Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Mr. Nice Guy




Ben Carson has soared to the top of Iowa polls largely by being Mr. Nice Guy.  his drone comments aside.  He has adopted a soft-spoken attitude, letting his opponents fight it out between themselves for who is Mr. Tough Guy.  The Good Doctor actually favors a path toward citizenship for illegal immigrants currently residing in the country, which puts him at the opposite end of the Republican spectrum, as far from Trump as you can get.  His favorability rating also towers over Trump, with 81 per cent of Republicans saying they like him, whereas only 6 per cent say they don't.  No one else even comes close to him in this regard.  How far this takes Dr. Carson remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Chris Christie tried out his stand-up routine on the Jimmy Fallon show sitting down.  Chris definitely has the gift of gab, but he also has this nasty habit of sticking his foot in his mouth, such as suggesting tracking numbers on foreign visitors so that when they overstay their visas, they can be more easily identified.  He would have Fred Smith of FedEx set up the program in his first three months in office.  Maybe he meant it as a joke?

Even more funny is seeing Mitt Romney being promoted as a GOP alternative given the chaos Trump has caused on the campaign trail.  Here is former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich making his case for Romney.  Of course, Ehrlich is completely full of shit, citing youth and liberal Republicans for Trump's surge, when it is all too clear he is playing directly off the base of the Republican Party.  But, like most of the so-called GOP establishment, Ehrlich is in denial.

One of the things that is clear is that the GOP is at a loss as to what is going on in the polls.  None of their establishment candidates are faring well and the base of their party is favoring so-called "outsiders."  Neither Jeb nor Marco nor Scott Walker have been able to take flight in this campaign.   Walker didn't do himself any favors by suggesting a wall along the Canadian border, leading Andy Borowitz to pen this cutting post.

Rick Perry appears to be down to his last campaign worker in Iowa after a series of defections due to no longer being able to pay his campaign staff.  It appears former Gov. Rick will be the first casualty of this campaign, although his SuperPACs apparently have the funds to keep a shadow campaign afloat, assuming the well doesn't dry up completely.

You have to wonder about the staying power of Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, George Pataki, Jim Gilmore and Bobby Jindal as well.  All these guys are polling around one per cent, making it easier for CNN to winnow down the next "Presidential" debate field.  The only one of the bottom tier to get a bounce in recent weeks has been Carly Fiorina, who may squeeze into the next scheduled debate on September 16.

The Donald remains the man to beat, but I don't think even he expected the Good Doctor to sneak up on him like this.  Trump has been careful not to go after Carson, who has always been well liked among the Republican faithful.  For his part, Carson has also refrained from attacking Trump, or any of the GOP candidates for that matter.

Carson has toned down his rhetoric since accusing President Obama of lying like a psychopath, but still believes it is the President who is dividing the country, when he needs look no further than his own political party and see the battle lines that have been drawn in this campaign.  Chris Christie is threatening to "go nuclear" in the next debate if he is ignored again.  Jeb has adopted a nuclear strategy of his own to counter Trump.  However, I think if Carson has taught his Republican peers anything, it is you don't have to shout to be heard.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Denali




While some are questioning his authority in the matter, most persons are applauding Obama's most recent executive order to restore the name of the country's highest peak to Denali.  For local natives and most Alaskans it has always been Denali, but by one of those little quirks in history the peak became associated with McKinley, when an gold explorer decided to name the peak after the Presidential candidate for supporting the Gold Standard in the 1896 election.  The name stuck after McKinley's assassination, and the federal government officially recognized it as such in 1917.

Efforts to reverse the peak's name date back to 1975 by Alaskan legislators.  A compromise was struck naming the national park itself Denali, but the peak remained McKinley mostly to appease Ohio legislators who wanted their native son to be memorialized in perpetuity.  It didn't matter that McKinley never set foot in Alaska nor expressed any interest in the mountain as President.  In fact, it was Theodore Roosevelt's efforts that led to the establishment of a national park encompassing the peak and its surroundings.

Nevertheless, Ohio legislators are upset, as is Governor Kasich over this name change.   He says people of Ohio feel the name is appropriate, but then why should a peak in Alaska be of any real interest to them.  Why not rename the Ohio River the McKinley River if the former President is that important to them?  I don't imagine this "issue" will get much traction in the election, unless of course the Donald decides to chime in, but most likely he will make an Instagram video ridiculing Kasich.

For the people that matter, this decision was a long time coming, not that the local Athabascans ever recognized it as Mt. McKinley.  For them Denali has always been their point of origin.  Just the same, Sen. Lisa Murkowski personally congratulated President Obama from the foot of Mt. Denali in this video.  No word yet from Sarah Palin.  She probably doesn't even know who McKinley was, but give her time to form her thoughts and I'm sure she will have something spicy to say on the subject.

For President Obama it helps to reset the national policy toward native American tribes, something he had promised back in 2008.  We also live in a time when most Americans view indigenous inhabitants with respect and some even try to make genealogical connections, as if to prove their "Nativism."  For the native inhabitants of Alaska, the restoration of the peak's name was long overdue.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Uncle Tungsten




To read Oliver Sacks' 2001 recollection of his childhood years, his great appreciation for how the mind works was inspired by a relative, who he called Uncle Tungsten, that introduced him to the wonderful world of chemistry.  Sacks, who recently died at the age of 82, never lost his passion for the periodic table, collecting an element for each year of his life.  Thallium proved not so easy to acquire at age 81, and needed special housing.  He worried how he was going to deal with Bismuth, but Plumbum, better known as Lead, is the final element in his periodic table.

It would be easy to say that Dr. Sacks died with a heavy heart, but as he wrote in an essay several months back when he was told his condition was terminal, he accepted his condition, especially since he felt he had been given nine extra years after he was first diagnosed with an ocular melanoma.  It's only fitting since many of the patients he shared with us through his fabulous books similarly had to learn to cope with their conditions and had learned to accept them.

His recent books have focused more on himself, notably The Mind's Eye, which starts with his own condition.  It grows into a wonderful study on how to come to terms with his condition, ambling in different directions as he writes the book in the form of journal entries, which was a departure from his previously tightly knitted sets of case studies.  The book sprang from an essay he wrote in 2003, first published in the New Yorker.

One of my favorite books was The Island of the Colorblind, where he studied an indigenous group of natives on an island near Guam, who had become selectively colorblind over succeeding generations because it allowed them to thrive in a dense jungle setting where a "normal" sighted person only saw a sea of green.  By being completely colorblind, these natives were better able to differentiate the shades of gray and better live in this environment.  It was only a select few who had this condition, descendants of the king.  Others focused their energies more on the shoreline, where color differentiation was more important.

His most famous book, Awakenings, was made into movie starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.  Sacks wrote of his experience working with Williams in this lovely obituary he wrote last year.  Sacks noted that at times he felt uneasy with the uncanny way Williams was able to capture his mannerisms, and it was literally like seeing himself.  Robin Williams' daughter returned the gesture with this wonderful photograph of the two of them together.

Sacks' interests were broad and this was readily apparent in his essays and books.  In Migraine, he talks of the necessity to study the history of a condition, taking migraines all the way back to Roman times.  He had a special fondness for William James, the pioneering American psychoanalyst.  Sacks wondered if migraines and epilepsy could have been at the root of some of the fantastic visions and great insights that occurred over time, noting famous writers and artists who suffered from migraines.  As a self-help guide to the condition, it may not be the best book, as he comes to no pat conclusions on migraines, but he takes the reader on an intellectual and emotional journey filled with many rich insights.

I think what drew Sacks to James is that William James saw many of the psychological conditions making themselves manifest in the industrial age as a byproduct of the society we lived in.  James saw schizophrenia more as a social condition with many variants, not a clinical psychological disease that had to be treated ruthlessly, even to the point of lobotomies.  While Sacks had greater resources to pinpoint the cause of some of these clinical conditions, he also saw the social components, notably in migraines that have yet to be pinpointed.

