Friday, November 27, 2015

Meet the Pilgrims

As has become all too commonplace, there are conflicting narratives when it comes to Thanksgiving.  You have copious memes presenting the Pilgrims as the first refugees to arrive on American shores.   Then there is Rush Limbaugh recycling his Thanksgiving story about how the Pilgrims ditched their socialist ideals to become free-market capitalists.  There is even a movie this year, Saints and Strangers, depicting a much harsher version of the Thanksgiving story, which is not for the politically squeamish at heart.  I guess you can take your pick like one does at the holiday dinner table.  Or, you can just watch football.

It's pretty hard to have a serious dialogue, much less nuanced conservation about Thanksgiving, if no one is willing to agree on the particulars.  I remember spending the holiday one year with my cousins in North Carolina and we ended up getting into a nasty argument over how Indians abused the welfare system.  They saw the local Lumbee tribe as free-loaders and were tired of footing the bill.  I didn't know much about the Lumbees but figured this was just another one of those straw man arguments that conservatives like to use to launch into their attack on the welfare system in general, so I took the Lumbees' side.  Boy, did I get an earful!  My dear aunt suggested we all wash our mouths with soap to clean this nastiness from our palates before being served dinner.

Past and present have a tendency to become conflated in such ideological battles, as to one degree or another we have mythologized the original Pilgrims, making them into standard bearers for our ahistorical viewpoints.  No one is worse at this than Rush Limbaugh.  Ben Norton pointed out in his Salon article that the big man of the air waves got pretty much everything wrong, especially the transition from socialism to capitalism.  As Jack would say ...

The basic problem is that religion and nationalism come too heavily into play, with many conservatives seeing the nation founded on the religious ideals of the Plymouth colony.  It didn't matter that there were British colonies before them, and that they all had charters that required they engage in profitable activities.  Many Americans see them as the prototypes for our Christian nation, ignoring the Enlightenment of the next century that had a far greater impact on our Founding Fathers than did the Pilgrims.

The "refugee argument" has worn thin.  Far from escaping religious persecution, the Pilgrims and their fundamental religious brethren in the Massachusetts Bay area imposed their religion with an iron will on others, including the local natives who soon found themselves odd man out in the forceful new narrative that was being shaped before their eyes.  I suppose this is what Saints and Strangers aims at presenting, although I haven't seen the National Geographic special.  I'm a bit leary of NatGeo ever since Rupert Murdoch bought it lock, stock and barrel.  I'm more partial to retellings like this one from the Addams Family, which at least offers a dark sense of humor to the events which took place almost 400 years ago.

The British colonies, like the Spanish, French and Dutch colonies before them, all sought to impose their image of the world on America.  The traditional Thanksgiving story offers us a quaint notion of what might have been had we only stayed friends with the local tribes rather than seek every opportunity to marginalize them in the new societies that were established.  Of course, small pox made that job much easier than anticipated.

As Daniel Richter tells us in Facing East from Indian Country, the tribes were so thoroughly devasted by small pox that by the 17th century they had reformed into new collective units based on an amalgam of native and semi-Christian rituals, some even with their own written language.  These so-called civilized tribes, like the Cherokee, Choctaw and Seminole, were entirely new entities, and became quite antagonistic to the ever-growing European population.  This eventually led to disturbing events like the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of the civilized tribes from the boundaries of the United States of America, which at the time stretched to the Mississippi River.  The Lumbees apparently were allowed to hang around, as they weren't perceived as posing a threat.

It is quite true that the religious dogmatism which pervaded the Massachusetts Bay and Virginia colonies lingers with us still, thanks to those who opposed the more liberal notions put forward by Jefferson, Madison and other enlightened souls that wanted to separate church and state.  Apparently, Jefferson was unable to hire Deist faculty members at UVA due to the religious bias in the Virginia state house.  Pantheistic thought was generally frowned upon at that time, as it is now.

We have long been a nation in denial, so why shouldn't we reinvent Thanksgiving if the notion serves our interests?  That cheerful feeling of bonhomie we were taught in elementary school no longer serves contemporary political purposes.  Rush should have added the part where the Pilgrims rejected "Obamacare," although I'm sure he added a facsimile.  Lest we get too lost in the political woods, here are The Peanuts to remind us what Thanksgiving is supposed to be about.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Trouble with Syria

If the Republicans wanted a lesson in why we shouldn't get anymore involved in Syria than we already are, they have one in Russia and Turkey.  Syria is a hornets' nest of hostilities with a deeply entrenched authoritarian government and a myriad of resistance forces, supported by different countries.

This particular case had Russian jets targeting Turkmen opposition forces along the Syrian-Turkish border, which Turkey supports.  President Erdogan had repeatedly warned President Putin to lay off, as the jets had been encroaching on Turkish airspace, but Vlad being Vlad decided to call Erdogan's bluff and down went one of his SU-24 jets, courtesy of an American-made F-16.  Both Russian pilots ejected onto Syrian soil.  One was shot from the sky, the other lived to tell the tale, claiming his plane hadn't crossed the border.

Tensions were already at a breaking point between Russia and Turkey, primarily over Putin's active support of Syria's President Assad, who Erdogan had turned his back on after attempts to broker a compromise to end the civil strife back in 2011 at the peak of the "Arab Spring."  I guess the young Syrian strongman felt he could withstand a civil war with Russia backing him, but it has drug on four long years with no end in sight, and now he has Russia committing its planes and long-range missiles to the war.

Erdogan has had to deal with a tidal wave of Syrian refugees, estimated between 1.6 and 2 million, and is none too happy about it.  In comes Vlad the Impaler making the matter worse by striking any and all factions opposed to the Assad regime.  Putin has also struck American-backed rebels.  ISIS seems to be the least of his worries.  However, after the France bombings, Putin said he would coordinate efforts with NATO countries, as France decided to launch airstrikes of its own at ISIS.  Seems Vlad doesn't regard Turkey as part of NATO.

It is hard to say what Putin's endgame is here.  My feeling is that he is trying to drive the price of oil up, as his economy has taken a heavy hit over the low prices the past two years.  Oil is currently trading at $42 a barrel.  If you create a little instability in an oil-rich region, speculators are prone to start buying, even if there are plenty of reserves.  Putin figured he could take a few pot shots at Erdogan's Turkmen in the process.

Trump was extolling the virtues of Vladimir Putin a few weeks back, saying that if the Russian president wants to take matters into his own hands then so be it.  In his mind, Obama wasn't doing anything anyway.  Trump has changed his tune in the aftermath of the Paris bombings and now wants the US to make a greater commitment to the war effort.  A sentiment shared by most of his fellow GOP candidates.

Obama had already increased America's commitment before the Paris bombings.  He deployed troops despite not yet having a war powers resolution from Congress, much to the chagrin of fellow Democrats.  So, it's not like Obama has sat on his hands this whole time.  Of course, now Congresspersons are saying 50 troops are a joke, with Lindsey Graham demanding at least 10,000 "boots on the ground."

Trump would prefer to keep our boys in the air, hoping for less casualties that way, but now that Putin has lost a jet, it is not unlikely that we may see an American jet go down in the coming months.  Then what?

