Thursday, June 30, 2016

The United Straights

Donald Trump gave the closest thing to a policy speech during his campaign in what has been dubbed his "trade speech."  It really is more an anti-trade speech, as he constantly referred to all the trade agreements he would rip up, opting for bi-lateral agreements between favored countries instead.  He focused mostly on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has yet to be ratified in Congress, but I suppose he would also ignore the EU and pursue direct bi-lateral agreements with select member countries, since he views the EU as a similar yoke around the neck of free trade.

The strange thing about his speech is that it echoed the trade speech Sarah Palin gave before a Milwaukee audience a few months earlier.  In that sense the recycled trash backdrop was very appropriate.  The only real difference is that Trump read from a tele-prompter while Sarah had some notes on the podium to guide her through her rambling discourse.

NPR graciously fact-checked Trump's speech, noting that many of the footnotes provided on his website linked to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank often referred to by Bernie Sanders.  Seems Donald is making his play at Berniecrats, thinking he can outwit Hillary.

Donald stumbled over a few words, amusingly the United States at one point, quickly correcting himself.  Trans-Pacific Partnership appeared to be too much of a tongue-twister for him, so he constantly referred to it as the TPP, which I'm sure sailed over the heads of most of his audience.  The only Berniecrats were probably holding up anti-Trump placards in back.  What was even more amusing is that he cited the World Trade Organization and international trade law on several occasions to back up his positions.  The WTO is just as much anathema to the far right as the TPP or NAFTA.  For them, the only laws that matter are those in the good ol' "United Straights."  It's our way or the highway.

However, I suppose Donald felt the need to show that he could cite legislation as well as anyone, noting that he would invoke Article 2205 of the NAFTA agreement to pull out of this very bad deal, a clear reference to Brexit.  He pinned NAFTA to Bill Clinton and by association Hillary.  It doesn't matter that this was a deal drawn up by the previous George H.W. Bush administration and favored by Republicans in Congress, or that it has done nowhere near the harm to our economy that he implied.  The key here was to show that he is a man of action.  He would like to pull out of the TPP too, but given that it is not likely to be approved this year, it would have been better to say he wouldn't sign off on it.  However, that doesn't sound as decisive.

What we have here is another "decider."  Several times, Trump said he would use the full power of the presidency to push his policies.  A warning to those fence-sitting Republicans in Congress who have yet to give him their full support.  When it comes to trade, however, Congress has as much right to decide as he does, and it takes a concerted effort to get any trade agreement through Capitol Hill, even bi-lateral agreements, which he seems to think he can negotiate himself like his real estate deals.

It really is mind-boggling to listen to these speeches.  CNN cut it short and went to a table discussion.   Van Jones seemed to worry that the speech struck a populist tone that would appeal to a great number of Americans, by implication Berniecrats.   Trump's surrogate smiled broadly.  A former Romney strategist worried that all this would lead to a trade war, but Trump's surrogate poo-pooed this notion, saying it would only make us stronger.  Like so many of these discussions it went nowhere.  The panelists focused more on impressions than the substance of Trump's speech.  You have to turn to the Internet to find any detailed analyses.

Unfortunately, not many persons are going to fact-check Trump, or Hillary for that matter.  Their minds are made up and what they want to hear is a candidate who reinforces their positions.  This is where Trump does well, and now he is trying to expand his demographic range by making trade central to his campaign, equating bad trade deals with the slow growth and lack of good paying jobs in our economy.

He wants a return to the good ol' days when we had a 3.5 per cent GDP, not this measly 1.1 per cent we are currently experiencing.   It doesn't matter that the GDP is subject to fluctuations, peaking at 4.6% in July 2014.  He wants sustained high rates like China has, noting that all our woes began when we let China into the World Trade Organization.

Where before he was against high wages, he now advocates them, trying to appeal to Berniecrats once again.  Who knows, maybe he will even want to boost the minimum wage to $25 per hour, as that is what it takes to live in most states?  Of course, he never let himself be pinned to any specific figures other than some magical GDP rate he imagines us sustaining in perpetuity, evoking the mythical idea that each generation can double its standard of living.  We've basically flat-lined in this regard.