Although Sacks released his final autobiography On the Move this past spring, I don't imagine this will be his final word.  One can only imagine the files and journals Sacks kept over the years and that some of these stories will find their way into print in the coming years.   In his own imitable way, he has been our Uncle Tungsten, allowing us to share in his unique neurological understanding of the world thanks to his wonderfully accessible pen.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Great Wall of Mexico




Donald Trump has been getting a lot of play with his idea of building a great wall along the border of Mexico.  I would think if anyone would call him out on this it would be Pat Buchanan who advocated the same idea in 1992 when he ran for the Republican nomination against George H.W. Bush, and gained quite a groundswell of support among right-wing extremists.  In fact, much of Trump's immigration policy and contempt for Mexicans appears to come from Buchanan's Death of the West.  Bucky has long felt that American culture is being undermined by Hispanics, particularly Mexicans, and that the only way to curb this is to clamp down hard on immigration.

However, Trump has taken this Nativism one step further by pushing for the repeal of the 14th amendment that would strip birthright citizenship, or "anchor babies" as children born to immigrants are derisively called.  Making the matter worse, Trump has basically led his fellow GOP candidates into a blind alley.  Jeb ventured down to the Texas border to try to assure Hispanic-Americans that he didn't support the same policies, but only ended up sticking his foot in his mouth.

As Jorge Ramos notes, an estimated 16 million Hispanics will vote in the 2016 general election, making up a significant part of the electorate.  Obviously, Donald Trump didn't want to be reminded of this and had Mr. Ramos escorted out of a press conference for daring to challenge him on his immigration policy.  The Donald cast the same kind of aspersions we have come to expect from him, yet it was Trump saying that Ramos was out of line.

A recent Gallup Poll shows that Trump has a -51 per cent net favorable rating among Hispanics, far below any of the other GOP candidates.  This should serve as a cautionary note but apparently not.  Others may not use the same harsh language, but Ted Cruz surprisingly endorsed Trump's view that the 14th amendment should be repealed.  This is a guy whose father is a Cuban immigrant.

Dr. Ben Carson even suggested the use of drones to monitor the tunnels illegal immigrants use to cross into America, which he claims was blown out of all proportion by the media.  I doubt Trump would have walked back from such a comment as I imagine many of his supporters would be more than happy to see drones take out illegal immigrants.

All this highly charged rhetoric is making it very difficult for any potential GOP presidential nominee to expect anything more than a small fraction of the Hispanic-American vote.  To make matters worse, Jeb pissed off Asian-Americans by defending his use of the term "anchor babies" to refer to Asian maternity tourism, not Mexicans.   

These candidates have narrowed their demographic range appreciably over the last two months thanks in large part to Donald J. Trump.   Rather than counter Trump's absurd claims they have all more or less endorsed his views in their own wishy-washy way.  They had a golden opportunity to take Trump out at the first Presidential debate but only Rand Paul seemed up for the challenge, only to end up shooting himself in the foot.

One can only conclude that these guys are afraid to stand up to Trump, or at least the sizable chunk of the GOP electorate he represents.  It is like a hostile takeover where Trump now controls one-third of the GOP electorate, forcing the Republican Party to buy into his world view.  Not that it takes much effort since none of the positions he has taken are new and have been pretty much repeated in each Republican primary since 1964.   The only thing different is the brashness that Trump has exhibited on the campaign trail, bullying his opponents into submission.

No one may know how to build a wall like Donald Trump, but as this long suppressed documentary shows the Donald has very rarely put his money where his mouth is.  I doubt we will ever see a wall like Trump or any GOP candidate imagines because it simply does not serve our interests.  Trump benefits from the relative free flow of immigrants, day workers and goods across the US-Mexican border just like any American businessman.  Even his signature suits are made in Mexico and shipped back to the US.  He is a bloviating contradiction of himself.  

At some point his campaign will run out of gas and what's left of the once vaunted Republican field of candidates will be left to pick up the pieces and try to salvage what's left of their tattered image.  What the GOP has painfully learned is that it can't escape the Nativism that is the underbelly of its political party.



The Trouble with Lists




Leave it to Rolling Stone to once again put out a contentious list, more noted for its glaring omissions than who the editorial staff chose to include.  It was probably a foregone conclusion Bob Dylan would be ranked number one, universally hailed for his great lyricism, but he owed a lot to Dave Van Ronk, who didn't make the list.  But Dave is in good company.  The only early folkies to make the list were Joni Mitchell, Robbie Robertson, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen.  Amazingly, not one of Crosby, Stills and Nash was mentioned.  I guess they thought Neil Young wrote all the songs. Where were these editors from -- Canada?

It's not just "one real problem," but a whole host of problems with this list, the most glaring of which is that it was sponsored by Apple.  How else to explain Taylor Swift and Kanye West?  I suppose this was a tip of the hat to today's teeny boppers who have vaulted these two to the top of Apple i-tune charts.

You begin to see that this list was more about demographics than anything else, but how to explain the omission of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, who co-wrote much of the Led Zeppelin discography.  Or, no mention of David Gilmour and Roger Waters who gave us the bulk of the Pink Floyd discography.  Eric Clapton, who along with Ginger Baker gave us the ground-breaking Cream, gave us a huge body of personal songs but similarly failed to make the list.  These are rock and roll giants.

The San Francisco sound was referenced only with the Grateful Dead.  No mention of Paul Kantner and Marty Balin who created Jefferson Airplane.  They were a bit of a thing at one time.  The Allman Brothers, which originally hailed from Jacksonville, but made their impact in San Francisco, similarly got no mention.  Current jam bands like the wildly popular Phish and Widespread Panic were also overlooked.  I guess the RS staff felt this sound was more about the music than it was the lyrics, so took a pass.

This would also explain why there isn't a single jazz or classical composer.  No Duke Ellington, Miles Davis or John Coltane.  You can forget Aaron Copeland or modern day composers like Steve Reich.  Instead you get Burt Bacharach and Hal David for their wistful tunes of the 70s which Andy Williams and Dionne Warwick sang, along with an obscure reference to Ellie Greenwhich and Jeff Barry, which even the staff writer seemed to indicate was a bit of a stretch.  You would think at least Rodgers and Hammerstein would get an honorable mention.

Among the odder notes, Stevie Nicks gets a nod, but what about the collaborative effort of Fleetwood Mac?  That's right, no Mick Fleetwood, much less Peter Green, and for my taste Christine McVie wrote much better songs than Stevie Nicks.  All the ground-breaking work of bands like John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers also goes unrecognized.

The other factor is that you obviously had to write songs in English to even be considered for this list.  The songwriting team behind Abba crept in at 100, but there isn't a single French artist on the list, nor any other European artist of note, other than Bjork, more noted for her wild outfits than her lyricism.  Not a single Brazilian or anyone from Central and South America, despite the profound influence Latin music has had on American mainstream music.  Only Bob Marley is mentioned from the Caribbean.

Make of it this list what you will, but it is hardly a fair representation of the great songwriters who have given us so much memorable music over the years.




Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Drill, Baby, Drill!




You may remember Sarah Palin's famous exhortation during the 2008 general election that the answer to all our economic woes was to open up the Arctic Circle to oil drilling.  Everyone was complaining about the skyrocketing gas prices at the pump, as Bush's "Ownership Society" was teetering on the edge of a housing market collapse.

In October, 2008, the proverbial sky fell, as did the oil prices, but still the Republicans were clamoring for more offshore oil leases and an oil pipeline from Canada.  After the new year, GOP legislators blamed the new President Obama for holding up the process with his pesky environmental regulations.  The belief was that all the President had to do was approve the Keystone XL pipeline and magically all these new jobs would appear, ignoring all the studies that failed to back up their projections.

One would think the BP Oil Spill in 2010 would have given Republicans pause, but no.  They still peddled their oil panacea and became ever more insistent that Obama approve the Keystone XL pipeline.  The price of oil slowly crept back up to $100 a barrel and the high gas pump prices became a campaign issue again in 2012.