Like Putin, the Republicans really haven't thought this one out.  They are just trying to see how much political mileage they can get out of the Syria crisis, hoping that tough talk translates into higher polling numbers.  They aren't even bothering to find out what's going on, as Marco Rubio skipped out of an intelligence briefing on the Paris bombings to attend a fund raiser.  Ironic since he used the Paris bombings in his most recent campaign ad to drum up support for his cause.  It's this kind of shameless behavior that makes matter worse, not better.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

When a kiss is not just a kiss

For decades the first televised inter-racial kiss was thought to be between Capt. Kirk and Lt. Uhura during the third season of Star Trek.  The 1968 episode was Plato's Stepchildren, where a group of Platonians have fun with the captain and crew, forcing them to do things they otherwise wouldn't want to do.  In this sense, Kirk and Uhura were literally powerless to resist the temptation, no matter how great it was.  It seemed both got into the role.

Well, it turns out BBC beat NBC to the punch with a more friendly kiss between a black man and a white woman in a play that focused on an inter-racial relationship called You in Your Small Corner (1962).   Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) dealt with a similar theme, but didn't go so far as to bring Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton to lock lips.  Too bad as they would have at least pre-dated the notorious Star Trek episode.

Miscegenation laws made Guess Who's Coming to Dinner a risky affair.  The Motion Picture Production Code explicitly forbid such relationships shown in movies, so the producers and Stanley Kramer had to walk gingerly around the topic.  It helped having a star-studded cast to support the highly-respected Sidney Poitier, who had risen to fame with Lilies of the Field and To Sir, with Love.  Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn played liberal white parents who found their political stances tested by their free-spirited daughter, delightfully played by Katharine Houghton.

Another missed opportunity was No Strings, a Tony-award winning stage production that featured Diahann Carroll and Richard Kiley, which first premiered in 1962.  However, the idea that Diahann was black never figured into the story or the music.  The winsome actress played a model born "north of Central Park."  Diahann Carroll would go onto have a great career, including a beloved television show, Julia, which ran from 1968-71, but the main love in her life was her little boy.

I suppose if one dug through the film and stage archives, one could find something from before the 1934 Motion Picture Production Code that saw an inter-racial relationship, however fleeting.  After all, the Bard of Avon explored the subject long ago in Othello.  But, such productions would have white actors in black face.  Similarly the inter-racial romances between Whites and Indians tended to be between persons of the same color pretending to be opposites.

There was the suggestion of such an inter-racial relationship in Imitation of Life (1934) between a mixed-race daughter of a housekeeper and a white suitor, but no kiss. The film deserves a lot of credit though for exploring the subject of what it was like for a light-skinned black woman in a deeply segregated society, with Fredi Washington as Peola.

We look back at these films and television shows with nostalgia and humor, as such barriers only exist in persons' minds these days.  Still, Spike Lee raised some hackles as things got hot and heavy between Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra in Jungle Fever.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

La Salle's Lost Chapter

Mysteries at the Museum covers a broad range of subjects from a plaster cast of a foot apparently belonging to the Honey Island Swamp Monster to a small water barrel used to help find the La Belle shipwreck,  La Salle's ill-fated voyage to discover the mouth of the Mississippi River.  There was even a segment on a silver cigar box (located in the Washington DC Spy Museum), which Sidney Reilly had given to Bruce Lockhart after WWI to commemorate their escapades in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution.  The cigar box gained poignancy when Reilly returned to Russia only to get shot in the head.  Thanks to Lockhart's memoirs, Reilly served as one of the inspirations for Ian Fleming's James Bond, presumably To Russia with Love.

Don Wildman leads viewers on some pretty wild rides.  He has become one of the constant faces on Travel Channel, having started out with a far more interesting program called Off Limits, where he took viewers into places you wouldn't normally be able to see, like an abandoned sanatorium in upstate New York and Pittsburgh's sewer system.  However, with Mysteries he can blend the macabre with the surreal with some of history's lost chapters like that of Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who was determined to find the outlet of the Mississippi and establish a port in the name of France.

La Salle doesn't get much attention, even if he had a car named after him.  Surprisingly very little has been written on him, so it probably would have been more interesting to explore the automotive connection, but Don uses a water barrel as his object to tell us the tale of the flamboyant explorer.  La Salle previously had better luck in the Great Lakes region, carving up land grants and opening up the area for fur trade with the Mohawks.  This helps explain why Cadillac chose to name a car after him.

The water barrel was found on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico and helped lead underwater archaeologists to the remains of the La Belle in Matagorda Bay.  It is now part of the Bullock Museum.  Wildman gives these historic vignettes in five minutes or less, so if a viewer does display some curiosity he can always hunt up the website.

It was an ignominious end for the French explorer, who had wandered around for two months looking for the mouth of the Mississippi only to return to find the ship gone.  Not surprising since he had said he would only be gone 10 days.  The crew had made an effort to stay longer, but when provisions ran out they set sail, only to be struck by Hurricane-force winds and the ship to lie hidden for centuries.  You never know where these wrecks will turn up, and since manifests showed little of value on board, there really wasn't much interest beyond historical curiosity.

Probably the best book available on La Salle was that written by Francis Parkman, which takes in his time in the Great Lakes region.  There are others noting his singular obsession with the Mississippi River, which formed the backbone of the Louisiana Purchase.  However, the Spanish controlled the Gulf of Mexico at the time, and the failure to establish this final link is what cost the French to control this valuable piece of frontier.  Had he been able to do so, he probably would have been more greatly memorialized than in a water barrel or 1927 luxury touring car.

Friday, November 20, 2015

ISIS learned this week that it doesn't even have to attack the United States to create panic in the streets.  It is much easier to attack more vulnerable cities like Paris and watch the American reaction.  It has really been something to see.  I never would have imagined it could be so horrible.  Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, Donald Trump comes out with yet another outlandish statement.  The fear that has gripped the Republican Party is as great as that which gripped the nation following 911.

It seems a lot of Democrats are also feeling the fear as 47 Congressional representatives joined Republicans in issuing a "veto-proof bill" that would place severe restrictions on the acceptance of Syrian refugees.  Screening procedures are already very tough, not that anyone bothered to read them, as it takes an average of 18-24 months for a refugee to be cleared for entry.  As it is, very few Syrian refugees have been granted access since the civil war broke out in 2011, and the Obama administration only plans to clear room for 10,000 new arrivals in 2016.  But, you would think he was letting loose the flood gates the way the Republicans are reacting.

Everyone has been chewing over the new ISIS video that threatens Washington, DC, saying they will make the White House black.  Another video takes aim at New York City.  The FBI has said there is nothing to indicate an impeding attack, but that doesn't stop cities from taking extra precautions, especially with Christmas shopping season soon upon us.

To a large degree, we have been conditioned by movies and television series to expect the worst, and now the news has become a form of reality show further heightening our worst fears.  It is pretty hard to find any reasonable commentary on mainstream television at the moment, as all the networks are relishing the strident voices, each trying to rise above the other to shout the most absurd claims.

Muslims have been invited on news programs to make a case for their minority in America, but all too often find themselves used as foils for demagogues, as was the case on The Kelly File.  Saba Ahmed has since been getting quite a bit of attention, but she was hardly able to get a word in edgewise with Trump's campaign representative.  Ironically, Saba represents Muslim-American Republicans.  Of course, it is a pretty small group so I imagine the Donald is not too worried about losing their vote.