Of course, he offered the same caustic attacks against Hillary, claiming that she was for TPP before she was against it. implying that she and Bill cooked up NAFTA in the White House, and other such nonsense like Wall Street fat cats having "given her tens of billions of dollars."   He's the one who has benefited most from the banking and investment industry, which continues to float him in his development schemes despite so many going belly up.  Just ask Carl Icahn, his presumptive Treasury secretary.

It is shocking that CNN and other news organization continually refuse to call Trump out.  Rather they offer his former campaign advisers cushy jobs where they can promote their former boss with no remorse.  The television media has decided to thrust Trump upon us whether we want him or not, as he continues to pump up their viewer ratings, despite sagging in the polls.  Everyone loves watching a slow motion train wreck.

It is doubtful this speech will be remembered for anything more than its gaffes.  I would imagine, however, that he has raised even greater concerns among the GOP establishment as the trade deals he assailed were their own.  But, that's been his MO all along.  He's been playing a third of the GOP off against the other two-thirds to knock out its favored presidential candidates one by one.  How he brings the party together at the convention, much less the country to his side, remains to be seen.  Apparently, he has called on Mike Tyson and other "sports stars" to beat the GOP into order and in turn the nation.  Big Brother would be proud.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Things Fall Apart

If you look at the future through movies and television shows, it is pretty bleak.  There aren't many, if any, that view it in Utopian terms.  Things tend to fall apart, as Chinua Achebe noted long ago.  It is hard to hold together a society under any circumstances and even moreso when oxygen is running out, as is the case in The 100.

The show just finished its third season so I have plenty of catching up to do.  My daughter enjoys watching it the second time around, even if she gets annoyed by my comments.  These futuristic tales are mainly aimed at providing vicarious thrills.

It is a mash-up of Lord of the Flies, Lost. and numerous other sources, pitting 100 kids essentially against each other as they struggle to adjust to life on earth after 97 years.  Most of them are delinquents of one form or another, yet two are the children of commanders aboard a hybrid space station called the Ark, which has managed to orbit the Earth all these years thanks to resourceful engineers who patched together a dozen international space stations to support approximately 2000 persons.

The commanders had to resort to Draconian methods to conserve supplies but now that they can no longer produce sufficient oxygen they decided to send the kids down in a dilapidated landing module to see if earth is habitable.  Of course, you can ask why not send trained scientists to assess the planet but then it wouldn't be a show for teenagers.

We get a few sex plays in the beginnings with sumptuous "teens," but the creators focus mostly on the survival aspect as the kids learn over the course of the first half dozen episodes that they have to stick together if they are going to handle the "Grounders," the toxic fog, and other nasty aspects of this surprisingly lush planet.  Grounders aren't zombies but rather primitive survivalists who managed to withstand a nuclear Armageddon.  Of course, most of these "teens" are 25 to 30 years old, otherwise there we wouldn't be treated to such scenes as this one, with young Octavia as a very fetching muse.

Clarke emerges as the presumptive leader.  Her mother is a doctor aboard the Ark and she has picked up a lot of valuable first aid skills.  She has to deal with the openly rebellious Bellamy and simmering bad boy Murphy, but otherwise most of the teens support her.  Even Bellamy comes around in the first few episodes, as she is willing to make the tough decisions he is not.

Like Lost and The Walking Dead, the creators aren't afraid to kill off lead characters, giving the show plenty of tension.  It is also very fast paced, much faster than the languid sequels to The Hunger Games.  This helps in glossing over a number of details that would bring this show down in a big heap if you focused on them.  The actors are a bit too earnest at times, but you can also forgive this as the age group this show is appealing to are mostly young teens like my daughter.

However, one has to wonder what psychological impact these Dystopian future visions have on kids.  Hope is largely presented as illusory, something adults hold onto but the kids have abandoned for the most part.  They tackle this new world mano-a-mano and may the best man or woman win.  Clarke is a strong character, which I assumed was why my daughter likes this show so much, although she told me Octavia became her favorite after she met up with one of the Grounders later on.

It also makes you realize kids want to be told the truth, not some water-downed fantasy of the future.  They want to be able to deal with it when it comes.  In that sense, shows like these are good in that kids realize that ultimately they have to fend for themselves.  Parents can't protect them, which is actually more disheartening for us than it is for them.  We wish we can always be there like some holographic image guiding them through their more difficult moments.

