last thing on her mind.

Rather, Ivanka told us all about her strong independent nature and that politics was new to her.  If you go to her wiki page, you will find that she not only supported Hillary Clinton in the past, but she and her husband bundled more than $40,000 for Cory Booker's Senate campaign in New Jersey, by hosting a fundraiser in 2013.

It really makes you wonder why Donald, supposedly a devoted father, would put his daughter in such an awkward situation.  It is hard to imagine she agrees with the views he has taken in this campaign, but she has defended him at every turn.  Anderson Cooper touched on her relationship with Chelsea Clinton, which has become a bit strained ever since this campaign heated up, but Ivanka casually shrugged it off like a cashmere wrap.

The older boys look like clones of Donald, and judging by their past excursions probably had little interest in politics before this year.  For the most part, they stand behind their father at rallies.  They are being groomed to run his business interests, and are not expected to appear publicly on their own.  However, Greta caught up to Eric last October.

There are two more children, Tiffany, the love child from his brief fling with Marla Maples, and Barron, the product of his current marriage with Melania, rounding out the family portrait.  Neither are considered notable enough to have their own wikipedia page yet.  But, Melania is, thanks to her modelling career.

In a normal election year, it would be hard to take a campaign like this seriously, but the Trump campaign has become the new normal, a made for television reality show, replete with an Ex on the Beach, who recently got bounced from Dancing with the Stars, and a former Real Housewife stepping out on her own in Miami, and a current wife who once graced the pages of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition among other high profile mags.   Hard to compete with this kind of glamour, and it seems that CNN gave into it once again.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Ted the Toilet Plunger

Trevor Noah has come up with the perfect analogy for Ted Cruz's role in the #dumptrump campaign -- a toilet plunger.  This was in response to Ted claiming to be the "uniter" after his big Wisconsin primary win.  It is doubtful Ted will be very effective in New York, where he currently lags in third place.  His comments regarding "New York values" have come back to bite him in the ass.  But, there are 15 states left on the campaign trail after New York next week, so you figure Ted can fulfill his role of clearing the toilet of Donald Trump before the convention.

However, Ted may still have a chance to pick up some delegates in New York, as Amy Davidson explains the arcane process.  This is why Ted was spending time in the Bronx, trying to round up support anyway he could get it.  Ted has proven to be a very effective man on the ground, which is bedeviling the Trump campaign that doesn't even know how to properly fill out ballots.  Trump also lost delegates in South Carolina after handily winning the primary, as his campaign advisers forgot that not all delegates are awarded at primaries.

It just makes you wonder how Donald got this far.  His own kids won't be able to vote for him in New York because they forgot to register in time.  One wonders if Donald is even registered himself.  He has since brought in Paul Manafort to better handle the ground campaign, but Manafort comes across as just another loose canon serving to massage Trump's enormous ego.

The Donald went into hiding, trying to avoid any more public gaffes leading up to the New York primary.  He is hoping for a clean sweep of the districts -- all 95 delegates -- putting him well over 800.  But, he has to score 50 per cent or better in each district to accomplish this fete, so Ted and John Kasich are campaigning in districts where they think they can pick up consolation delegates for coming in second place.

According to Manafort, Trump doesn't run that kind of campaign.  He plays to win, using the airwaves to get his message out, content to call it into the news networks or fire off his tweets in his ongoing assault of the GOP establishment, which has rallied against him.  It just shows how poorly Manafort understands the system, because at this point every delegate counts and if Trump can't reach 1237 by July, it is very unlikely he will win the nomination.

Trump has called Ted a Trojan Horse, but a toilet plunger is a better analogy.   The Donald has been clogging up the GOP toilet ever since last June, and the Republican Party is determined to purge him once and for all.  The only tool they have left at this point is Ted Cruz, although they are hoping that Kasich can be similarly used in Pennsylvania, Indiana and West Virginia.  It's a messy business but someone has to do it.  Ted is perfect for the job, who (as Amy Davidson pointed out) has "an uncanny ability to absorb humiliation."

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Green Jacket

You might wonder if Augusta National Golf Course had been a Civil War battlefield given all the hushed tones, even when the players aren't preparing to strike the ball.  It has become the mecca of golfing fans, and is one of the hardest places to get a tee time in the world.  It's also very difficult to get a ticket to watch the Masters Tournament, for which the golf course has become so famous.  This is the price you pay to play on a course designed by the immortal Bobby Jones.

The Green Jacket has become the most revered symbol in golf, but if you ask Lee Trevino it is no big deal.  In fact, he turned down playing at Augusta three times in his professional career because of the differences he had with co-founder Clifford Roberts, who insisted on banning blacks from the club, and that included professional players.  Roberts finally relented in 1975 when he allowed Lee Elder to play the golf course.  The color barrier was reinforced even further with Roberts' insistence on black caddies.