The amazing part is that Trump still leads in the polls despite his 95-minute rant last week and his call for Muslim-Americans to wear badges this week.  It just shows how deep these anxieties run through the GOP, which has literally become the Ministry of Fear.  GOP candidates have used fear to intimidate and motivate voters alike, none better that Donald J. Trump.  His rallies are notorious for bruisers roughing up protesters and those who managed to sneak into the rallies.  Johari Idusuyi has become a bit of a folk hero herself for choosing to ignore the Trumpster during his epic rant by reading a book

You just have to wonder how these Paris bombings so deeply affect one segment of the American population and not others?  Is it hardwired into the conservative mind to fear the other?  If so, this might help explain why it is so easy for GOP candidates to take advantage of these fears, while Democratic leaders generally tend to urge calm.

Republican strategists have learned to take full advantage of these deep-seated fears, using them effectively to sway voters in pivotal elections.  The immigration issue is one that can be easily exploited on many levels, and so GOP candidates are looking to get the most mileage out of the Paris bombings, even if it undermines the President's authority on the matter.   Of course, they have long shown they don't care about President Obama's authority, similarly seeking any opportunity to divest him of his powers.  Despite all this outcry to get tougher on ISIS, Congress still hasn't extended him a new war powers act specifically to fight ISIS.

Yet, the  mainstream press continues to avoid informing the general public of this, instead filling up its airwaves with ranting Republicans and self-styled experts on terrorism giving us apocalyptic scenarios for the United States.  All this fear-mongering results in the need for increased security and other costly measures just to calm people's anxieties, when valium would probably be a better alternative.

It would also help to gag persons like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, who are the ringleaders of this latest wave of fear-mongering.  ISIS leaders must be patting themselves on the back right now and saying job well done.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

What it means to be a Democratic Socialist

There is almost as much anticipation for Bernie's speech on Democratic Socialism as there was for the first GOP debate.  It's pretty safe to say that more persons will be tuning into his speech on the Internet than Hillary's foreign policy speech scheduled for the same evening.  After all, we have heard so many bad things about socialism.  It has been compared to Soviet and Chinese communism and Nazi national socialism.

It used to be that socialism was a good word.  NPR and other news outlets have been more favorably comparing Sanders to Eugene Debs.  From what I've heard so far, Bernie is closer to William Jennings Bryan who ran as a Democrat back in 1896.  His was a populist form of socialism that resonated with a greater number of persons, especially his Cross of Gold speech, which called for the federal government to back the dollar with silver so that it would have a far greater circulation.

Bernie is not a socialist in the strict sense of the term, which is probably why he has opted for "Democratic Socialism," with numerous references to Scandinavian models that appear to have struck the right balance between free market capitalism and socialism.

This of course is what the United States has tried to do as well, but with varied results.  Each state more or less embraces socialism, depending on the degree to which a state provides a social security and health care safety net.   There are union and anti-union states.  They have better or worse education systems depending on how much money a particular state invests in it.  But, politicians generally tend to avoid the word "socialism," and even "Democratic socialism," because of the nasty references that all too often come up.

Bernie will have a forum to discuss his views and take questions from students at Georgetown University.  This is one of those "teachable moments" where he has the opportunity to make the case for the country as a whole to more firmly embrace Democratic socialist ideals, rather than ceding this responsibility to the states with greatly varied results.  It should be a packed house.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Loaded for Bear!

Within a week of the Paris bombings, virtually every GOP presidential candidate and Republican leader have called for a ban on Syrian refugees, unless of course they are Christian, as Jeb Bush was quick to distinguish.  He's since backtracked on that statement, but the sentiment is clear, no more Muslims in America.  They are seen as an existential threat to our Christian society, with many conservative leaders calling for the closure of mosques in this country.   Even the Trumpster believes "if the mosque is, you know, loaded for bear," it should be closed.

Twenty-six Republican governors have issued bans on Syrian refugees, claiming security fears.  This despite no direct link having yet been made between a Syrian passport found at one of the bombing sites and the terrorists who pulled off these latest crimes against humanity.  Just the possibility that an ISIS member could be among the Syrian diaspora is enough to send governors scurrying into their rabbit holes.

President Obama at a press conference in the Philippines singled out this irrational fear, and said it "needs to stop," as it isn't doing anyone any good.  Just this week a family of 6 was brutally murdered in Texas and an Illinois man was found hanging from a tree off Lake Shore Drive in Chicago and no one seems to bat an eyelash.  Not to mention the scores of school shootings that have occurred since Newton.  Acts of extreme violence are being committed every day in the United States, yet somehow we think we will be safer if we keep Syrian refugees out of America.

As the President said, these unwarranted fears are playing right into ISIS's hands.  They purposely want to stoke anti-immigrant feelings because it plays into their base of support.  We are unwilling to recognize just how politically savvy these radicals have become, knowing how to yank emotional chains even more effectively than Donald Trump.  These attacks were well planned and probably took months, if not over a year to coordinate.  It is highly unlikely that a person in the most recent wave of Syrian refugees was part of the planning.  Worst case scenario, such a person was nothing more than a sacrificial lamb.  More likely, the Syrian passport was stolen or forged and planted on the site, which is what some officials are saying.

Of course, it doesn't help when CNN and other leading television news networks jump on this story and run banners for all to see.  CNN has been particularly bad in reporting the event, stoking Muslim fears with its spotty news coverage and overt political opinion.  Listen to this exchange with Reza Aslan, forced to defend Muslims in response to Bill Maher's most recent obnoxious comments.   You would think these bombings took place in New York, the way the American media is reacting to them.

It is difficult enough being Muslim in America, much less having to defend yourself against terrorist acts committed by those who claim to be Muslim.  No one is calling the Bible into question each time an act of violence is carried out in the name of the Lord.  Yet, the Koran is seen by many as a pernicious text that emboldens persons to commit acts of terrorism.  Many states have even gone so far as to ban Sharia Law, even when the basic tenants of Sharia Law are no different than those found in the Old Testament, which the same states want carved into stone on courthouse steps.  Most Christians don't even know that Islam stems from the same Books of Abraham that Christianity does.

Instead, we hear all these facile arguments of how Islam is corrupted as a religion and that the great majority of Muslims sympathize with these extremists.  Facebook is loaded with memes denigrating Muslims in general for the acts committed by a handful of extremists.  When the Alfred P. Murrah federal building was bombed in Oklahoma City, very few persons saw that terrorist act committed by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols as an indictment against Christianity, even though McVeigh specifically said that the attack was carried out in response to the federal raid of the Branch Davidian camp in Waco, Texas, two years before.  We dismissed these guys as wackos and moved on.  But, woe be it for Muslims that a terrorist act be carried out in the name of Allah, as it becomes a blanket condemnation of their religion and ethnic identity.

Oklahoma City is far enough in the past that many persons don't even remember it.  However, Christian terrorism is still very much alive and well.  Violent crimes are carried out mostly against unsuspecting individuals, so they don't make front page news until some young wacko, steeped in white supremacy causes, got it into his head to take out a black church congregation in Charleston, South Carolina, earlier this year.  We won't even talk about all the death threats leveled at President Obama, far more than any previous president.