This world is what we make of it, and I'm curious to see how these Grounders turn out.  Makes me think of Logan's Run when Logan and Jessica finally broke out of their hermetically sealed dome to find a lush world that the elders had shielded them from, and come back to tell the others what they had seen.  Unlike Plato's cave allegory it was a happy ending.  We'll see what will be the case with The 100.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The morning after

and waking up with Boris Johnson in your bed

With the pound continuing to plummet against the dollar I guess many Americans are thinking they might take a trip to jolly old England this summer to show their solidarity with the mother country, as it looks like UK could use the cash. At least 120 billion pounds was wiped out Friday and it looks like it will cost the UK much more this week as the pound and stock market continue to plummet.  It has cost the world much more.  What's worse, S&P has downgraded Britain's credit rating.

No matter, it seems the conservative party is going to take its time, with no plans on the immediate horizon to exit the EU, preferring an informal path for the time being.  It seems to be waiting for Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to assemble their "dream team" to lead the Brexit government.  That's almost as scary as a Republican dream ticket of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.  However, the EU is demanding the UK initiate proceedings immediately, anxious to get this divorce finalized as soon as possible.

There is some speculation the Tories are dragging their heels for a reason.  Cameron had vowed to invoke Article 50 if Brits voted to leave the Union but stepped down immediately following the vote, putting the onus on the future "Brexit" government to initiate proceedings.  However, it doesn't seem the Brexiters are too keen to proceed.  Could we being seeing regrets emerge?

US reaction has been mixed.  Democrats have criticized the move but vowed to work with Britain in this transition.  Republicans have gloated over Brexit as if it affirms their values.  To hell with international trade agreements, it is just part of a new world order threatening to strip away our sovereignty like a cheap red, white and blue dress.  At least, that's the way Sarah Palin sees it, and she has been joined by a cackle of conservatives all trumpeting this as a "victory" on the weekend talk show circuit.  Bob Corker is right back in the Trump camp after this vote.

The only problem is that this vote came too soon.  The transition is going to drag through the summer, assuming the Brexiters find their balls, and into the early fall revealing all its ugly warts.  By November, this Brexit might not look so good with the British government still struggling to pull together a comprehensive economic plan to deal with the fallout, and quite possibly hold their union together as Scotland is once again threatening secession.  It seems the 250 billion pounds in credit the Bank of England has initially pledged is no where near enough to deal with the losses that will be suffered in the coming months.

This is the kind of panic and instability Brits typically try to avoid but in this election year it seems all caution has been thrown to the wayside and we are seeing emotions get the better of judgement.  Donald J. Trump thrives in this atmosphere.  For him, the low pound is a good sign as more foreigners will come to his newly remodeled golf course at Turnberry.  Those who can afford it anyway.  I suppose the favorable exchange rate also cuts his payroll.  Yep, this is exactly the kind of thinking that led to our banking crisis in 2008.

George Bush claimed he never devalued the dollar intentionally, but it plummeted virtually over night thanks to his monetary policy, opening a flood gate of speculation that for awhile had our country swimming in cheap goods, low interest rates and record real estate deals, but that all came crashing down on us like a West Virginia flash flood in the Fall of 2008 and it took us the better part of 6 years to recover.

I suppose this is what happens when times are relatively good.  We think we can go it alone.  Who needs the EU or any other world trade organization?  Let's just see how much we can get out of this.  We certainly won't think of our kids much less a future generation.  It's like one of those bumper stickers, I'm spending my children's inheritance!  Is this the type of country we want to become?

If not, I suggest we not jump on the Brexit band wagon and recognize what an extremely foolhardy decision it was.  So much so, that many Brits spent the weekend googling what the EU is after voting to leave it.  Further indication that many voters simply didn't know what they were doing.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Nice Run, USMNT!

Watching the US men's national team make a run at the Copa America title had Americans thinking a Miracle on Grass might take place until the USMNT ran into Argentina.  The number one club in the world didn't even let the US team get a shot on goal in 90 minutes, cruising to a 4-0 win the semi-finals.  The US had a shot at redemption in the consolation match against Colombia but it was not to be.  They fell again 1-0.