In many ways, Augusta is an anachronism, but so too is golf for that matter.  It is a game that thrives on its traditions and reveres its elder players like no other sport.  Only in golf will you find a 66-year old player like Tom Watson still allowed to compete in major tournaments.  58-year-old Bernhard Langer was still in contention for the Green Jacket up to the final round this year.  But, they have questioned Augusta's policies that didn't admit its first black member until 1990 and its first female members until 2012.  There still is no Women's Masters at Augusta, despite the high profile of women's golf these days.

Little wonder, the club won't allow cell phones on its premises.  Lee Trevino feels the players should speak out more, saying no other tournament imposes the strict rules Augusta does at the Masters.  Even Tiger Woods hasn't been very critical of Augusta, despite the course being re-designed specifically to reduce his chances of winning the tournament a fifth time.  Many players continue to speak in hush tones as if afraid to raise the ghost of Clifford Roberts, who shot himself on the golf course 40 years ago.   Not Lee, who doesn't even consider it a great course.

The fame of the golf course is largely built on the reputation of Bobby Jones, still considered by many to have been the greatest to ever play the game.  Not even Jack Nicklaus' 18 major titles is enough to convince Lou Vazza that the Golden Bear could hold Bobby Jones' putter.  It doesn't matter that the two players were worlds apart, golf is timeless, going back at least as far as King James in 1553.  As you traverse a course, you are walking it with all those who walked it before, and in the minds of many avid golf fans Bobby Jones' shadow still looms large, especially over Augusta.

Like Lee Trevino, I'm not convinced of this.  Golf is an industry that has learned how to successfully market its past.  It offers tremendous purses.  This year, the Masters paid out $10 million.  The winner, Danny Willett, getting $1.8 million alone.  At the peak of his career, Lee Trevino didn't win that much money, despite having won 24 tournaments over a 10-year period.  The Masters does this thanks to lucrative television contracts and other sponsors who allowed the course to maintain its color and gender barriers for decades after the Civil Rights Act.

The sad part is that Bobby Jones apparently had no problem with this, eschewing idealism and defending the policies of his golf club right up to his death in 1971.

Only notable persons need apply

My father working as a geologist
in Africa in the 1930s

I was a bit surprised that one had to pass a set of "notability guidelines" to be posted on Wikipedia.  I was thinking of writing a biography of my father, who had been a mining engineer and exploration geologist for the better part of 40 years in the Caribbean and Africa.  Given the lack of references to his experiences available over the Internet, it would be difficult to have the biography stay up for any length of time, as editors, or wikipedians as they are called, would have the power to remove it.   I suppose I could approach the biography backward by creating Internet records based on the written records I do have of his experiences, but that would be a tedious effort, and I assume the notes would be examined as well.

This led me to ask what makes a person "notable?"  Obviously, notability in one field doesn't necessarily carry the same weight in another field.  Then there are the strange cases where one is notable for being a well-documented murder victim like Kitty Genovese or falsely convicted of murder like Amanda Knox, having lived uneventful lives before these incidents took place.   This is more "notoriety" than it is "notability," but I don't write the rules.

It apparently is not enough that someone lived an eventful life, the events themselves have to be significant enough to warrant consideration.  Even then, the person has to be more than notable by association, he or she has to have contributed significantly to that event.  "Relationships [alone] do not confer notability."  So, the fact that he worked for the Marshall Aid Plan after WWII, by helping to provide badly needed raw materials may not be enough.  He has to have been more than a minor role player.

I suppose these guidelines keep persons from simply posting obituaries on Wikipedia, as it would get cluttered with names pretty quickly that have little interest beyond family members.  Wikipedia is rather cluttered as it is.  But, I'm curious to learn what it is to be a Wikiepedian and if there is room for my father on Wikipedia.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

As P.T. Barnum said, there is a sucker born every minute.  L. Ron Hubbard was determined to find them in Hollywood.   In the documentary, Going Clear, Scientology aimed big, looking to turn on famous Hollywood figures to its form of self-help therapy pioneered by Hubbard in the 1950s.  He used e-meters to gauge your emotional state and help you bring your anxieties under control.

Notoriously insecure actors are the perfect target, and Scientology nabbed some big names early on, including Gloria Swanson and Rock Hudson.  You would be surprised by some of the others that flirted with or are currently members of Scientology.  Basically it was a form of therapy, but with a large supporting group that gave persons a sense of belonging, which you wouldn't find in private sessions.

In the documentary, and the book it was based on, LRH comes across as a charlatan.  A man who used religion solely to make money.  According to Alex Gibney (director) and Lawrence Wright (author), Hubbard had no interest beyond cash reward -- a kind of prosperity theology that drives many tele-evangelists past and present.  You get as much as you give, moving up a "bridge" toward enlightenment at the OT levels of faith, where you are finally introduced to the origin myth Hubbard created, which left Paul Haggis utterly speechless.