Yep, Donald, there are a lot of persons out there "loaded for bear," not just Muslim radicals.  The sad part is that your campaign is aimed largely at Nativists, many of whom promote the same white supremacy causes as Dylann Roof, as seen in their memes.  Yet, you don't call for the shutdown of twitter and facebook, where much of this hate is disseminated.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Abbottabad Blues

Sadly, we are learning a very bitter lesson in terrorism.  The Death of Bin Laden, in 2011, was seen by many as the end of al Qaeda.  However, ISIS has emerged, which is every bit as well organized and deadly as was its predecessor.  It has quickly morphed into a major global threat, as witnessed this past Friday in Paris, and is planning more international strikes in its effort to bring its jihad to Europe.  At least, that is what many would like us to believe.

I don't think for one moment that ISIS actually entertains the idea of a global jihad anymore than al Qaeda did when it coordinated attacks in the US in 2001.  What it wants is to drag the US and Europe into wars in Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.  How it plans to do that isn't very clear, as it would be coming against a combined firepower the early Mohammedans (who they purportedly model themselves after) never had to face.  But, I guess they think they can win a war of attrition that will tax the Western countries' patience, leaving a tattered set of Islamic nations that are easy prey to its toxic radicalism, which is currently being seen in Iraq, Syria and Libya.

What the United States has to figure out is who stands to gain the most from this militant Sunni uprising, and fingers point to Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Both are Wahhabist states founded in the late 18th century.  One can argue that these countries' support of radical Wahhabit mosques throughout the world has spawned a Frankenstein in the current radical Islamist revolt we see.  Or, that the oil-rich shiekhs imagine a new Ottoman Empire based out of the Middle East with a radical Sunni theology at its base.  I'm sure there are other scenarios as well, but if we have any hope of containing ISIS, we have to look to its source, and that can be found in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is without a doubt the most repressive of Muslim nations, yet it has been our "ally" for decades, largely because the House of Saud is at the center of OPEC.  It is staggering how much money this royal family has.  It makes Buckingham Palace look like a House of Paupers by comparison.  They spend upwards of $1 billion on each of their homes and have the most highly prized car and jet plane collections in the world.  Pretty amazing for a king who claims to be Wahhabist, a Muslim sect that based its faith on religious purity.

As the story goes, bin Laden was so appalled at the extravagance of the royal family and its ancillary families that he created al Qaeda from his own personal wealth.  The Persian Gulf War was the tipping point for him, upset that Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations could band together with the infidels to fight a war against their own people.  Not like bin Laden had any time for a secularist tyrant like Hussein, but in his mind it should be Muslims fighting Muslims for the purity of the religion.  So, bin Laden took his war to America, the chief culprit in these dirty alliances.

We saw the bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, the torpedoing of the USS Cole and finally the coordinated attack on US cities that fateful day of September 11, 2001.  I guess bin Laden said if you want a war, America, you will have to fight it on our terms, and for over a decade we have been fighting a war on terror on multiple fronts with no end in sight.

The US has taken out its fair share of bad guys, including Hussein and bin Laden, but ISIS keeps growing.  Many critics felt the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq emboldened these radical groups and enlarged their recruiting bases and fields of operations.  With the Arab Spring in 2011 that coincided with the death of bin Laden, civil wars have spread throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa.  There is fierce fighting in Syria and Libya, with other countries facing insurrections as well, like poor little Yemen.  It's reached the point, where no one is sure who is fighting who? as radical Shia extremists have gotten into the mix as well.

I'm not going to pretend to know what is going on, as you would have to be a scholar steeped in Islamic history to understand the bitter sectarian violence that has plagued the religion for centuries.  Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab rose from a similar conflagration of sectarian violence in the 18th century, for whom this radical Islam has been named.  He is not much unlike Martin Luther in this regard, as he inspired others to launch religious holy wars that eventually led to the formation of Protestant states throughout Europe. This is what happened in the Middle East.

Our basic problem is that we have no idea what is going on in the Middle East or anywhere else in the Muslim world for that matter.  We are simply trying to protect our interests in these regions.  We couldn't give a rat's ass who is in power just as long as he serves our interests.  This is how the House of Saud got mixed up with the United States, as well as the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein.  In the latter two cases, these tyrannical leaders were going to help modernize their states as Ataturk and Nasser tried to do in Turkey and Egypt.  Little wonder Islamic militants raised their ugly heads again.

You can no more usher modernism at the point of a sword than you can radical Islam.  The vast majority of Muslims would like to see the end of ISIS as would Westerners.  This is why you have so many refugees fleeing Syria.  They are not coming to Europe and America to set up a new caliphate but to seek economic opportunities no longer available to them in war torn Syria.  Instead of trying to broker a compromise, the US and Europe remains determined to oust Bashar al-Assad, not knowing what will replace his regime.  As a result, Assad has managed to hang onto power, thanks to Russian support, over the last four years in spite of the "Arab Spring."

No one is saying Assad is a good guy, but then neither is King Salman of Saudi Arabia.  This guy has no qualms with the beheadings taking place in his country over everything from drug charges to adultery to sorcery and witchcraft. Attempts at amnesty for the victims have fallen on deaf ears.  He's just been more effective at keeping his country under a tight screw than has Assad.

We missed our opportunity to take the Saudis to task.  When the bombings were carried out in 2001, the Saudi royals were immediately flown out of the country no questions asked.  This quick exodus included members of the bin Laden family.  Of course, we can presume that Osama was the black sheep of the family and that these persons had no ties to his activities, but one would like to think we would be more circumspect, as Osama continued to get funding long after his money ran out.

Through it all, little scrutiny has been brought to bear on the House of Saud.  We have made Iran part of the axis of evil, condemning its support of Hezbollah and Hamas.  Yet, don't bat an eyelash at the Wahhabist mosques the Saudi royalty supports, many of which have served as safe havens for al Qaeda and ISIS operatives.

Maybe the Obama administration has finally come to the realization that all is not what it seems in Riyadh, after going through the computer files found in Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. This could be one reason he had little problem squelching the Saudi king's protests over the Iran nuclear deal.  Whatever the case, it is time we more thoroughly examine our relationship with Saudi Arabia in the wake of the ISIS bombings in Paris.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Bringing the war home

I think anyone would be forgiven for not knowing there was a Democratic debate last night.  It's hard to compete with the fallout of the fourth Republican debate and the Paris attacks.  Bernie Sanders' campaign was apoplectic over the format changing at the last minute to reflect the coordinated ISIS attacks on Paris.  This pretty much made foreign policy the center piece of the night, which isn't exactly Bernie's calling card.  Surprisingly, it was Martin O'Malley who had the quote of the night, "my son is not a pair of boots on the ground," which he took from a mother of a young man who served two tours during this neverending "War on Terror."

It was a much more manageable event with Jim Webb and Lincoln Chaffee dropping their campaigns.  Lawrence Lessing also dropped his bid, but I don't think many persons noticed he was even running. This opened up the stage for former Maryland Governor O'Malley, allowing him to lock horns with Bernie and Hillary.