The President had called for a new energy policy, but it stalled in Congress.  Still, his Stimulus Bill provided subsidies for solar and wind farms, as well as trading in cars and appliances for more energy-efficient ones in his much derided "Cash for Clunkers" program.  While Republicans attacked wind farms for killing birds, they seemed to have no problem with the rapid growth of fracking, which contaminated fresh water supplies.

There was this long-standing belief that if the price of oil got too high this would spur the so-called energy companies to explore alternative forms of energy.  Instead we saw the highly contentious rise of shale oil and gas production, which led to economic booms in North Dakota and Texas.  Canada exploited dirty tar sand oil, which it wanted to pump to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.  Royal Dutch Shell lobbied the White House to approve offshore oil exploration in the Arctic Circle of Alaska, with the Obama administration relenting earlier this year.

It doesn't seem to matter as oil prices are currently so low it isn't in Shell's interest to do anything more than peg potential sources, and hope that oil prices increase in the coming years.  Arthur Berman says not to get your hopes up, as there is currently such a glut of oil that it will be a long time before we see prices at $100 a barrel again.



When the going was good, everyone wanted to get in on the oil boom.  This even led to a reality show called Black Gold, which followed crews of roughnecks hoping to strike it rich like Jed Clampett.  All of the sudden oil was everywhere, leading many persons to believe that the idea of "peak oil" was a hoax.  However, Berman notes this is largely a misunderstanding of what "peak oil" means.

The term simply referred to easily accessible oil, and was first mentioned in 1956 by M. King Hubbert, when he estimated the amount of oil available based on extraction methods at the time.  Now we have fracking and deep-water oil drilling that allow so-called energy company to explore previously unreachable depths.  Of course, it comes at a price.  Berman estimates that to make these processes lucrative oil needs to be at about $90 a barrel.

So, why not explore alternative energy sources?  Berman sees solar and wind energy as representing too small a share of the overall energy picture and that there isn't the technology in place for any appreciable gain in the next ten years.  Unfortunately, this is the type of short-term thinking that puts us in these crises, rather than develop long-term strategies.  Royal Dutch Shell may call itself an "energy company" but it continues to put most of its effort into oil exploration.

The Obama administration has walked a thin line in promoting alternative energy sources while still offering concessions to the oil companies.  I suppose he thinks this buys him time, but there is nothing to indicate that the succeeding administration will have the same interest in alternative energy sources that he does.  To hear the GOP candidates, they would free up all federal land and offshore oil rights.  This despite the massive loss of jobs due to the oil glut.  Even Hillary has been lukewarm on the President's alternative energy strategy.

California solar farm
Oddly enough, the energy sectors that see an increase in job opportunities are solar and wind energy.  These two alternative energy providers added nearly 80,000 jobs between 2008 and 2012, and as of 2014 there are more than 173,000 solar jobs!  These are far more jobs than Keystone XL was ever projected to create.  There are also bio-fuels to consider and other sources of energy that would reduce our demand on oil.  Not to mention better efficient cars and appliances, and the increasing viability of electric transportation.  All fast growing industries.

Still, the Republican believe you can drill yourself out of any bad situation. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio both want to end a ban on oil drilling within a certain distance of the Florida Gulf Coast.  Bush also wants to open up more federal land to oil drilling.  If nothing else, these free market advocates should recognize that the market doesn't support increased drilling, but rather a shift toward alternative energy sources if you want to create more jobs.  But, this is what happens when you allow yourself to be controlled by oil companies.




Monday, August 24, 2015

The Unfinished Presidency




Some years back, I read Douglas Brinkley's biography of Jimmy Carter's administration, entitled The Unfinished Presidency.  Carter echoed this sentiment at a press conference last week announcing that he had cancer.   He noted that his biggest regret was not sending in a stronger detachment to free the American hostages in Tehran.  He felt a successful rescue operation would have saved his presidency.

The hostage crisis did weigh down his presidency, but it is hard to say if he would have survived a re-election bid with a faltering economy that left so many persons unemployed and inflation that was through the roof.  Together, they became the "misery index," which Reagan exploited during the 1980 campaign, portraying Carter's administration as a complete failure.  Of course, Carter couldn't be held fully to blame for the woeful economy, as he inherited a mess from the previous Nixon-Ford administration, but it seems Democratic presidents can only be held accountable for past economic sins.

To Carter's credit, he didn't leave the White House in shame, but held his head high and devoted himself body and spirit to Habitat for Humanity and The Carter Center. Whereas most presidents build libraries as memorials to themselves, Jimmy Carter created a Center with goals far grander than his own personal legacy, and he did it on a fraction of a budget than we see spent today for these lavish presidential shrines.  He has unquestionably done more to help lift people out of poverty and eradicate virulent diseases than any other former president has done.

You would have to devote several volumes to the work Carter has done since he left the White House, as he has been a very active man, devoting his energy to stalled peace agreements, whether invited to do so or not.  He frustrated Presidents with his behind the scenes negotiations, whether in Palestine or North Korea.  He particularly angered the H.W. Bush administration with his "meddling" in the Persian Gulf region in an attempt to avert war in 1991.  Many criticized Carter for his "shadow foreign diplomacy," which Brent Sowcroft felt violated the Logan Act.

However, Carter's greatest concern has been alleviating the misery in Africa and other under-developed regions of the world brought upon by guinea worm and other virulent pests that are virtually unheard of in the West.  He joked at his press conference that he would like to see the last guinea worm eradicated before he goes, a goal that is on the very near horizon.

Jimmy Carter is a man of deep faith, but unlike the Republicans we see running for president today, he believes that religion and politics don't mix, and strongly supports a separation between church and state.  He has been very critical of the increased role the Southern Baptist Convention has had in politics and split with the Convention over the matter, stating,

When our denominational leaders or any denominational leaders, Jewish or Catholic or Protestant, try to align our religious organizations with government and use the government's strength and power and influence and money to further our own faith, to me that subverts not only Christ's teachings but also the Constitution of the United States.

Even if Carter tried to separate church and state as president, he brought to the Oval Office the same evangelical zeal to create a foreign policy based on human rights.  He stumbled a bit on the war in Afghanistan, supporting the Jihadists in their battle with the Soviet Union, when he definitely would have been better advised not to do so.  However, what most persons bitterly remember was his decision to not send an American Olympic Team to Moscow in 1980.

In recent years, he has also been scolded for his position on Palestine, believing that Israel has essentially created an apartheid state.  His book on the subject was largely panned for his perceived naivety, or what Ethan Bronner described as a "Rip van Winkle feel to it."  But, Carter was not wrong in stating that the wall did more to stymie peace talks between Israel and Palestine and the negotiation of a two-state solution, which had eluded the previous Clinton administration.

It is hard to say whether the freeing of the American hostages in Iran would have won Carter a second term, but it is clear that he has been more successful is pushing his agenda as an ex-president than he ever was as president.  Carter had ruffled a lot of feathers within his own party, notably Ted Kennedy, who ran against him in the primaries in 1980, and extended a weak handshake when Carter secured the nomination.  He was subsequently crushed in the general election, the biggest electoral loss for an incumbent president.

At 90, Jimmy Carter has much to be proud of.  His presidential legacy is felt today in Obama's return to the former president's energy policy, even to the point of re-installing the solar panels on the White House roof, which Reagan had removed when he came to office.  How many years Former President Carter has left in him remains to be seen, but his legacy will be felt for decades to come.  He has every right to hold his head up high, as he sees many of his long-deferred initiatives finally come to pass.


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Seed Faith and the Church of the Almighty Dollar




John Oliver recently took on "Seed Faith" in a segment of his weekly news, conflating it with Prosperity Gospel, which apparently owes its roots to Oral Roberts.  The tele-evangelist became infamous for pleading to his television congregation to send in $8 million to save his university, saying that God would "call him home" if he didn't raise that money in three months.  I guess desperate times called for desperate measures.  However, ORU never got out of the hole, and as of 2007 was over $50 million in debt.

