Saturday, March 30, 2013

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Third Term Trap

Speaking of Thomas Nast, here is a political cartoon, from an 1875 edition of Harper's Weekly, depicting an attempt to lure U.S. Grant into running for a third term.  Hard to believe Grant was still that popular after all the scandals which plagued his administration.  Apparently, Nast was the first to use the elephant to symbolize the Republicans, and he used it extensively in his political cartoons.  Here is a broader sampling of his work.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Big Gulp

In the latest uproar over banning assault weapons, Wayne La Pierre accuses Mayor Bloomberg of trying to buy the American people.  Just in case you are curious the NRA has an annual operating budget of over $200 million, paying La Pierre a cool million for his efforts to "defend" the second amendment.  That's nearly 20 times the amount Bloomberg has pledged to push for assault weapon bans around the country.

Recently, we saw the ever resilient "Mama Grizzly" teeing off on Bloomberg's attempt at a Big Gulp ban in New York, proudly slurping from one of these half-gallon cups at a CPAC rally.  The Mississippi legislature followed suit by not only banning such attempted bans, but barring local governments from requiring nutritional information be posted at restaurants.  This from perhaps the most obese state in the nation, with the highest count of Type 2 diabetes.

These and many other issues have put the Republican party outside the mainstream, leading Andrew Kohut to speculate that the Republicans could face a major backlash in the 2014 midterms.  The only thing that appears to save them from total annihilation are sizable voting blocks in the deep South and large pockets in the Mountain West and Midwest, but it isn't anywhere near enough support to carry them in a national presidential election, as they found out in 2012, or even hold onto key House seats, judging by Elizabeth Colbert Busch's surprising popularity in South Carolina.

The Republican Party's response to this major electoral shift is a $10 million ad campaign aimed at potential Hispanic voters and better polling data so that they can more properly assess the political landscape.  However, judging by the blurbs that came out of CPAC this month it doesn't sound like the GOP is doing any major soul searching, just looking for new ways to sell their "brand."

Lalo Alcaraz 2013
The irony of course is that the GOP has no problem legislating morality when it comes to putting forward federal amendments against abortion and gay marriage, introducing "intelligent design" into high school curricula,and banning contentious books in local libraries. But, don't take away my gun or big gulp or there will be hell to pay!

Monday, March 25, 2013

A not so clear but very present danger

There's no question Homeland has reached a broad audience, including the President it seems.  Bill Clinton apparently brags that he turned President Obama onto the show.  But, after watching the first season over a long weekend I have to wonder what Smokin' Joe Biden thinks of the Showtime series, as it is the Vice-President, amiably played by Jamey Sheridan, who comes across as the "bad guy" in this elaborate spy thriller.

While the creative team credits an Israeli television series, Prisoners of War, as its inspiration, it seems The Manchurian Candidate lurks in the back of their minds.  The story revolves around a American POW that isn't quite the returning hero he seems, but to the writers' credit there are so many compelling twists and turns in this series that you soon forget the link.

Homeland plays out more like a 12-part movie than a serial, with each episode dovetailing into the next, as we watch Carrie Mathison, a feisty CIA agent, try to figure out the next strike of a notorious al Qaeda leader, Abu Nazir.  All she has initially to go on is a tip from an Iraqi informant that an American prisoner has turned and Nazir plans to use him.  Lo and behold, Sgt. Brody pitches up 10 months later in Virginia, having been found by a Delta team on a raid deep in enemy territory.

While the show delves deeply into the domestic lives of all the characters, like the Israeli television series, the creators ratchet it up several notches by indulging in gratuitous sex and creating a tremendous amount of suspense, as you would expect from Showtime.   However, the writers also create a great sense of ambiguity and moral uncertainty, all too often missing from such shows.