Whether the Bernie campaign team liked it or not, there was no way to avoid the Paris attacks.  They were emblazoned all over the news and each of the Republican candidates were responding to them in the most hyperbolic terms.  To his credit, Bernie tried to play down the event, whereas Hillary and Martin addressed the issue in strong terms.  Sanders' campaign wanted CBS to stick to the initial economic format, but the first 30 minutes of the debate was devoted to ISIS, which clearly favored Hillary Clinton.  Oddly though, O'Malley came away the strongest by focusing on a greater international security effort in dealing with radical groups like ISIS rather than another war.

ISIS is nothing new.  It is just the latest amalgam of terrorist groups under a new banner.  Their philosophy or religion, if you can call it either, is the same as was that of the Taliban and al Qaeda before them.  Even the Toyota Hilux trucks stay the same.  They use anarchist methods to establish a new "caliphate" based on a very corrupted reading of the Koran.  The Taliban briefly had a "caliphate" in Afghanistan, and continue to claim large swathes of the embattled country and neighboring Pakistan.  The same mentality pervades ISIS, which seeks to do the same in Iraq and Syria.  They have established a capital of sorts in Raqqa, Syria, but they are a "state" only in their own minds.

Going to war with ISIS is simply an extension of our ongoing war with al Qaeda.  O'Malley and Sanders both stated the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan only further exacerbated the situation, not remedied it, as much as some Republicans would like to think so.  The only difference is that ISIS has been relatively recently formed and it is convenient to lay the blame at the steps of the Obama White House.

Unfortunately, we are going to hear a lot more about ISIS in the months ahead as the Republicans politicize the organization to suit their anti-immigration agenda.  Trump has already vowed to deport all Syrian refugees taken in over the next year, which is pretty much the same sentiment of the other candidates if not so forcibly expressed.  ISIS claimed they had infiltrated the refugee population and two of the suicide bombers in Paris have been identified as part of this recent wave of refugees.  Not that they wouldn't have had plenty of homegrown Parisian Muslim radicals to draw from.

The Democrats have opted for a more pragmatic approach, but if more such acts are committed in the year ahead, you can well imagine public sentiment will shift toward the Republicans in this regard, as Americans are not very keen on Muslim immigrants in general.  You remember Rick Perry claiming ISIS had already infiltrated Texas as a result of our porous border security.  I'm sure he would love to say, I told you so, in his Texas twang.

The Republicans are using ISIS to undermine White House foreign policy.  It doesn't matter that ISIS offers no tangible threat to the United States, it is the existential threat they are playing on.  The GOP candidates want to incite fear in the electorate, and nothing is more scary than the specter of 911.  CNN obliged by constantly showing images during their telecast of the new Freedom Tower where the World Trade Center towers once stood.   If only these candidates would express the same anxiety over school shootings.

It is very interesting how these debates are shaping up.  The Republicans choose to incite their audience with fiery rhetoric, promoting a renewed war on terror, with the United States firmly in the lead.  Meanwhile, the Democrats call for a greater concerted effort among all nations to combat terrorism, which is what the Obama administration has been pursuing.

There are always weak links.  France has shown itself to be one both on the international and state level, as it pursues its own interests.  It has been particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks this past year, with some thinking the principally Muslim suburbs of Paris are incubators for Islamist terrorist cells.  This was the same thing being said of Germany in the aftermath of 911, and has become the subject of the current season of Homeland.  Both Germany and France put greater emphasis on individual liberties in their societies, which does make these countries more susceptible to attack, but then no nation is immune from terrorist attacks, no matter how strict their homeland security.

What I like about Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley is that they take the broad view when it comes to terrorism, not seeing it as an object within itself. Unfortunately, this is the case with Hawkish politicians like Hillary Clinton.  She offered a more muted view on Iraq during the debates, but you figure she still feels that invading Afghanistan and Iraq were the right thing to do, which she strenuously defended the last time she ran for President in 2008.

At some point we need to pull back from the abyss and view the world as a whole, not as isolated regions.  Of course, that's hard to do when terrorists bring the war home as they did in Paris.  It is easy to become overwhelmed by emotion and launch fiery broadsides to persuade the electorate you are the man or woman to rid the world of this pernicious evil.  But, how many more wars must we wage in the name of terrorism?

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Inglourious Dr. Ben

I suppose Ben Carson can use Quentin Tarrantino's WWII pulp fiction to prove his point that if Jews had guns they could have defended themselves from the Holocaust, or better yet won World War II.  This is the case Tarrantino makes in his movie, albeit the band of Jewish resistance fighters is led by an elite American special forces fighter with a Kentucky accent, covertly assigned to the mission by his commanding officers.  Lt. Aldo Raine literally brings down a reign of terror on the Nazis with a team of crack shots, vicious killers and a gargantuan "Bear Jew," who does Nazis in with a baseball bat, offering up his kills to Ted Williams.  As far as movies go it is pretty good until the utterly absurd ending, but then so are Ben Carson's stories.

That's why I suggest Armstrong Williams, the good doctor's business consultant, contact Tarrantino and enlist him to make a biography of Carson.  Gifted Hands was child's play.  Dr. Ben needs far more artistic creativity here, putting him at the center of historical events, maybe even give him a time machine so that he can go back and rewrite history himself, as he said he would do with "Baby Hitler."  He can also highlight the time he worked undercover as a secret agent with Doctors Without Borders in the Middle East, which is why he is privy to so much inside information like China's involvement in Syria, which his campaign has vowed to release soon.

While the White House was speechless, Donald Trump launched into a 95-minute rant on the "pathological" doctor, red faced with anger that Iowans could be so stupid to even think of voting for Carson, and he had a belt buckle to prove it.  The Donald also fired broadsides at the other candidates that left his normally raucous audience speechless, not sure whether to boo or applaud some of his more outlandish claims.  You can't blame the reality show king for being upset that his stage has been intruded upon by such a "super low energy" guy who quietly thinks of himself as a superhero.  There is only room for one superhero on stage and that's the Trump the Avenger, as hell has no fury like a mop of red hair when unleashed on an unsuspecting crowd.

If you ask yourself how far this presidential reality show can go, it can go very far.  Dr. Carson has only just begun to enjoy the limelight as we see the Donald flame out before our eyes.  Waiting in the wings is Ted Cruz, who hopes to pick up the Trump vote and eventually the Carson vote when the good doctor flames out as well.  I think Carson can extend his trajectory by playing up the superhero part.

The covert special agent is the perfect way to go here, revealing all sorts of juicy information about international foreign policy that even the White House doesn't know about.  He can quote passages from Ezekiel 25:17 like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction.  Hell, his campaign can even get Jackson to play him (Jackson will play anyone), unless of course the good doctor wants to assume his role himself like Private Frederick Zoeller did in Inglourious Basterds, although it wasn't a very good ending for him, albeit very poetic.

Let's have some fun Dr. Ben.  Let's make an "artisanal hagiography" out of your life's story!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Rapping with Justice Ginsburg

At 82, Ruth Bader Ginsburg who has found new celebrity as the Notorious RBG, a moniker she has adopted as the most liberal judge on the Supreme Court.  Shana Knizhnik is the one who came up with the blog but didn't feel confident enough to write the book on her own, so she solicited the help of MSNBC journalist Irin Carmon.

Justice Ginsburg has stood out over the years for her sharp dissents of conservative majority opinions on everything from Citizens United to Shelby County v. Holder, which further eroded voting rights in America.  It is the Shelby dissent that inspired Knizhnik, a law student at the time.  You might say that Ginsburg is the "Bernie Sanders" of liberal law students.