But, this isn't quite what Joel Osteen and other prosperity theologists are preaching these days.  They have amassed tremendous personal fortunes and espouse the idea that it is perfectly OK to be rich, and if you follow a few simple steps you can become more wealthy too.  Osteen is really more of a motivational speaker, along the lines of Tony Robbins, exhorting persons to take charge of their lives.  In itself it is not bad philosophy, but when coupled with religion it drifts across the line in Pastor Rick Henderson's view.

Preachers shouldn't be encouraging class warfare among their congregations, or between one congregation and another.  Some have audaciously claimed that Jesus wasn't born into poverty at all, and that we should ignore passages like that of Matthew 6:14 that stated, "You cannot serve both God and money."  For Kenneth Copeland and his wife Gloria this is an utterly preposterous notioon, as the two have built a fabulous life for themselves on the backs of their congregation.

John Oliver takes this Holy Roller couple, among others, to task for essentially extorting money out of their congregations.  Gloria goes so far as to encourage viewers to send in money to be healed from cancer, which one woman did only to find herself with untreatable stage four cancer in the end.  There is widespread belief among the most radical evangelical sects that persons don't need medicine, they need faith in God to heal themselves.  But, apparently this spiritual healing doesn't come cheap.  You are expected to donate heavily to achieve a certain level of faith to be "cancer free."  You would think the IRS would go after charlatans like this but as Oliver shows, the definition of "church" is so broad that you can virtually get away with murder in the name of God.

John Wesley healing the masses

Faith healing goes way back, and in it seems to be the origins of this Prosperity Gospel and Seed Faith, as you were expected to ante up for such spiritual blessings, holy water and ointments to cleanse your body once and for all.  In the old days, I suppose this was as good health care as most persons could hope to find, but by the and of the 18th century there were reliable vaccines like Jenner's small pox vaccine and numerous medicines available that could alleviate many illnesses.  Still, many persons turned to faith healers, especially for incurable diseases like cancer and tuberculosis.

However, it is hard to reconcile faith hailing in this day and age, when there are cures available, provided the cancer is detected early enough.  This is why cancer screenings, which Planned Parenthood provides, are so important.  Unfortunately, faith healers like Gloria Copeland still tells her parishioners that faith is all they need, and if they plant enough "seeds" in the church they can expect God to grant them complete remission.

What's worse is that these faith healers are advising parents to forego vaccines for their children, claiming that God will look after his children.  If not, Pat Robertson tells bereaved mothers that the kid may have turned out to be Hitler so God spared us that evil seed.

Compounding the problem are political candidates like Carly Fiorina, who should know better, decrying vaccine mandates to a hayseed crowd in Iowa four days ago.  She even wore a checked red and white shirt and low-rise jeans to make her case, looking like she came off the set of Oklahoma!  Most of the GOP candidates are against vaccine mandates.  Fortunately, the good Dr. Ben Carson believes strongly in vaccine mandates, even though he is a Seventh-Day Adventist.

It is literally like stepping back in time to hear these tele-evangelists.  They work on a largely archaic set of quasi-Biblical notions, discrediting science, medicine and for that matter all rational thought.  Yet, they use the modern-day technologies of television and the Internet to spread their messages among what appears to be a very large gullible audience that literally buys into these false prophets.  It doesn't matter how often these tele-evangelists are discredited, usually as a result of their own foul actions, they somehow find a way to reconnect with what's left of their followers.




Many of these congregations have become so vast that it takes a tremendous amount of money to support them and their enterprises.  They have expanded into universities and amusement parks to educate and entertain their faithful.  Jim Bakker's Heritage USA is no longer around.  It once drew 6 million visitors per year.  Jerry Falwell's Liberty University has become the mecca of religious conservatism in the country, attracting politicians and other renown figures to its bi-weekly mandatory convocations.  Liberty University even invited Bernie Sanders to speak to its students next month.  All this began with "seed money" and the belief that these contributions were going to something bigger, something far more important than just one's miserable life.

Of course, this isn't much different than those splendid Romanesque, Byzantine and Gothic churches of the past that similarly were trying to give their flocks something larger to aspire to.  If nothing else, a resplendent burial place for a town or city's most honored citizens.  Most of the early colleges and universities were faith-based.  If we are to believe David Barton, so too was Jefferson's University of Virginia. Barton, by the way, is an Oral Roberts alumnus, now parading as a "Dr." of history.

Religion imposes itself on us in so many ways.  Most of us become inured to it, but others want to believe there is something more out there that they haven't been able to reach in this earthly sphere.  So, we have tele-evangelists who prey on these people and find ever more clever means of extorting money from them to build their congregations, mega-churches and "parish houses," with private planes to boot.  If nothing else, these poor souls can live their lives vicariously through ministers like Creflo Dollar, who believes that a $70 million jet is necessary to properly spread his message globally, which seems to be mostly greed.

If there is a God, you would think he would put a stop to all this, because clearly this isn't found in any of his teachings.  Whether it be by flood or some other natural disaster, it seems it is time to remake the world along more simpler lines, just so we can be rid of these quacksalvers and two-bit charlatans who proclaim themselves to be messengers of God.







Monday, August 17, 2015

The Freewheelin' Donald Trump




There seems absolutely no getting away from this guy.  Chuck Todd tries to take on the Donald in a one-on-one interview that probably gives us the most unfiltered Trump yet.   To Chuck's credit, he challenges the real estate mogul on a number of premises, albeit ever so mildly.

I won't call them positions, since Donald is very careful to avoid taking a hard and fast stance on anything, like hedging his condemnation of Planned Parenthood by saying he only wants to cut the money for abortions.  When Todd presses him at the 5:30 mark as to whether it is worth shutting down the government over Planned Parenthood, Trump casually claims ignorance and says he has to look into the matter, citing wildly divergent figures as to the percentage of money earmarked for abortions.  Unfortunately, Todd could have verified the abortion figures for Trump, as it is readily available, but instead he leads Trump to discuss his plan to ride the world of ISIS.

For all the talk that Todd made Trump sweat, I don't see much sweating here.  What I did see was a man who is very quick on his feet as a real estate and entertainment mogul should be, but very short on facts.  Todd does ask the Donald who he seeks for military advice, resulting in Donald obviously reaching for names before coming up with Bolton and Jacobs, who he apparently listens to on television.  Todd clarifies by asking if Trump means John Bolton and Colonel Jack Jacobs and the Donald says yes.  Trump then rambles on about how he had cautioned leaders not to go into Iraq, but now that we've fucked things up we've got to do something about it, citing oil as the main means ISIS uses to fund its military operations.  Again, Todd chooses not to refute any of Trump's claims, even if General Ray Odierno called Trump out recently on the oil claim.

Sadly, Todd gives Trump a 40-minute platform to spout off on pretty much everything with only the occasional interjection to keep the hair piece relatively on track.  Trump's Iranian claims at the 17:30 mark defy all credulity but Chuck only asks, "what do you do on day one?" referencing Robert Gates who recently regarded it as a "flawed deal," but backs it anyway.  This just allows Donald to tell us how adroit he is at renegotiating contracts and that he would make this one so tough that Iran will wish they had never signed on in the first place.

But, Trump also spoke of his more charitable side, claiming that over the years he has given "hundreds of millions" to charities.  Here again, what he says doesn't add up, with Trump giving a measly $3.7 million to his own Foundation over the last 17 years, while his Foundation gave out a total of $6.7 million to charities in that same time frame.  Compare that to Mitt Romney, whom the Donald belittled, who gave $2.6 million to his church in 2011 alone.

I found myself a glutton for punishment and listened on. It is amazing to watch Trump as he actually accuses the President of stealing his ideas on how to fight ISIS.  For a President who "talks too much" he certainly blindsided everyone with his raid on the bin Laden compound in 2011.  Obama managed to keep that raid under his hat like he has just about every matter of national security.  The guy who talks too much is Trump, making claims that can't be substantiated and then brushing over them, like his "birther" allegations from four years ago, now claiming that Obama spent $4 million to hide his college transcripts.