Nazir isn't a faceless terrorist, but a compelling figure explored mostly through a series of flashbacks as we learn about Brody's eight years in captivity.  Damian Lewis, with his shock of red hair and pale blue eyes, embodies his role as the "good sergeant."  The CIA agents are flawed characters, but steadfast in their belief they are serving the greater good of the country.  Claire Danes is virtually unrecognizable as the bi-polar Claire who painfully breaks down during the course of the first season in her obsessive quest to foil Nazir's plot.  But, my favorite character is Saul Berenson, impeccably played by Mandy Patinkin, who gives the show its gravitas.

There is an interesting aside in the last episode where Sgt. Brody equates the American Civil War with the Jihad being waged on America, only with a decidedly different set of allusions.  I think the creators are trying to show how this pernicious War on Terror has driven the country apart, using the concept of "Homeland" both in the literal and allegorical sense of the word.  I give the writers a lot of credit for using television to expand on this subject rather than create just another forensics series.

Like so many spy thrillers these days, Homeland has its CIA consultants and aims for a high degree of verisimilitude, even though the writers appear to stretch credulity at times with some of their plot twists, especially in the culminating episode of Season One.  I suppose that has a lot to do with the success of the show and the need to keep the story running when it appeared it would come to a cataclysmic end.  The Vice-President can breathe easy at least for one more season.  But, apparently not everyone is happy in Beirut.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Old Faithful

Anyone interested in heading West?  One of the books suggested for our next reading group is George Black's epic journey of discovery, Empire of Shadows, where he charts the American discovery and eventually establishment of the National Park by U.S. Grant.  You can pull up a preview at amazon, and here's a chat with Park Ranger George Heinz from 2008 on the active geysers at Yellowstone.

Other books that have been proffered are A Wicked War by Amy Greenberg, Freedom National by James Oakes, and Fall of the House of Dixie by Bruce Levine.  Of course, we are open for suggestions for some Spring reading!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Deconstructing Lincoln

It seems historians never grow weary of Lincoln, approaching him from any number of angles in trying to ascertain perhaps our most enigmatic president.  John Burt has chosen to re-explore Lincoln's philosophic grounding in Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism.  Unlike William Lee Miller's book from a few years back, Lincoln's Virtues, Burt focuses intensely on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, coming to terms with the dichotomy that exists between the two men when it came to the issue of slavery vs. states' rights.  But, like Miller he examines the debates and the speeches Lincoln gave, looking for salient clues as to his reasoning, although Burt doesn't go as far as his presidency.

It sounds like quite a heady book to read Steven's Smith's review, moving well beyond the standard narrative like we saw in the movie, Lincoln, which Smith alludes to.  Burt apparently "sees Lincoln as a historicist for whom our moral concerns emerge only over time."  Democracy becomes a destiny to be fulfilled over time, not one guaranteed in the Constitution as so many like to interpret it.

I don't know if there are any takers, but I'm game.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Master

After watching The Master the other night, I very much wish it had been Paul Thomas Anderson and not Stephen Spielberg who had taken on Lincoln.  Anderson is able to create a "profound sense of ambiguity" in his films that Spielberg is simply incapable of doing.

This is Anderson's second film where he explores the American past.  In There Will Be Blood, he re-imagined Upton Sinclair's political novel, Oil.  He essentially created a parable out of the novel, and in The Master he does the same, this time drawing on a wide variety of sources in creating Lancaster Dodd and his protegee Freddie Quell.  To me, it was a more elegant rendering of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood.  Freddie reminded me a lot of Hazel Motes in his rawness, if not religious conviction.

Lancaster Dodd doesn't really fit the image of Asa Hawks or Hoover Shoates.  Many reviewers have compared him to L. Ron Hubbard, who founded Scientology, especially with his interest in science fiction, an allegorical telling of his quasi-religious convictions that man is wholly separate from animals and his soul free to migrate from one time to another, or from one dimension to another.  But, Anderson is smart not to delve too deep in this regard, letting viewers make whatever connections they so choose.

Dodd's wife, Peggy, turns out not to be the wallflower she first appears as, but in many ways controlling her husband as the woman behind the throne.  Anderson captures an eeriness (especially in the music) to this family traveling cult, which calls itself simply "The Cause," but he casts no judgement upon them, letting the story play out to its ambiguous ending.