We should be pleased the US team got as far as it did as football (or soccer as we call it in the States) is not the number one sport in the country.  At best, it is a distant fifth as team sports are concerned, with ice hockey garnering much more attention.  Kids grow up playing soccer all over the country but by the time they reach high school they usually have switched to one of the big three: football, basketball or baseball, leaving soccer little more than a pastime.  As such, it is hard to generate much interest in these world events.  However, this being the Centenario of the Copa America there was more enthusiasm than usual with the US team going into the tournament.

There was plenty of good will to go around with Central and South American clubs visiting American football teams during spring practice.  Mexican superstar Chicharito was completely awestruck to meet J.J. Watt in Houston, exchanging signed jerseys and footballs.  The good will we badly needed at a time when Trump has been shitting all over Mexico.  Venues were full and television ratings up.  There were some problems with the long distance travel between cities but Lionel Messi blamed the Argentine Football Association for the delays not the airports.

The US team cruised through its bracket and took out a tough Ecuador team in the quarter-finals in Seattle.  They fared better than powerhouses Brazil and Mexico.  Still, it was a bit of a letdown to see them get trounced by Argentina.  Everyone was hoping they would make a game out of it, but it appeared the young Americans were awestruck by the star power of Argentina and let Lionel Messi have his way with them.

The strong showing puts the US team back on track for the World Cup in 2018, but it seems those close to the game want a more aggressive style of football and would like to see coach Jurgen Klinsmann go.  He was the star of the German national team and led them to a World Cup win in 1990.  He's been managing the US team since 2011 with mixed results.

In turn, Klinsmann has criticized the club atmosphere of the Major League Soccer in America, saying that it doesn't toughen up the players for international competition.  The MLS is to the European and Latin American leagues what the European Football League is to the NFL.   The MLS has tried to beef up its rosters by bringing in big name European players like David Beckham, but they are usually at the tail end of their careers and looking for a golden parachute.  Beckham was paid roughly $250 million for his five years at the LA Galaxy.

It is doubtful a US team will ever win the World Cup or any major international tournament.  There simply isn't the groundswell of support in this country to push players to this level.   Having failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics this was a great showing for the Americans and proof they can play at the international level.  Let's hope they keep it up the next two years so that they qualify for the World Cup.

Friday, June 24, 2016

"Brexit a great thing"

Donald Trump just happened to be in Scotland when the Brexit vote took place, using the morning to gloat in the English secession from the EU and show off his remodeled golf course.  I guess with David Cameron out of the way he no longer has to worry about being barred from Great Britain.  He's got Boris Johnson as the Conservative PM in waiting and Nigel Farage of the UK Independent Party as his second.  The interesting thing is that he spoke before either of these two Brexit champions did and then mostly about himself.

David Cameron was forced to eat crow after fulfilling perhaps the only promise of his campaign by allowing a referendum on Britain's place in the EU when just about everyone advised him against it.  Back when David was struggling to put together a coalition to rule Parliament he promised UKIP, as the Independent Party calls itself, that he would let the people decide whether they wanted to stay in the EU or not.  When the Tories won re-election by a resounding margin no longer needing a coalition, David felt he could give Nigel and his boys what they wanted because he had the UK in his hand.

David didn't count on Boris and other breakaway Tories joining Nigel and UKIP in a secessionist bid, pummeling the airwaves with distortions, half-truths and downright lies about how the EU was eroding the fabric of British life with its inane regulations and immigration policies.  It didn't matter that UK's relation to the EU could be described as distant at best, not taking part in the Euro zone or Schengen Agreement, not to mention a number of other sweet deals Cameron struck with the EU to bolster the "Remain" campaign.

UKIP, which is kind of the like the Tea Party of England, stirred up a hornets' nest of anxieties over immigration, not so much the hairy Muslim type, but the hairy Eastern European type.  They didn't like all these Poles and Lithuanians and Croats and whatever else comes from that region settling into dear old England and taking their jobs.  It didn't matter that the Eastern Europeans were subject to British immigration policies, and for the most part contributed to the British economy, they were seen as scofflaws degrading the English way of life.  Trump could understand, although two of his wives came from Eastern Europe.  It was like the love-hate relationship we have with Mexico and Central America.  When called on their overtly racist rhetoric during the "Leave" campaign these boys  said in unison, "who me?" just like Donald would say.