Again, Todd lets Trump run with these allegations and then drift into what a great education he got at Wharton Business College at the University of Pennsylvania.  Funny thing is that Trump seemed to fly under the radar at this elite business school as there is no record of him excelling in his studies or extra-curricular activities.  Yet, he is obviously proud of his education in the interview and goes onto say how much this country needs "business geniuses" like himself.  Only he can keep big businesses like Nabisco in America.  At least at the 23:30 mark, Todd questioned Trump's seriously faulted notion that Mexico is killing us economically, because if this were the case why are there so many illegal immigrants crossing the border.  Donald just keeps repeating Nabisco, Nabisco, Nabisco.  It reminded me a little of the scene from Citizen Kane when old man Kane keeps repeating Rosebud, but Trump wheels on a dime, claiming that Mexico is purposely devaluing its peso to lure American businesses.

As you get to the 26-minute mark you realize that Trump's greatest strength is his ability not to get pinned down.  Todd briefly had the Donald on the ropes, but Todd stumbled a bit, and gave the artful dodger an opening.  Trump proceeded to school Todd on currency devaluation.  Realizing that he lost his train of thought, Todd decided to reach into his "grab bag" and pull out "transparency" and "Edward Snowden" for Donald to foment on.

The funniest item was "minimum wage."  In Trump's America we won't even have to worry about that anymore because he will bring so many jobs back from China and Mexico that wages will  increase automatically, although he wouldn't go so far as to favor a rise in the minimum wage, citing "corporate inversion."   This has more to do with taxes than it does wages, but Donald easily conflated the two.  Todd didn't even bat an eyelash, clearly under Trump's spell by this point.

By the 29-minute mark you just want this to end, but Todd brings up DC Statehood, which allows the Donald to plug his Old Post Office Hotel in DC while totally avoiding the subject.

Todd reaches into his grab bag again and asks Donald when he last thought America was great.  Naturally, Trump says during Reagan.  However, this appears to be a set up as Todd produces a full-page ad Trump took out in 1987 chastising American leaders for allowing Japan and China to take over our industries.  Yet again, the slippery eel won't let himself get reeled in, saying it wasn't Reagan's fault and that he set an "excellent tone" for the country.  Of course this is a tone only he can set again, with the help of billionaire investors like Carl Icahn, who he would bring on board in his administration, saying he told Carl he "won't have these babies negotiate for us.  You are going to take over China, and I'll throw in Japan."  Wow!

Chuck finally legitimately asks, "are we all just a part of your reality show?"  Trump shrugs off the question with a smile, telling us how he is going to make America #1 again, in education, in business, you name it.  But, heh, his name sells, telling Chuck he will probably have his highest ratings as the result of his appearance.

Maybe no one can pin down Donald.  He's just too elusive for any mere mortal to challenge on stage.   It seems the only ones capable of sizing him up are his fellow billionaires.  So here's Warren Buffett assessing Trump's chances in 2016.


Sunday, August 16, 2015

Skin in the game




We were always told that Jeb was the smart one, and that somehow we got saddled with the dumb one in the White House.  Hearing these recent comments, it doesn't seem like either of the Bush brothers are very bright.

It's tough having to follow your brother, especially when he wasn't the most popular president.  Dubya made some really dumb decisions, especially in Iraq.  You would think Jeb would try to distance himself from the war, but instead he tries to lay the blame at Hillary's feet, which led to a whirlwind of responses, including the Donald, who called Jeb's "skin in the game" comment one of the dumbest statements ever.

General Odierno, who oversaw the Iraqi surge, also called out Jeb on his claim that the Obama administration is to blame for ISIS, noting that the pullout was agreed to back in 2008.  There was never any plan to leave troops in Iraq, despite what Robert Gates and Leon Panetta have said in their books.



The Venn diagram is also interesting because it circles two key figures, John Negroponte and Paul Wolfowitz, who were active proponents of the Iraq war and served in the Reagan, Pere Bush and Dubya Bush administrations.  Of course, you can add other figures like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who can be traced back to the Nixon and Ford administrations.  Jeb has taken Wolfowitz as a foreign policy adviser.

ISIS is not something that appeared out of thin air.  The US was fighting insurgency elements throughout the Iraq War, drawn from all over the Muslim world.  The Iraq and Afghan wars were prime recruiting grounds.  While allied armed forces were able to keep these rebel groups more or less in check, the Iraqi military has had much more difficulties, largely because there appears to be a lack of will within its own army.  This was expected, which is why the US is now giving the Iraqi military logistical support and providing air cover.



Jeb, like most Republicans, doesn't think this is enough.  Even Trump wants to put troops on the ground to cut access to oil wells by ISIS.  General Odierno also scolded Trump, noting that oil revenues amount to a small fraction of ISIS revenue.  Principally, they draw their money by extorting local residents and stealing from banks, raking in about $1 billion per year.  I guess that's how they can afford all those Toyota Hiluxes, you see them parading through each town they capture.

It seems that Trump has taken a page from Rand Paul, insisting that Republicans own up to their involvement in Iraq.  Paul was pilloried by the conservative press and fellow candidates for his comments back in May, but it seems that Trump struck a nerve in Iowa by chastising Jeb for trying to defend the Iraq War and claiming that the US had no "skin in the game," reminding Jeb of all the money and lives lost in Iraq.

Maybe it was just the way Jeb said it that irked the Donald, as he would like to see American ground forces in Iraq as well. Trump seems to be able to have his cake and eat it too, while Jeb just ends up with pie in his face.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The President's Play List




Take from it what you will, and many political pundits and comics are, the President released his music playlist for the summer, along with his reading list.  August is the big get away for 44.  Not much going on in Congress except the usual hemming and hawing over how to stop the executive order happy President, who just recently had an embassy re-opened in Cuba.  I'm surprised there's not any music from Buena Vista Social Club on that playlist, but there is Sonoro Crruseles, a salsa band that originated from Columbia, which had a big hit with Al Son de los Cueros.  Maybe the President is working on some new moves for this fall.

The reading list is mostly fiction, but he has included Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. It came out a few years ago to much fanfare.  There is also the more recent The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert, that explores the human element in global warming.  Not very light reading, and at nearly 3000 pages all together, that's a lot of ground to cover in one month, but then maybe he has already started.

It doesn't seem like he wants to tackle any of the presidential candidate books, of which there are many.  I would have thought he would got a kick out of Ted Cruz's impressions of Cuba, but some aide will probably fill him in on it.  Of course, he can always pick up a copy of Trump's The Art of the Deal, which the orange-haired wonder has been promoting heavily on his campaign tour.  The Donald claims the Obama administration would have been well advised to read it before entering into negotiations with Iran.  What took the State Department team months, Trump would have done it in a matter of days and got a 100 times better deal to boot.

But, I imagine the Big O wants to escape all this overblown rhetoric on Martha's Vineyard, which has become his yearly late summer retreat.   He can drown it all out with Hot Fun in the Summertime, while conservative bloggers estimate how much his vacations are costing taxpayers.


Soy Cuba




John Kerry gave an excellent speech to re-open the US Embassy in Cuba, showing an empathy long overdue toward the people of this island nation, reference to Jose Marti, and even re-capping his speech in Spanish. However, I imagine most Cubans see this as a mixed blessing.  They are glad to see some kind of accord reached in this long-running feud, but as Kerry noted more than 80 per cent of Cubans have been born after the revolution, so in that sense they are Castro's children.

For Cuban-Americans, especially those who seek political office, this is a bitter pill they refuse to swallow.  Marco Rubio was busy denouncing the event as it was taking place, with his comments scrolling across the bottom ticker of the CNN screen, as Fox covered the event simultaneously.   Marco is too young to remember the American flag being taken down in 1961.  He is the son of emigrees who fled Cuba in the wake of the revolution.