Paul Thomas Anderson is a director who has come into his own and displays a masterful control of his films. Of course, it helps when you have actors like Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will be Blood) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master) but it is clearly Anderson who is in control, leading the audience along by the compelling force of these films.  Lincoln would have been an ideal figure for him to explore, especially in his relation to his wife, Mary Todd.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Meandering ... What are you Reading?

Here's a meander of MacDonald Creek in Glacier National Park -- probably about what it looks like right now.  Locals (mostly republicans) are up in arms because Glacier and Yellowstone are delaying plowing their roads in the spring to save money, which will have a serious effect on local economies.  Republicans don't want children to have school lunches, but they want those roads plowed on time so they can cater to the tourists.  Keep the government out of our national parks!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

In the Beginning ...

It seems all you have to do is make a series about the Bible and you have a ratings bonanza.  History Channel's 10-part series on the Bible drew a larger audience than American Idol.  The series literally chronicles the Bible  from beginning to end, with the husband-and-wife team of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey recreating many of the scenes, and finding their "Jesus" in a 33-year old Portuguese model, Diogo Morgado.  Of course, this shouldn't have come as a surprise given the huge success of Mel Gibson's Passion a few years back, but apparently Hollywood execs were still left "dumbstruck."

It seems that the so-called "fact based" cable channels have increasingly turned to religious, supernatural and hot button domestic themes in recent years to boost television ratings  National Geographic has been running all kinds of specials from Doomsday Preppers to Omens of the Apocalypse, which I'm sure would make the founders of the society role over in their graves.  History Channel had been relatively immune from this virus, but it too has succumbed to the ratings bug, heavily pushing this series, and given that it is paying off big time, I'm sure we will see more of these religious-based specials.

I would think I'm not the only one who has a sensed a third Religious Awakening taking place in America.  One can chart this rediscovered faith to the advent of the Cold War, which led Congress to push for adding "One Nation Under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance and stamping "In God We Trust" on our coinage.  Eisenhower seemed to be a reluctant Christian soldier but signed off on these measures just the same.  The real "awakening" seem to occur under Reagan when religious leaders like Jerry Falwell discovered just how much power the church had in shaping national elections.  This eventually led to the reverend Pat Robertson running for President and more recently Mike Huckabee.  Of course, Billy Graham has been minister to the Presidents (Republican ones anyway) ever since Eisenhower.

It seems we can't get too much of that "old time religion" given the astonishing growth of "Megachurches" across the country and the attempt by many state and local legislatures to inject religion and Biblical theories into the classroom.  Guys like David Barton actively rewrite history through rose-colored evangelical religious lenses, as I've noted before, influencing high school curricula in Texas, and in turn the country.

Rather than act as a voice of reason, time honored institutions like National Geographic seem to be feeding into this religious awakening by running specials that appeal directly to this ever-growing audience.  Now History Channel has one-upped NG by updating and expanding Dino De Laurentiis' The Bible, which John Huston directed and played Noah.

Where all this goes remains to be seen.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Of Guns, Drones and Books ... and Looking Ahead to 2014

In an angry exchange, Ted Cruz tried to "school" Dianne Feinstein on the Constitution, equating the proposed ban on assault rifles to banning books.  It seems that Little Ted doesn't know that books are still being banned in school districts and state-supported libraries all over the country.  Here are lists of books that have been "challenged" in recent years, with To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men still being kept out of some libraries.  But, it seems the Tea Party enjoys these rhetorical arguments, even when Ted gets called out on his absurd comments.

This was also the case with Ron Johnson, who offered a whole new spin on how Social Security is funded in a recent segment of This Week with George Stephanopoulos.  Paul Krugman took Johnson to task over his factual errors.  This led to a fiery exchange with George Will stepping in to point out that you can't reach any kind of budget deal in Congress if you can't agree on basic facts.  What made this little episode particularly appalling is that the Republican Congressman sits on the House Budget Committee.