I have great respect for Ginsburg but wonder how much longer she can hold up.  Of course, the Senate would fight any Supreme Court nominee Obama would put up in her place, especially with Chief Justice Roberts no longer a reliable conservative vote on the bench.  I would prefer it be his choice to replace her and not a potential Republican president down the line.  However, the Notorious RBG appears to have no intention of stepping down soon.

The book is an "artisanal hagiography," which is an interesting way of saying a certain amount of artistic license was taken in presenting Judge Ginsburg. The authors focus on many of idiosyncrasies like her passion for lace collars, her early love for Nancy Drew and her morning workouts, which keep her a sprite looking octogenarian.  The authors also probe into the sexual discrimination the young judge faced not only at Harvard but from renown Justice Felix Frankfurter.  Through out, she kept her wits about herself even when Justice Blackmun graded her a C+ for her first case before the Surpreme Court.

All well and good.  I suppose the book achieves its goals, as the aim here is to further reinforce her position as a "supersignifier of liberal idealism."   It is necessary today, as for the most part liberalism and feminism get a bad rap in the press and we need a badass judge to remind us that women's rights are not something to be toyed with, and neither are voting rights.

Like anyone, the Judge has her conservative side, like decrying Roe v. Wade for being too dictatorial, stating that methodical steps rather than extreme measures should have been taken.  Interesting that since then many states have methodically reinstated abortion laws that are every bit as severe as they were before Roe v. Wade.  Maybe she thought the sweeping 1973 decision resulted in this backlash, but then one could argue that Brown v. Board of Education was just as dictatorial, and few would decry it today.

Anyway, it looks like a fun way to get to know our eldest Supreme Court Justice a little better.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Eight is Enough

Your Money, Your Vote should have been the moniker for this latest debate as well, as Fox Business Network hosted the fourth debate on the economy.  The latest GOP debate was interesting for a handful of reasons, none of which had to do with the overall performance of the candidates, which was bad as usual.  This time they were called out not by the moderators, but by their fellow candidates.  John Kasich repeatedly took his Republican peers to task on immigration and government spending, inserting himself into exchanges where he was clearly not wanted.  Rand Paul chastised Marco Rubio on military spending.  Of course, the candidates responded, and Rubio got the better of Paul as far as the conservative crowd was concerned, this being Veteran's Day, but it was refreshing to see some alternative opinions being expressed.

The undercard was interesting largely because who was not there, Lindsey Graham and George Pataki, who were both deemed to be too low in the national polls to warrant a podium.  The main event had been reduced to eight candidates with Christie and Huckabee sent to the undercard.  Graham offered his color commentary on the debates to Yahoo! saying that wine helped.  Chris Christie tried to take over the event, but ended up serving as a big target for the other three candidates hoping to score points.  Bobby Jindal is absolutely glowing because he leaped 100 per cent in the polls from one to two per cent, although I found it highly amusing that he is challenging Christie's record in New Jersey, when his is every bit as bad in Louisiana.

Perhaps the biggest non-story is that Jeb Bush failed once again to reboot his campaign, and may find himself on the undercard in the battle of the governors as his poll numbers continue to slip.  He is currently hanging in there at number five.  Kasich isn't doing any better, but you have to think that so-called moderates in the Republican Party might be leaning toward him at this point as Jeb has been unable to assert himself in any of these debates.  If anyone among this rat pack can work across the aisle to break the stalemate in Washington it is without a doubt Kasich, not Yeb.

Unfortunately for John, he finds himself to the left on many key issues.  He's been successful in Ohio, largely because he has accepted the ACA, Medicaid expansion, an increase in the minimum wage and increased taxes on fracking.  Pretty hard sells to the Republican base, but issues that would stand him in good stead in a general election.

Carson was a no-show once again, out of his realm when it comes to economic issues. There was little or no focus on him, despite the knocks his campaign has been getting lately.  However, his woes greatly help Trump, who looks decidedly more presidential than Dr. Ben, standing there stone-faced throughout most of the debate.  However, I guess it depends on what news source you take.

Sadly, the Republicans seem determined to go down the road to their own demise by clinging to their talking points whether they make any sense or not.  The tax plans of the leading candidates have all been sharply attacked by conservative as well as moderate news sources.  Their stances on immigration have isolated them from the ever-growing Hispanic demographic, and their insistence on business as usual has eroded their working class support.

It is pretty hard not to defend an increase in minimum wage, yet here they all were making the corporate argument.  Trump actually cried that wages are too high, reducing our competitiveness.  Tell that to someone trying to get by on $7.15 an hour, which is why many cities have raised the minimum wage, including New York.

Unfortunately, the moderators mostly pitched soft balls.  This debate was supposed to be about the economy, but ended up being pretty much same old, same old.  The Fox Business team never really challenged any of the candidates, which I guess is why Kasich felt that need to insert himself.  There is absolutely nothing to support these guys' positions on the economy, which continues to grow despite all their dire warnings.  This is Fox News, however, so you have to expect the usual claptrap.

At least with Kasich and Paul, polling seventh and eighth respectively, you do get a glimmer of hope that the Republican Party hasn't completely sold itself out to the highest corporate bidder.  They have other problems, but on the economy they seem to realize that all these tax breaks and increased defense spending aren't going to "rescue" the economy.  The military budget makes up more than half of all discretionary spending.  As Kasich noted last time, you aren't going to make a dent in the budget deficit if all you do is keep chipping away at the revenue with so many "entitlements" to pay for.  What he actually means is mandatory spending, which makes up an enormous chunk of the budget, and which his fellow candidates conveniently choose to ignore.

After four debates, the Republicans are no closer to a meaningful platform than they were at the end of summer.  They continue to promote their same pet issues and try to score points by demeaning their fellow candidates rather than offer anything substantive in the way of policy.  This was their chance to shine but instead we saw even more acrimony within the ranks.  They succeeded only in making Hillary look good by comparison.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Is Keystone finally dead?

It depends on how you look at.  As far as getting the necessary EPA approvals to go through key stretches of environmentally sensitive land, the deal is dead, at least for the time being.  However, about 40 per cent of the pipeline has already been built and is pumping "dirty oil" through the US.  One way or another, this project will probably be finished, even if it has to bypass key sections that would have reduced the length of its flow.

Obama seems to have waited until he got a sympathetic government in Ottawa.  Stephen Harper, the former conservative MP, was the one who pushed this project the past 10 years.  It was all about getting Canadian oil to the Gulf of Mexico, where it would have greater access to international markets.  It was never about jobs or providing oil to the US.  That flow never stopped.  In fact, it greatly helped Harper fund this project.  However, with oil prices currently very low, Canada is finding it now has a glut, so there is little need for this additional crude oil.

The President has other worries though, as the new Canadian government isn't excited at all about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Stephen Harper had also endorsed.  Canada is a key player in this agreement.

Keystone XL has not been a hot issue on the Republican campaign trail, but will probably now be mentioned as one more awful reminder of how bad the Obama administration is.  The pipeline never was going to offer the jobs the Republicans claimed, nor benefit the US economy in any appreciable way.  It was nothing more than a convenient route for Canada to get its tar sands oil to US refineries and to international markets.