Of course, what he and other conservatives fail to note is that Batiste's regime was the principal reason for that revolution, and that it was the US that refused to recognize the new government in Havana, and that the awful Bay of Pigs incident orchestrated under the Kennedy administration turned Cuba irrevocably toward the Soviet Union.  This is what led to those 13 days in October, when the whole world stood on the edge of a nuclear war.

A couple films stand out from that era.  This first is a documentary entitled Cuban Story, narrated by Errol Flynn, which captured the moment the Revolution swept into Havana in 1959.  The second is a Soviet film made by Mikhail Kalatozov in 1964, entitled Soy Cuba, which tells the story of Cuba through a variety of characters in visually stunning black and white.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many expected the Castro government to collapse as well, but with extensive ties throughout Latin America and renewed trade relations with European countries and Canada, Cuba moved forward, much to the chagrin of the United States.  There was a golden opportunity for rapprochement in 1995, but the US Congress, in the hands of the Republicans, passed the notorious Helms-Burton Act in 1996, pulling an iron curtain down between the two nations.  Clinton, who signed that legislation, softened the policy in 1998 after Pope John Paul II visited the country, but Republicans were non-plussed and strengthened those economic sanctions again when Bush became President in 2001.

That's where we've stood for the past 15 years until yesterday.  What began as a handshake between Obama and Raul Castro at the 2014 World Cup in South Africa, has grown into a diplomatic thaw that has seen an ease in travel restrictions and other policies that the President can address himself, including the re-opening of the embassy to renew formal relations.  The only hitch is that Congress has the right to approve the ambassador, and so Jeffrey DeLaurentis will most likely remain the Charge d'Affaires at the US Embassy throughout Obama's term.

Through it all, the Vatican has acted as a facilitator, with Pope Francis taking a major role the past year.  He will be visiting both Cuba and the United States in September, as Pope John Paul II did in 1998, bringing this diplomatic accord full circle.

One can only hope that this gives American conservatives time to reconsider their position on Cuba.  After all, Fidel Castro is 89, and his brother Raul, the current President, is 84, which means their time is almost over.  What happens to Cuba afterward remains to be seen, but rapprochement is obviously the best course, not continued harsh sanctions as Marco Rubio and other Republican presidential candidates have vowed should anyone of them be elected.

After all, we renewed diplomatic and economic ties with Vietnam 20 years ago, as John Kerry noted in his speech.  Vietnam is still a single-party communist state, yet Republican law makers would lead us to believe that we can't have relations with Cuba until the country renounces its communism.

My guess is that Republicans will allow this issue to drift into the background of the presidential campaign, as most Americans favor rapprochement.  Travel to Cuba has increased 35 per cent since restrictions were lifted this past Spring, and most likely will continue to increase as Americans check out their close neighbor to the South, and find it isn't a seething cauldron of anti-American sentiments.  In fact, you can even see the infamous missiles at the military exhibit at Fortress Morro Cabana in Havana.


Friday, August 14, 2015

Where's Hillary?




I have to wonder if Hillary Clinton is seriously regretting having stepped down from the Senate to serve as Obama's Secretary of State.  I think it would have been a whole lot easier for her to run as President as a sitting Senator than it has been as a former Sec. of State, especially with the faux e-mail and Bengazi scandals hanging over her head.  I suppose at the time it seemed like a plum position to be the head of the state department, but she really didn't do much in the role.

Obama was mostly concerned with the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Robert Gates was the front man here, not Hillary.  What initiatives Obama pursued with Russia were largely his own doing, since Hillary was persona non grata in Moscow with her outspoken comments on Putin.  You have to wonder if she was even in the loop when it came to important policy decision making, like choosing to take out Osama bin Laden.  In the first half of his tenure, Obama appeared to rely more on Joe Biden for FP advice than he did Hillary Clinton.

After vacillating for what seemed an exceedingly long time, Hillary finally decided to run for President. A number of persons were considering runs, but waited to see what Hillary wanted to do.  She rolled out her campaign about as effectively as the Obama administration rolled out its health insurance exchanges, and now finds herself having to play catch up with a man her campaign staff obviously dismissed as a fluke.

Bernie Sanders now leads her by a substantial margin in New Hampshire polls, and you figure he has the campaign forces in place to do well in the Iowa caucuses.  He has been drawing big crowds wherever he goes, because unlike Hillary he has something to say, and has been saying it loudly.  His attack on the Billionaire Class, Big Banks, and corrupt campaign laws is resonating with the Democratic base.  On top of that, he continues to introduce legislation in the Senate that bolsters his arguments.  It doesn't matter if these bills get buried in committees.  To this point, Hillary has only offered a faint echo of Sanders on the campaign trail.

This is leading some Democrats to start considering alternatives, as they are not fully comfortable with a 74-year-old Howard Beale as their only real alternative to Hillary.  The other choices: Jim Webb, Martin O'Malley and Lincoln Chaffee haven't made any impact on the Democratic electorate.  To make matters worse Black Lives Matter has been trolling Democratic campaigns, in some cases hijacking scheduled speeches, like Bernie's in Seattle.  Since then Bernie has made amends with BLM and even invited the same two activists to headline his campaign stop in Los Angeles. 



Meanwhile, Hillary has been more difficult to spot on the campaign trail than Waldo, seemingly content to ride out the summer and wait till Fall to mount her campaign in full force.  This has led some pundits to question her motivation and many Democrats to question her commitment.  We now see attempts to draft Joe Biden, John Kerry and even Al Gore.  That's right, Mr. Green.

Sean Illing makes a case for the former Clinton vice-president in this Salon article, but how much stature does Al really have anymore?  I think most Democrats would see him the same way Republicans do Jeb Bush, as a relic of the past.  Democrats want new leadership, not another figure from the Clinton era, which is why so many voted for Obama in 2008 and not Hillary Clinton.

With Hillary taking so long to decide, younger candidates who would have been wise to declare this past Spring or even last Fall in order to make their names known to a wider electorate have too little time now to mount a serious challenge in New Hampshire and Iowa, less than 6 months away.  About the only youngish candidate with name recognition is Elizabeth Warren and she has chosen not to run.  Like it or not, Democrats look like they are stuck with Hillary and Bernie, unless maybe Oprah decided to run for President.

It's not like they are bad choices.  Looking at the clown car of Republican candidates, I would take Hillary or Bernie over any GOP candidate, but it would be nice to have more of a choice.  Martin O'Malley was long regarded as a potential liberal force but so far has failed to materialize on the campaign trail.  He too found himself trolled by Black Lives Matter, and didn't come out the better for it.  At 74, Bernie surprisingly seems the most spry and responsive of all the Democratic candidates, as seen in his LA rally.  It's Hillary who looks old.  She has to start hitting the trail, show some energy, not let these faux scandals drag her down.

It's been a strange summer, that's for sure.   Maybe Jim Webb will offer something more than just his purple hearts and tattoos?  Maybe Martin O'Malley will find his voice?  Who the hell is Lincoln Chaffee anyway?  Compared to the Republican campaign, the Democratic campaign is all Bernie at this point, and Hillary better have something big planned for the Fall or otherwise it could be a very long campaign for her.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Say it ain't so, Chuck!




Who says all Jews are against this nuclear treaty?  Chuck Schumer must have had to do a double take seeing these anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews outside his Manhattan office this week.  For whatever reasons of his own, and I hope it isn't for the sake of Israel, Schumer has decided to come down against the treaty.  Gary Samore, who was a principal figure in the negotiations, says it is a shame that the Senate vote is shaping up to be a purely partisan vote with little thought put into the agreement itself.  John Kerry has been even more blunt, threatening all kinds of dire consequences if Congress rejects the deal.

Fortunately, for the White House, Schumer is the lone Democrat to publicly state his opposition to the deal.  Other Democrats who have been sitting on the fence now seem willing to support the White House on Iran, but Schumer hasn't ruled out making a pitch of his own to convince these Democratic senators to join him and the Republicans.  After all, he is the prospective Democratic Senate Leader.