You figure Donald has Boris and Nigel come join him on the links of his Scottish resort.  The irony is that Scots overwhelmingly voted to stay in the EU, as did the Northern Irish.  A veritable sea of blue in the north as opposed to all that red in the South, just like in America.  If the Scots had their way they would kick Donald out of their homeland, as they are pretty upset at how he turned the little community of Turnberry upside down.  As it was, a lot of protesters pitched up to make fun of him.  One comedian, Simon Brodkin, even offered a pair of red golf balls with swastikas painted on them to Donald.  Needless to say, Donald was none too pleased and had Simon kicked off his property.

This was a purely English and Welsh decision.  The vote literally split the kingdom in half, and while most Brits appear willing to live with it, the Scots are so pissed with Brexit they might just have another referendum themselves to decide whether they still want to stay in the UK.  But, Donald would probably say it's a great thing too.

Of course, Donald blames Obama for all this.  If the President hadn't made a nasty reference to Brexit the last time he was in London none of this would have happened.  Members of UKIP and the breakaway Tories also picked up on Obama's slanderous comment of going to the back of the queue.  It doesn't matter that he went onto say that America's special relationship with Britain "will continue, hopefully eternally."

David Cameron, to his credit, took the blame for the referendum and has offered his resignation.  The scary part is that Boris Johnson, a British version of Trump or Brump as you might call him, is being considered as the next in line for PM, unless a new vote is called.  Boris spent the past two months tootling around Britain in a big red bus telling everyone how much money the UK pours into the EU each week and how little it gets back.  Most of what he said was pure nonsense, as fellow Brit John Oliver pointed out, but nothing like a big red bus to capture people's attention.

The odd part is Boris dodged the press today for the most part, as did his partner in crime, Nigel Farage.  It seems they were as shocked as the rest of the world that they won.   There seems to be no real plan in place as to what to do next and Boris even went so far as to offer his support of David Cameron, happy to see him take the fall for this decision.

After early selloffs on the pound and stock markets, things seem to have leveled off a little.  Still, this vote cost Britain a ton of money.  At a minimum, it will take two years for Britain to fully extradite itself from the EU only to have to renegotiate new trade deals that will still have the same nefarious regulations attached to them.

It looks like the EU will survive this Brexit, much to the chagrin of Sarah Palin, who believes it is a UN "mini-me."  It's the UK that has to worry about holding itself together.  Meanwhile, the Donald enjoys another round of golf.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Have we seen the last of Trump?

One almost gets the feeling that Trump wants out of this election.  May numbers show him with only $1.3 million left in the tank, as opposed to Hillary running on $42 million.  In May alone, she raised well over $25 million.  Trump almost nil  His campaign is in such disarray that he fired Corey Lewandowsky, best known for roughing up reporters, and staged a "Trumpathon" in which he would match e-mail donations dollar for dollar.

He's already been called out for funneling much of the money he "loaned" himself back into his own enterprises.  It's an old story, but one being circulated much more now.  He finally donated money to Wounded Warrior and other veterans' organizations, when he was called out in the press, but it was far less than he initially claimed.  All this makes his campaign look more like a money laundering racket than a legitimate presidential candidate.  He continues to rely heavily on twitter to get his message out, which sounds increasingly more shrill.

There are rumors that the Republican establishment is plotting a putsch at the convention.  It's all the talk in the blogosphere, pro and con.  It does appear someone has to step in and do some damage control, as it is not just the White House but the vast majority of seats in Congress that are up for grabs in November.

Trump has been notably irked that he has failed to get rousing support from Congressional Republicans and conservative state leaders.  After his long string of gaffes, especially his unscripted comments following the Orlando shooting, it is surprising there is anyone left on Capitol Hill who would support him. Right now, he is seen as a serious liability for Republicans.  So much so, that George W. Bush has been called in to stump for embattled GOP Senators.