However, reason very rarely wins out on the campaign trail.  Keystone served Republican interests by showing how friendly they are to oil and other big businesses, and that this is the only way to get out of an economic crisis like the one they generated.  I guess their adage is to fight fire with fire, until everything burns down.  It really has been hard to figure out how they can get away with this pretzel logic, as Steely Dan once sang, but they do.  There is a very gullible audience out there that thinks that the only good business is big business and the only way this nation survives is with plenty of oil pumping through it.

We've all heard how the Koch Brothers stood to benefit the most from this pipeline, given their vast land holdings along the proposed route, as well as their vested interest in TransCanada oil.  They may not make $100 billion off Keystone XL but they will do quite well with or without White House approval.  Not surprisingly, they had been fueling quite a number of campaigns to promote Keystone, which I imagine they will continue to do.

For President Obama it is a political victory of sorts, in that it finally gets this monkey off his back.  It also allows him to be seen as a friend of the environment, drawing support from Bill McKibben and others for standing up to Big Oil and citing the effect on climate as his reason for this long deferred decision.  One only wishes he would have shown the same backbone to Shell Oil.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

It was only a matter of time before the Ben Carson campaign imploded, but there are still many persons who want to believe in him, even after his campaign admits he lied about ever being extended an invitation to attend West Point.

Much of his youthful experiences have been called into question, but that doesn't deter his supporters, who believe that CNN is mounting a witch hunt against their revered candidate.  It had been Carson's firm religious beliefs driving his campaign and like one of those tele-evangelists flushed out by the news media, his "flock" sticks with him.

The odd part is that Carson has displayed virtually no charisma throughout this campaign.  His biggest appeal seemed to be his "calmness," which Trump has been deriding as "low energy."  This imperturbable nature seems a throwback to Clint Eastwood's Western characters, which I guess gives voters a sense of security, especially with Trump and other candidates appearing to fly off the rails at any moment.

Carson himself said that his calm nature belied the seething volcano underneath, or words to that affect.  He recounted adolescent experiences of nearly stabbing a friend to death and being forced to defend himself at gun point at a fast food restaurant.  We were led to believe that Carson had a tough upbringing and his only way to escape this cycle of violence was through God and medical school.

According to this Newsweek article, his mother found religion when he was 12, and he accepted this new faith. This is what pulled them out of poverty.   The only problem is that Detroit was still a thriving city in 1964, when his presumed religious conversion took place.  It wasn't until the 1970s that Detroit began to experience rapid economic decline.  There were plenty of opportunities for Blacks as well as Whites in Motor City.

Apparently, Young Ben also had quite a temper and turned to psychology journals as well as the Bible to "modify (his) personality traits."  On the campaign trail he has promoted his faith moreso than his medical background, although he said that being a surgeon helps keep his emotions in check, which is why he appears to some to be "low energy."

His campaign has beguiled the press and his rival candidates.  He hasn't stood out at the debates and he suspended his campaign to promote his new book, although one feeds into the other.  This apparently turned out to be a mistake, as the press began to focus on his books, finding a great number of inconsistencies that are being brought to light.  The press is also digging into his public appearances, such as the time he gave a commencement address at a religious school, during which he put forward his theory that it was Joseph who built the pyramids to serve as grain silos.  A theory he stood behind when questioned by reporters.

Naturally, Dr. Ben doesn't want this level of scrutiny.  He had never really been challenged before, unless you count the malpractice suits that were leveled against him, even if they were dismissed.  One out of five surgeons face malpractice suits each year, so even if we take Dr. Ben's full career, eight is a pretty high number.  Many would like to think that the Medal of Freedom President Bush bestowed on the good doctor absolves him of any past surgical indiscretions.

This recognition vaulted Carson into the limelight.  A movie was made shortly thereafter, based on his autobiography, Gifted Hands.  You have to go back a few years earlier though to see where all this came from.

Ben Carson first met Armstrong Williams 22 years ago.  Neither seem to recall the exact incident (not surprising) but Williams believes he had invited him on his radio show.  Williams was one of the black voices developed by conservatives to promote their interests.  Armstrong grew up in South Carolina and had earned his chops working for Strom Thurmond and Clarence Thomas.  Despite the many ironies, there appears to be greater access for young enterprising Blacks in the Republican Party these days.  GQ provided a glowing mini-biography of Williams earlier this year.

Williams accompanying Carson on his visit to Israel

Williams claims he is receiving no cash from Carson's campaign, yet he is very much at the heart of it, defending Carson in September when the emerging candidate fumbled questions regarding his outrageous statement that Muslim-Americans shouldn't be allowed to run for President.  Williams was reluctant to give an interview to The Daily Beast, but offers some telltale signs that all was not on the up and up.  To say that Carson is "insatiably curious about history and politics" is to greatly belie some of the recent statements Carson has made.  Dr. Ben appears utterly clueless about how government works, much less the Constitution, and his sense of history seems entirely derived from the Bible.  But no matter, Williams is the spin master in this campaign, turning everything Carson says into something misinterpreted by the media.

Williams once again came to Dr. Ben's defense on the West Point story, but it is proving not so easy to sweep under the rug.  Americans don't like persons claiming false military ties, and I'm sure Carson is going to be skewered by Trump and others over this latest fabrication.  I suppose Carson and Williams are relying on the gullibility of religious conservatives to look past these indiscretions and focus on Carson's faith, which has been made the center of the good doctor's campaign.  This works for tele-evangelists, why not godly presidential candidates?

Unfortuantely, Carson seems to be rather dull-witted for a man of his education and too slow to respond.  This is a serious handicap.  Last time around, Herman Cain was able to hang in the race through November, largely thanks to his quick-fire humor, until allegations of his adultery doomed his campaign.  Ben Carson was supposed to be the serious candidate, with little apparent sense of humor, who would go beyond the "Hermanator" and pose a serious threat in the early caucuses and primaries.  He was leading Trump in Iowa by a substantial margin and the forces were on the ground to make a victory happen.  Now, it looks like Carson won't even make it until the end of the month.

Paul Waldman wonders if this was just a con game to begin with.  Carson seemed like a reluctant presidential candidate from the start, pushed into the race by those who saw a lot of money to be made off his campaign.  In the last quarter alone the Carson campaign generated $20 million, far more than any other Republican candidate, spending virtually all of it, which does make one question what is going on here.  Not his ardent supporters, however, who cling to Carson as if he were the Rock of Ages.

I don't think many persons fully realize how many Republicans come from so-called "fringe religions" like the Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses.  For the first time, these deeply fundamental Christian sects have one of their own running for President and they probably won't let him go right away.  However, the "reach" of Ben Carson has taken a serious blow, and if nothing else he has hit his glass ceiling.  It is hard to imagine mainstream voters going for a guy who appears to have embellished his youth for no other reason than to make him look like a repentant Born-Again Christian.

Ben Carson is nothing more than a Trojan Horse that religious conservatives pushed into the political ring hoping they could take over the party.  It surprises me that they didn't go with a more charismatic figure like Mike Huckabee or Ted Cruz, but I guess they were banking on other Republicans believing that Dr. Ben was the real deal, not some proxy for Fox News or conservative Super PAC.  To this point, Carson had run what appeared to be an entirely "grass roots" campaign.