It is really a shame that both sides can't come to a pragmatic solution to the standoff with the White House willing to give some latitude to Congress when it comes to enforcement of the agreement, as Samore noted.  But, the WH is convinced that Republicans don't want to deal at all, preferring to play hardball, so Team Obama's aim is to make sure Mitch McConnell doesn't get the 13 Democrats he needs to override a Presidential veto.

Nothing new here.  This is the way it has been for virtually every bill, authorization and nomination the White House has tried to push through the Senate.  One of the rare times Obama found himself in agreement with Republicans was over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, only to find himself at odds with Democrats.  He probably hoped for a little quid pro quo on Iran but none is forthcoming.  The Republicans have dug in their heels largely because they made it into a big campaign issue and they can't very well back down now, otherwise they would be conceding even more ground to the human hair piece who has hijacked the Republican presidential campaign.

Nahal Toosi wrote a good piece for Politico showing that polls are split on the issue, largely dependent on how the question is framed.  An Economist poll found 51 per cent of Americans in favor, whereas a Qunnipac poll found 57 per cent of Americans against the deal.  David Brooks speciously chose to reference a Wall Street Journal poll that found only 1/3 of Americans in favor of the agreement, but what he failed to note was that only 1/3 were against it, and the other 1/3 didn't know enough to offer an opinion.

To some degree the White House is guilty of not doing enough early on to ease Congressional Republicans' fears over the deal.  Of course, it doesn't help when you had Bibi Netanyahu shouting to everyone within earshot how awful the idea was to begin with, but the WH could have done more outreach here.  They could have brought in Israeli leaders who support the deal, making it known that Netanyahu speaks mostly for himself and his right-wing supporters.  Instead, you have to go digging in blogs to find links to the Haaretz article above.

In the end, the White House will probably win this battle, but at what price?  It will most assuredly remain a fiery campaign issue, as virtually all the GOP candidates have come down against it.  Only Rand Paul has tentatively given his support for it, but most likely will join Republicans against the deal in the upcoming vote.  After all, he signed that ridiculous open letter Tom Cotton penned some months back.

As for Schumer, he seems to be walking a very fine line here.  He has kept his opposition relatively muted.  It doesn't seem he wants to start a war within the Democratic Party, especially with so much at stake in next year's elections.  He saw what that got Mary Landrieu, who chose to draw a line on Keystone XL at the end of last year, only to come up one vote short.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

"This dirty little abortion of an imperium"




Our Man in Charleston sounds like a very interesting new book, following the years of Robert Bunch, who served as Her Majesty's consul in Charleston before and during the Civil War.  It doesn't sound like Bunch had very many kind things to say about the South, as he strongly advised Palmerston not to recognize the Confederacy, despite pressure from the British press and textile industry to do so.  Any readers?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

My Least Favorite Life




One of the few bright spots in this year's incarnation of True Detective was Lera Lynn, appearing as the lone chanteuse in a dive bar on the edge of town.  Her weary country ballads underscored the episodes.  You never quite figured out what she was doing playing to a mostly empty room, but it fit the emptiness of the main characters as they struggled to come to terms with the world that was caving in on them.

As with the first season, Nic Pizzolatto takes himself far too seriously, wallowing in a corrupt industrial town somewhere south of LA that is on the edge of a big land deal that may bring it back to life.  Good premise, but the characters are mostly wrapped up in their own muddled lives, forced into action at rare moments, and even then begrudgingly, as if trying to kick an old dog to life. Lera's My Least Favorite Life summed up the situation pretty well.

Frank seemed to have everything lined up for the big score only to learn that his partner Ben Caspere had been killed and there was no accounting for his three million dollars, which Ben was taking care of.  Tough break, as it forced Frank to go back to being a two-bit gangster, which he thought he had put behind him, no longer able to afford the spacious modern California house that evoked the 60s Golden era.  It was back to a bungalow and all the shady deals as Frank tried to regain his control of the Vinci underworld.

In the hands of a more deft writer this might have amounted to something, but Pizzolatto was out of his realm, drawing more on LA Noir from the 30s to give his series what he probably felt was a timeless seediness.  He did seem to take Raymond Chandler to heart and focus more on the mise en scene than a tightly wound plot, which was more common in British mysteries of that era.  Sadly, Nic got lost in all these trappings and by the time he finally came to his penultimate episode, I simply didn't care anymore.

Like the limited action, the dialog also seemed forced, as if each character carefully formed each word from some deep dark hole of despair from which these utterings barely escape his or her lips.  This was most apparent in Ray Velcoro, Frank's paid cop, who struggled with each and every word as if it would be his last.  It was like watching a dog slowly breath its last breath after being run over by a car.

To Nic's credit, he offered us a female protagonist, but she had no less demons than her male counterparts, as she tried to come to terms with having been raped as a child.  One of the many side stories that seemed to get lost in the shuffle.  Ani was the daughter of a New Age guru, oddly played by David Morse.  Her full name was Antigone.  Her sister was Athena, if I remember correctly.  It seemed like their father saw a lot in them at one time, but Ani ended up becoming a cop and Athena a prostitute.  So much for all the spiritualism of the 60s, although these two women were most likely born in the 80s.

Whenever things began to drag we could always count on another ballad from Lera Lynn, played almost exclusively to Frank and Ray, splitting a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label.  Here she is singing Church in Ruins.  Frank tried to put things in perspective while Ray smoldered in all his pent-up rage, gulping down the shots as if the whiskey would drown his life out forever.

If these characters weren't already incongruous enough, Pizzolatto added one more lost soul into the mix in the form of a motorcycle cop battling his demons from the Iraq War.  Even though he had a deeply scared abdomen to indicate some tragic event in the desert, it was an affair with a fellow soldier that haunted him the most.  Poor Paul wasn't ready to come to terms with his homosexual desires.  He had this cute Hispanic girlfriend he was hoping to get more serious with, but he just couldn't shake these visions of Miguel, especially when he runs into him again at a dirt bike rally, which as it turns out wasn't coincidental.

Nothing is in Pizzolatto's dark world.  Everything is fated, especially when he writes the last episode first.  What you see in the previous episodes is meant largely to obscure the main theme, which becomes snarled in all these tangled story lines, to be extracted in the end as if from the hands of a magician.  The only problem is that Nic had done this last year so avid viewers were ready this time around, picking up the incidental characters and pretty much predicting the outcome two, three, even four episodes in advance.  He should have at least surprised us a little with something completely out of left field, like maybe Lera Lynn's character was the daughter of the jewelers, and that the songs offered tell-tale clues if anyone had ever bothered to listen to her.  Instead, we get some secretary from episode three, who we barely noticed, but Nic was certain to remind us in episode seven.

Anyway, what's done is done, and it is time to move on.  For Lera, her future looks bright now that she's gotten all this exposure.  While not exactly joyful, she does offer a more optimistic note in her own music, like Out to Sea, joined by the wonderful Rosanne Cash.


Monday, August 10, 2015

Remembering Hiroshima




Most choose to remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki in silence, but in Russia, Sergei Naryshkin, the speaker of the Duma has called for an international tribunal to assess the full impact of the bombings.  I guess he figures if Russia continues to be held to blame for war crimes committed by the Soviet Union during World War II, then the US should be made to answer for its war crimes.

Of course, Oliver Stone did indict the United States for this cataclysmic event and many others in his "Untold History of the United States," but that didn't seem to generate a great amount of interest for the Showtime series a couple years back.  In Stone's mind, Truman already had Japan at his feet and there was no reason to drop the bombs.  The ulterior motive was to keep the Soviet Union out of Japan, the whole Pacific Rim for that matter, and what better way than to show the full fury of the United States arsenal.