Last but not least, Rand Paul launched a 13-hour filibuster on the use of drones, which brought the nomination of John Brennan as head of the CIA to a halt.  The attack was directed more at Obama than it was Brennan, and seems to have vaulted the Kentucky senator to front-runner status in the early straw polling for the Republican nominee for President.  Nothing like channeling Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to endear one to voters.

More and more it becomes apparent that Republicans are content to live in their alternative reality, creating their own narratives to further their arguments, no matter how weak they are.  It seems the Democrats are finally going to make a concerted effort to go after these Teabaggers in the 2014 midterms.  Obviously, there is no moving forward in Congress until the Democrats regain the House, and win a "filibuster-proof" Senate.  A tall order in these divided times.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

If the shoe fits ...

Greedy Lying Bastards pretty much sums it up.  This is a recent documentary that chronicles the attempts by so-called "energy companies" and  industries to dismiss global warming.  There are some pretty shocking figures cited, such as the $67 million Koch Industries has spent over the last 15 years in its campaign against global warming.  The documentary also looks into the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United that now allows for unlimited corporate contributions to political campaigns, essentially allowing industry to buy Washington and state legislatures, where these multinational companies successfully fight against environmental regulations.

You have to wonder at what point does the cost to discredit the large body of scientific analysis that has shown that global arming is occurring exceeds the cost to pursue renewable forms of energy.  Already, we are seeing a big dispute over the costly process of fracking to unlock a few more drops of oil from the earth's crust and the impact this has on ground water.  It ceases to be a global warming issue, but rather a simple environmental issue that immediately affects everyone.  However, these are the same corporations who fought against regulations against asbestos and other toxic materials and processes, so what can you expect.

To the filmmakers' credit, they try to reach across the political divide, interviewing persons like Christine Todd Whitman, who found herself fighting against the Bush administration, as head of the EPA, over ground water contamination and global warming, but was able to successfully reduce the allowable levels of arsenic in ground water from 50 to 10 particles per billion, as had originally been suggested by the Clinton administration, but had initially been blocked by Bush.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Cracking the Mayan Code

This documentary dates from 2008 on PBS, but I only saw it for the first time on History Channel the other night.  It is a fascinating exploration into the Mayan language.  The doc is based on a book by Michael Coe.  It starts with the destruction of many of the ancient codices by Diego de Landa, a 16th century priest determined to convert the Maya to Christianity.  However, the documentary fails to note that de Landa spent a long time trying to crack the code himself because he like many other priests originally saw the Maya as a lost tribe of Israel.  I have his book, Yucatan Before and After the Conquest, and Hugh Thomas writes quite a bit about him in Conquest.

This intriguing special focuses on the long process of decrypting a language composed of over 800 glyphs and combined in a seemingly endless number of ways that had befuddled Mayanists for decades.  Eric Thompson, considered the dean of Mayanology, viewed the Mayans as relatively primitive and saw the hieroglyphs in purely graphic mythic terms.  Tatiana Proskuriakova, a Russian emigree, was apparently the first to see the glyphs as part of an intricate language that told the history of the Mayans, and that the stelae at   Palenque were actually stories of the dynastic rulers, dating back to the 7th century.  It took the efforts of a lone Soviet ethnologist, Yuri Knorozov, to figure out that the glyphs were symbolic of a phonetic language, but he worked largely in isolation, and his studies were discounted by Thompson, seemingly for political reasons.

It took the intuitive mind of a boy, David Stuart, to unlock the language.  He joined his father and mother on expeditions to the Yucatan, sketching the hieroglyphs like his father, and eventually finding patterns others hadn't been able to see.  He came to view the symbols as phonetic, like Knorozov, but saw that a sound could have more than one glyph, in some cases as many as fifteen, so that it could be arranged graphically into the blocks in a number of compelling ways.