You just have to wonder why someone didn't fact check his autobiography or at least sought ways to mitigate the potential damage before the mainstream media started snooping around.  It seems that Armstrong Williams, who has been with Carson for two decades, was too arrogant to believe anyone would be able to find anything that would stick.  However, that West Point "scholarship" was just too juicy a piece of red meat.  Pretty much everything else to this point could be more easily dismissed like those malpractice suits.

Many religious conservatives wanted to believe that Dr. Ben was their man after he admonished the President at a National Prayer Breakfast over health care and deficit spending.  They probably will still believe in him despite the heavy scrutiny Carson is now facing from the mainstream media.  Public vettings are never pretty.   Just ask Barack, who had to deal with the heavy blow inflicted when the media dug up videos during the 2008 campaign of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright lashing out against the white establishment.

Whereas Obama proved to be a very resilient and contrite candidate, it is doubtful that Carson will have the same ability.  This is a man who likes to double down on his absurd claims, even when his church didn't stand behind his pyramid claims.

To this point, Dr. Ben has shown no signs of doubt, much less contrition, a key to the Christian faith.   This type of inflexibility may serve one well among his devoted followers, but it doesn't serve one well as a political leader, much less candidate.  Ben Carson's days are numbered and there is nothing Armstrong Williams or his religious followers can do about it.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Trump Factor

A lot of folks are coming out against Donald Trump's upcoming appearance on SNL.  Lorne Michaels couldn't ask for greater publicity.  I'm sure Saturday Night Live will enjoy its highest ratings in years, if not ever, with the human hair piece taking center stage for an hour-and-a-half.  I wonder if REM will be there as musical guests?

Michaels has long liked to generate controversy, especially when much of the humor evaporated from the show.  Take for instance the Sarah Palin impersonations from the 2008 campaign.  Tina Fey eventually caught on as to what it was all about and dropped the role.  It was nothing more than a ratings grabber and earned Palin quite a bit of support in the process.  All calculated, to be sure, as Michaels is a Republican.  He actively supported McCain in 2008.

It's not like Republicans take a joke better than Democrats.  Both Palin and McCain were notably upset by the Palin impersonations.  You don't hear Obama or Hillary whining about the numerous caricatures of themselves.  For the better part of two terms, Phil Hartman gave us a very amusing impersonation of Bill Clinton, which Bill repeatedly laughed off.  Hartman even took a stab at Trump all those years ago.

Rather, Michaels knows that these characterizations help political candidates gain greater recognition, not so much because a great many people watch SNL, but because the sketches are immediately picked up on the Internet and go viral the next day, as the Tina Fey/Sarah Palin sketches did.  That will be the case with Trump as well, although Trump's appearance will also help to salvage a flagging show that long ago saw its better days.

The Trump Factor will go down in the annals of television history.  He has boosted ratings across the board.  Even John Oliver, who never planned to invite Trump on his show, will no doubt enjoy a boost thanks to the Donald calling him out recently.  Ever since Trump entered the race, television and twitter has never been the same.  The guy has turned the media literally on its ear.

No one would have ever taken any interest in the GOP debates had it not been for Trump.  Despite all the sharp criticisms, CNBC enjoyed its biggest night ever thanks to the Donald.   This is why Trump is negotiating his own deals with the networks, including this return to NBC after their high profile breakup.  However, the RNC is now dropping NBC over the last debate.

There is no way to escape Trump, which is more upsetting than his highly publicized appearance on Saturday Night Live.  The guy is everywhere and there seems to be no way to shake him.  Even in Lithuania, he appears repeatedly on the news.  He's a big hit in Russia, and has earned the praise of Vladimir Putin no less.  Apparently, the feeling is mutual.  You can see the two getting along swimmingly well, just like Putin and Silvio Berlusconi, but hopefully it won't be as fellow world leaders.

SNL can have Trump, and Ben Carson too, who I'm sure will come up repeatedly on the show now that he has offered his theoretical observations on the uses of pyramids.  This appearance will probably help Trump regain his control of the GOP leader board, provided he doesn't go overboard on Carson.  For the time being, Michaels will have to make do with Ben Carson impersonations, as the good doctor has said no to any such appearances himself.  Dr. Ben believes that running for president is a serious matter.

At least, Trump knows how to have a good time.  I suppose that is his primary appeal.  It certainly isn't his political savvy.  He's enjoying this ride and will no doubt take it as far as he can into the primaries, as he hasn't had to pay for much of this publicity.  In fact, quite the opposite as his "brand appeal" has never been so high.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Another Brother from Another Planet

Reading some of the backlash to a black stormtrooper as one of the lead roles in Star Wars is not without its irony.  Given that stormtroopers look like high-tech Klansmen, you have to think J.J. Abrams was having a little fun here, channeling Mel Brooks who dressed up his black sheriff in a Klan outfit in one of the great scenes in Blazing Saddles.  But, Abrams was probably also trying to level the playing field a bit, as black characters are rarely seen in science fiction movies.  I suppose this is one reason some "fans" are so upset.  We get used to certain stereotypes and don't like to see them changed, even if the voice of Darth Vader was James Earl Jones.

For what ever reason, George Lucas chose to make Darth Vader white in the prequels, giving us the long sordid story of Anakin Skywalker, who would eventually fall prey to the dark side.  This was a bit of a disappointment as far as I was concerned, as we already had Lando Calrissian, played by the dapper Billy Dee Williams, so why not have David Oyelowo or some other young black actor play the role.  I guess it would have been too hard to explain how Anakin was Luke's father, even with three episodes.

For many years, black science fiction fans had to make do with Lt. Uhura.  The reboots of Star Trek addressed this shortfall, casting Avery Brooks as Captain Benjamin Sisko in Deep Space Nine.  There was even a Black Vulcan, played by Tim Russ, in Star Trek: Voyager.   However, these characters are far and few between and don't strike the imagination as much Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) did.

A lot of folks were upset that Blade Runner had virtually no black characters, leading some critics to wonder if there was some kind of Black genocide or plague in the near future.  There were no shortage of Asians, which appeared to have taken over LA, and Edward James Olmos played Gaff, one of the blade runners.  So, it didn't lack completely for ethnic diversity.

John Sayles created perhaps the first lead for a black actor in a science fiction movie in The Brother From Another Planet.  However, he seemed to be more influenced by Gordon Parks than science fiction films, as this movie owes a lot to the "blaxploitation" films of the early 70s.

Black science fiction is one of those sub-genres that doesn't get much mention.  From my little bit of research, Samuel Delaney is probably the most famous writer still working today.  He's won a slough of awards and would be interesting to read.

At one point, even W.E.B. DuBois tried his hand at science fiction in The Comet. Written in 1920, it foreshadowed the apocalyptic themes that would figure so heavily in the genre.  What makes his story interesting is that only a black man and white woman survive the comet, an obvious statement on miscegenation.  George Lucas take note.

So, why all the fuss over Stormtrooper Finn?  Isn't there plenty of room for a character like this in today's science fiction?  Sadly, some persons feel black sci-fi characters should remain sidekicks like Lando Calrissian, who ended up being frozen in "carbonite" for his treachery.  For that matter, so did Hans Solo, but he lived to see another day.  We never found out what happened to Lando.  Maybe he is Finn's father?  We can only wait and see.