He called it a WTF moment in his interview with Gibney.  Having spent eight years in the church he couldn't believe what he was hearing.  Thetans were held in cryogenic sleep for 75 million years, in volcanos no less, before being awakened in the souls of human beings.  Apparently, it takes nearly a decade to break the spell of Xenu and gain control over your life and become an Operating Thetan.   By this point Haggis had made such a financial and emotional commitment to Scientology that he found it impossible to leave.

For others it is the quest to achieve OTVIII, like you would degrees of a black belt in karate.  It might come in handy to have a martial arts background, as Gibney's other interviewees described the torture they faced when the charismatic leader, David Miscavige, tried to purge them from the upper level of the church so that he could take complete control of operations in 2012.  They were physically tormented and beaten for days on end before their resistance was worn down to nothing.  They left the "church" one by one in the succeeding years, only to find themselves continually hounded by Miscavige's thugs, or "squirrel busters" as they call themselves, who also use the whistleblowers' "audits" to discredit them on the Internet.

According to one of the interviewees, John Travolta thought of leaving Scientology until reminded of what all he divulged in these "audits," or therapy sessions which were recorded.  Travolta has remained in the church but keeps relatively quiet about his association, unlike Tom Cruise, who has become the church's "ambassador," operating on a Thetan level, one can assume OTVIII, with only Miscavige outranking him, to whom Cruise pays total deference.

It is like one of Hubbard's early science fiction books, which he turned out at an astonishing rate in the 30s and 40s before stumbling on the concept of Dianetics, which he turned into a bestseller in 1950.  John Travolta even starred in one of the films based on these early pulp novels, Battlefield Earth, which was universally panned.   It seemed Hubbard came to believe the fantasy world he created for himself, sucking others into his orbit, and eventually creating a following, which was the subject of Paul Thomas Anderson's 2012 film, The Master.

The documentary gives you a brief insight into the origins of the Scientology movement, but focuses more on the current state of the quasi-religion that has amassed an enormous wealth despite a relatively small following, approximately 50,000 deluded souls, not counting all the others that left the church but may retain part of its teachings.

Gibney thinks Miscavige is a true believer, having come into the church at age 11 through his parents, and learned the faith directly from LRH himself.  As such, Miscavige has really never known anything else, but the way he has gained control of the church and uses it essentially as a tax haven for its ever-growing wealth, suggests it is the operating structure of Scientology that he learned from Hubbard and that its belief system is nothing more than a means toward a very lucrative financial end.  Miscavige won his battle with the IRS in 1993, having Scientology declared a tax-exempt religion, thereby not having to pay nearly a billion dollars in back taxes.

More and more ex-Scientologists are now speaking out, including Mike Rinder, who was forced to give up his family when he chose to leave the church.  Unlike other religions, when you choose to go you loose everything, including family members who stay with the church.  Katie Holmes is still going through a custody battle with Tom Cruise over their daughter Suri. In light of Rinder, Haggis and other former Scientologists' devastating revelations, it is doubtful Holmes will lose custody.  This is especially true when you hear "Spanky" Taylor's painful description of the ordeal she went through with her infant daughter.

Cruise has gone through three marriages now, as well as several girlfriends, unable to find his Scientology soulmate.  There were even rumors that Miscavige was personally arranging his next wife so that the church wouldn't be subjected to these tabloid scandals.  This apparently isn't the first time, as the church tried to set up Cruise with Nazanin Boniadi after Cruise went through a painful divorce with Nicole Kidman.  The arranged relationship failed to take hold, proving to be a very traumatic experience for Boniadi.  Eventually, Cruise made his own selection in the unsuspecting Katie Holmes, who like Boniadi was quite young at the time.

The cult-like nature of the church has long been questioned and for years was under investigation by the FBI, but once it received its tax-exempt religious status, its strange operations were viewed as part of its faith and no longer subject to prosecution.  To hear Haggis, Rinder, Taylor and the others interviewed in the documentary, you are entering into a pact not much unlike that with the devil, where you essentially sell your soul to the church in return for a support network that will further your career either inside or outside the church.  This was the case with Travolta, whose star really didn't begin to shine until after he joined Scientology in the mid 70s.

This close-knit fraternity has many friends in Hollywood, and as such can help start, extend or end careers as it so chooses, using "audits" as a form of blackmail if a person tries to leave the church.  If that fails, they get former members to sign non-disclosure agreements, as was the case with Nicole Kidman, who has refused to divulge very much about her experience out of fear of legal reprisals.

It really makes you wonder what the church is trying to hide.  Wright and Gibney have chipped away at its veneer, thanks to the testimonials of some of the church's former members, but it will probably take much longer to pry into the secret world of Scientology that David Miscavige is so zealously protecting.