The beauty is that eventually this understanding of the hieroglyphs was given back to contemporary Maya, giving them a window on their past they had thought lost forever.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Happy International Women's Day

Celebrated around the world, except in America where our leaders are still trying to keep women barefoot and pregnant.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Well, Hugo, You Will Be Missed

Hugo Chavez is being remembered in many ways.  The fiery Venezuelan leader wasn't afraid to antagonize the United States, which endeared him to many Latin Americans, but also made him a favorite villain in the American media.  Perhaps his greatest show of defiance was at a 2006 UN assembly meeting in which he openly castigated the Bush administration, and held up Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival as a must read for anyone who wanted to understand the United States' role in shaping the global order.  But, even Chomsky had strong words on the nature of his regime in Venezuela, calling it an "assault" on democracy.  That's the problem with befriending Libertarians, you never know when one will turn against you.

But, like him or not, Chavez brought much needed reforms to Venezuela and definitely made it a better place to live for the 98 per cent.  He held his office for 6 terms, although his opposition argued over the fairness of these elections.  Of course, his opposition wasn't one for playing by the rules either, and many felt that Bush gave his tacit support to a coup attempt in 2002.  Chavez had only been in power for three years at that point, but it was enough for the "pro-business elites," represented by the Venezuela Chamber of Commerce.  As a result of their failed attempt, they were forced to endure 11 more years of Chavez, as the action cemented in many Venezuelans' minds that Chavez was their man.

Chavez was just the latest and most outspoken thorn in America's side in its Pan-American relations.  He was seen as heir-apparent to Fidel Castro, whose health deteriorated to the point that he abdicated his power to his brother in 2008. Chavez' steadfast resistance to US policies led to similar election victories for Evo Morales in Bolivia, Lula de Silva in Brazil and the conservatives' arch-nemesis Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.  Neo-cons felt this was a direct result of Bush's neglect of Latin America, and he was roundly castigated for it.

President Obama had a chance to mend these bridges when he was elected in 2008, but other than one highly publicized Pan-American conference in 2009, which he attended, Obama has likewise shown little interest in the region, much to the chagrin of Latin American leaders who were hoping for better ties with the United States, notably Raul Castro in Cuba.  However, it does seem the State Department has maintained close contacts in Venezuela and is hoping for improved relations with the succeeding president, Nicolas Maduro, although by constitutional law Venezuela is required to hold new elections within 6 months.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

When Empires and Ententes Break Down

I started reading this book the other night.  It had been sitting on my shelf for a long time.  It dates back to the days of the old NYTimes forums when I used to get into those rows with Mosca over European history.

Very interesting start as Ferguson relates his grandfather's experience in WWI and how the Scottish regiments sustained more per capita losses than just about any other country during the war.  Twenty-one per cent, as I recall.  The losses in WWI were great, estimated at close to 10 million, dwarfing that of the American Civil War.

The US didn't get into the war until late, much to Teddy Roosevelt's chagrin, and in the end he lost his youngest son, Quentin, who apparently was short-sighted like his father, and died in a plane crash.  I don't think Roosevelt ever forgave himself for that, as he was insistent that his sons go to war, as he had done in the Spanish-American War.

What I like most about Ferguson's account is the way he treats the pre-war climate in Europe, as the four major powers -- The UK, France, Russia and Germany -- vied for territorial possessions.  It was this sense of empire that appeared to put the superpowers at odds with each other, although Ferguson noted that the UK was very good at crisis management and had a relatively friendly relationship with Germany right up to the eve of the war.

He also explores the pre-war literature, particularly that of the British "militarists" who perceived Germany as a threat.  He also notes some of the German literature from the time that likewise prophesied war.  He wryly notes that Friedrich Engels was perhaps the only one to correctly predict the death toll, although Engels imagined a sweeping socialist revolution to occur in the wake of the war, which didn't extent far beyond Russia.

Ferguson noted a few asides that concern the United States, such as Roosevelt's intervention in the clash between the UK and Germany over Venezuela, and the relationships Roosevelt cultivated while in Europe, notably the Kaiser, as he took TR on a horseback ride to review the troops.