Stone primarily cited American Prometheus, a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, who at one point advocated limited nuclear war, but came to regret it.  Apparently, Oppenheimer had sold the Truman administration on the idea whether he wanted to or not.  At the time, it was thought that fallout of radiation of one of the bombs would be quite limited.  It was only after the bombing of Japan that scientists understood the full impact of an atomic bomb.

Of course, Japan was no saint itself during World War II. an estimated 15-20 million Chinese died, largely at the hands of Japan.  The battle over Manchuria was brutal beyond belief, making the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima pale by comparison.  Not that it necessarily factored into Truman's decision, but has been used to defend his action.

I don't know what good an international tribunal would do other than to reopen the many scars left by the war.  In its own quiet way, Japan has come to terms with these bombings, which includes the fire bombing of Tokyo. and I don't think would be very anxious to re-open this subject.  The US and Japan have become strong allies in the decades since.  American presence is a sore point at Okinawa, but with ongoing tensions with North Korea is tolerated by the government.

For the Soviet Union, the surrender of Emperor Hirohito to the United States was a lost opportunity to expand its influence deep into the Pacific Rim.  The USSR did influence events in China after the war, but even here fell into bitter conflict with the new communist government, resulting in tensions along the meandering border for decades.  However, Russia has gone out of its way to repair ties with China in the years since the breakdown of the Soviet Union.

One cannot say the same for relations between Russia and Japan, which is why it is odd that Mr. Naryshkin would show so much sympathy for Japan's 70 year-old tragedy.  Maybe it is a form or rapprochement, as Russia tries to counter the current negotiations going on between the US and Pacific Rim nations in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  However, I doubt it has little to do with the tragedy itself.

Crazy like a fox




There are any number of theories on what has transpired over the last few days since the Battle Royale, the most prevalent one being that Fox sucker punched Donald Trump.  This is quite plausible since Roger Ailes has only been in the news game for ratings and he saw the rating bonanza Trump could give the first debate and how much he could milk the audience in the weeks before the debate.  So, all the lovey-dovey we saw between Fox anchors and Donald Trump leading up to the debate was no more than Fox attaching itself to Donald Trump's meteoric rise in the polls, at least one of which Fox conducts itself, so that it would draw in significantly more viewers for the debate.

After all, Trump fed right into the sentiments of a large part of the Fox audience with his bellicose rhetoric, racial and gender stereotypes.  To be fair, there were a few Fox analysts, like Charles Krauthammer and Mark Levin, who questioned Trump, but for all we know this was just part of the game.  The only one not in on it would have been Sean Hannity, which Ailes pretty much plays as the fool anyway.  Hannity lent his unabashed support for Trump like he did Cliven Bundy last year, which also briefly gave Fox a ratings bonanza in the so-called "Sagebrush Rebellion" with the Bureau of Land Management.

You might say that Sean Hannity is the Fox gatekeeper of this crowd of wackos, as John McCain calls them, the fringe audience of Fox.  The pugnacious pundit relishes this role, adopting causes far to the right of the political spectrum, and as long as he draws in the ratings to support his show Roger Ailes is fine with it.  Roger is able to keep Sean on a relatively long leash, unlike Glenn Beck, who snapped at until it broke, running off  to create his own faux news network available over the Internet.



In this scenario, Ailes milked the Trump phenomenon right up to the debate.  The little fracas between Rupert Murdoch and him was probably staged as well.  We are led to believe Trump was too caught up in himself to realize he was being used.  He gladly went on Fox 31 times over a three-month period (May 1 - July 31), far more than any other presidential candidate. The next closest was Jeb Bush with 7 appearances, according to Vox.

For Trump this was all the advertising he needed.  He was literally on the network two to three times per week, with these stories picked up by other news media and spread throughout the Internet.  It was like a wildfire. we were all consumed by Trump news 24/7.  It seemed like no one was able to shy away from it, resulting in the most watched primary debate ever - an estimated 24 million viewers.

We all know Ailes is a very clever fox, but this was easily a stunt that could have backfired on him.  After all, Trump received almost universal condemnation outside of the Tea Party during this unexpected run.  In turn, he lashed out against everyone from Hispanics to women to the media establishment, Fox included.  If we are to believe this scenario, Ailes didn't sweat because he knew the spectacle was too great for anyone not to tune in.  He just sat on his proverbial porch rocker and watched it all play out like he expected it would.

He even had an ace in the hole in Megyn Kelly.  Her question on misogyny directed to Donald Trump was the biggest takeaway from the debate.  It is all every news network has talked about in the days since, made even more spectacular by Trump's apparent anger over the maliciousness of the question.  Many pundits have even proclaimed Megyn the winner of the debate, as Trump has acted exactly as she described in her very leading question.

Everyone is now expecting the polls to show a sharp drop in Trump's numbers.  You don't mess with Megyn!  But,  I'm not so sure that will be the case.  Trump is appealing directly to the angry white male voter, presumed voter anyway, and I don't think there will be much love for Megyn among this demographic, who pretty much see women in the same way context Trump does with "blood coming out of her ... wherever."  True, Trump no longer has a chance at the Republican nomination, not that he ever did, but he will remain the spoiler in this very crowded field.



Ironically, Carly Fiorina seems to have raised herself from virtual obscurity thanks to a good "Happy Hour Debate" performance that is now garnering her more attention and may vault her into the Top Ten.  Here is a businessperson with a dubious track record much like Trump.  She isn't as fabulously wealthy as he is, but she has an estimated net worth in the Mitt Romney range and was ranked by Forbes as the 51st most powerful woman in the country in 2010, at the time she ran against Barbara Boxer for the California US Senate seat.  Will Fox seize on her next?

She would be wise not to take the bait, if the predicted Fall of Trump is any indication.  She seems to be serious about her bid for the Presidency, whereas I'm still not convinced Trump ever has been.  In fact, I wonder who is using who here?

Trump has always been about projecting his brand name.  While it has taken a bit of a hit with some of his more outlandish statements on the campaign trail, he seems to be trying to project his brand to a whole new market, no longer content with the crowd that frequents his hotels and casinos and buys his brand name clothing.  It looks like he wants the redneck market, whether it be in the South, the West, the Midwest or wherever.



Lately, he has been going around with a red trucker hat with the slogan "Make America Great Again," which feeds right into the sentiments of this demographic group that sees itself as disenfranchised from the American mainstream.   These persons express a lot of pity in themselves, as if America has left them behind and there is no one to champion their cause.  They flirted with Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee but what they want is someone successful, someone who will take their complaints to the next level, and they firmly believe they have found him in Donald Trump.

Trump knew full well this is Hannity's audience, and a large part of the Fox network audience.  He had nothing else to do this summer, so "heh, why not run for President?"  I can imagine him saying "If I can scrounge up enough supporters I can get access to the Republican National Committee data base with records on 250 million voting Americans."  If you are looking to expand your brand name, this is a virtual gold mine.  So, Trump donned his red cap and went to work along the border, knowing that nothing stirs these rednecks more than immigration.  He seized on the issue like he did the birther issue four years ago, and ran with it like none of the other candidates had yet to do.  He wasn't the least bit afraid to say the most outlandish, unsupportable things, because he knew this audience wouldn't fact check him as they firmly believe Mexico is trying to take over our country.

What does it matter if he bombed at the debate?  He knew he probably would anyway.  It isn't his type of gig.  Trump never likes to get questioned.  He went too far in attacking Megyn Kelly afterward, but for all we know that may be part of his strategy.  After all, he disparaged the reigning Miss Universe when she had the audacity to criticize him for his immigration comments.  So what if he lost Univision.  You can have Fox too.  "I got all I wanted out of them anyway, just like I did Atlantic City," you can hear him saying.

I wouldn't exactly call it a Clash of Titans, but you have media moguls squaring off against an entertainment king in front of a green screen they both know very well.  They can have whatever images they want projected on them afterward.  For Roger, just like Donald, these campaigns are nothing more than political reality shows.  Donald put it even more bluntly, politics is transactional, which he said before the debate.  He has no stake in this election other than what he can get for himself.