The thrust of Ferguson's arguments are economic, where he excels.  He is best known for his books on finance and his provocative arguments on world economics.  He is careful to separate his counterfactual arguments with the events as they occurred, while still making for a lively read.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Backsliding Barry

On the surface, it looks like the Republicans have won this battle, as Obama is once again willing to put "entitlements" on the table in an effort to reach a grand compromise on the budget.  As Scarborough noted in his op-ed piece, $85 billion is a drop in the bucket when you consider the overall $3.8 trillion budget that was requested for 2013, and the only place it will be really felt is in defense, which needs to be cut anyway, even if it means losing a few jobs in the greater Washington DC metro area.  But, it seems our President still thinks he can work with the Republicans even after four years of stonewalling and renewed cries for massive budget cuts.

What I don't get is how Social Security and Medicare even figure into these budget cuts, as they come out of a whole separate tax system, FICA, not income tax, and haven't figured into the manufactured "debt crisis."  In fact, the federal government has been borrowing against Social Security to meet its revenue shortfalls over the past 12 years.  However, Obama got the brilliant idea to cut FICA in an effort to get businesses to hire, and so now the federal government is whittling away at SS and Medicare from both ends.

It doesn't take a Ph.D in Economics to figure out this is a recipe for disaster.  Obama had the high ground in this battle, but has once again conceded to the Republicans over short term budget deals that do nothing to improve the economy, but only feed into their overall attempt to chip away at social programs, while they continue to defend the bloated defense budget, homeland security and other security-related budget items that take up to 40% of the overall budget.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Self Immolation of the GOP

In his latest ploy to get sympathy, John Boehner claims Obama is trying to "annihilate the Republican Party." This came in the wake of the President's inaugural address, which took on an unusually "liberal" tone according to pundits, essentially daring the Republican Party to defy him, and defy him they have done once again.

The Repubicans have pushed this theme in every media outlet.  They even had Woodward sounding their drum by stating that Obama had "moved the goal posts" on budget talks, even though increased revenue had long been part of any budget package.  But, the Republicans yet again refuse to yield, preferring to call Obama's bluff.

As usual, Joe Scarborough tries to play both sides of the issue.  In his latest op-ed piece in the NYTimes, he thinks this move will backfire on Obama, as the country will feel little pinch from the sequestration.  Yet, it is the Republicans who have been scaremongering the public of an economic Armageddon if Congress doesn't reach a deal.

Unfortunately, no deal appears in sight because the Republicans have refused to yield on new revenues, preferring to live in their fantasy world of a "revenue-neutral" government, even when virtually every economist says the only way to cut the deficit is to increase revenue.  Further budget cuts only hurt the economy, as it stifles the renewed recovery we have seen since last Fall.

Krugman commented on Bloomberg television the other night that the Republicans are still preaching the same tired 19th century austerity policies as far as economics goes, just periodically giving it a different name.

It is hard to determine what the long game is for the GOP.  None of their so-called leaders have offered any grand vision.  They prefer to fall back on the same tired bromides that have won them elections in the past, believing that their tax-paying constituents are the real victims here, paying for the other 50% that they carry on their back.

Cartoon courtesy of The Salt Lake Tribune

Friday, March 1, 2013

Happy Birthday Peace Corps!

JFK with the first volunteers in 1961

Two score and 12 years, John F. Kennedy signed an executive order that established the Peace Corps in the Department of State.  A Peace Corps bill had been floating around in Congress since the mid 50s, but there had been no action taken on it until 1960 when Humphrey in the Senate and Henry Reuss in the House tried to push the bill toward passage, but ultimately it took Kennedy's executive action to make this volunteer service reality.

The first group of 52 volunteers were sent to Ghana in August, 1961.  The country had been independent since 1957.  The Peace Corps has had its ebbs and flows over the years but today numbers over 8000 volunteers with a presence in 76 countries.  I served in Lesotho from 1988-90, as a math and science teacher in a rural high school, an experience I treasure.