Not that Trump cares.  He's more worried about saving face.  After all, he made all these in-roads into a whole new demographic of conservatives and an embarrassing putsch at the convention or worse a drubbing at the polls in November would make him look like the thing he reviles most -- a loser!  So, what to do?

I suppose he could cite some reason for abandoning the campaign as Ross Perot did in 1992.  He could claim Obama has launched a special investigation against him or that the Hillary campaign has threatened to release embarrassing photos of him when he was a little boy or whatever.  His loyal Trumpkins would buy almost any reason.  But, like Ross, it is hard to imagine Trump would stay out for long and he would probably re-enter as an Independent, claiming that it was the Republicans who sabotaged his campaign.

It is painfully obvious at this point that Trump never expected to get this far.  He was mostly looking to increase his brand appeal.  He rarely had a prepared speech much less a position on any issue.  When he sat down with the editorial staffs of the Washington Post and New York Times he made a total embarrassment of himself, but it didn't matter in the Republican primaries, as conservative voters viewed these two national papers with derision.  When he chose to strip WaPo of its press credentials at his rallies, his audience cheered.  It doesn't matter that he was not on good terms with conservative rags like Breitbart or The Blaze either.

For the past year, Trump has essentially given us a Vaudeville act, dragging in just about every scruffy conservative character you can imagine from Sarah Palin to Ted Nugent to Mike Tyson, and a few you would be surprised by.  What on earth does Loretta Lynn see in Trump?  He's gotten political endorsements from also-rans like Chris Christie and Ben Carson, former VP Dick Cheney, and a small sampling of Congresspersons present and past, all of whom he has paraded on stage to his audience's delight.  Big Chris often stands behind him at rallies like one of his bodyguards, and Doctor Ben is purportedly heading up his VP search, offering screening examinations for the prospective nominees.

Most of these politicians and celebrities are rejects, driven to the fringe of the party, who Donald has warmly embraced and brought right back into the spotlight, as in one of his celebrity reality shows.   While it has provided great entertainment value, these are persons the GOP didn't want to be reminded of in an election year they thought they could easily win back the White House after what they perceived to be as the disillusionment with Obama these past seven and half years.  A GOP presumptive nominee has never fallen so low in the polls.  Trump is polling horribly among women, Hispanics and Blacks.  At this rate, he would do worse than Goldwater did in 1964.  This crazy act may have served him well in the Republican primaries but for the upcoming general election Trump is bottoming out.

So what happens at the convention?  Will the Republican Party try to saddle Trump with a VP they think can balance the ticket or will they try to push him out entirely?  The first option won't really work as Trump isn't going to play nice.  He's already shown that in the wake of the Orlando massacre.  The second option threatens to turn the convention into a brawl.   That leaves a third option in which Trump steps down himself for whatever reason of his choice and the GOP fills the void as best it can.

The Republican party will have a lot of catching up to do as Hillary is off to a fast start in the general election, but at this point anything is better than allowing Trump to continue his campaign.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A little love would go a long way right now

The first stage of loss or grief is denial and we are seeing plenty of that in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting.  Rather than recognize it as a hate crime and deal with accordingly, Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, actually had the audacity to request the federal government for an emergency declaration so that the state would be entitled to federal relief.  FEMA denied the request stating that Scott didn't demonstrate a financial need and noted that no governor had previously asked for such a declaration in the wake of a mass shooting.  As it is, FEMA is covering the overtime costs of first responders.

Then came the US Senate, which rejected 4 Democratic bills that included tighter background checks and a ban on sales to persons on terrorist watch lists.  Relative no-brainers, but it seems the NRA is calling the shots in the Senate and the bills failed to reach the 60-vote threshold necessary for ratification.  Apparently there are those who think the real victim is the AR-15, not the 100+ persons who were shot in the Pulse nightclub, 49 dead.

This was followed by Trump dialing back on his most bellicose rhetoric, claiming he never said club goers should have been armed.  This despite video recordings that went viral.  He appears to at least recognize he went too far, but rather than retract his statement, says he never made it, as he can never be wrong.

So, what is all this hand ringing about?  It obviously isn't about the victims of this horrible tragedy.  You see them rarely mentioned.  The conservatives have bent over backwards trying to make a case that this was an act of "radical Islam" and insist on holding the Obama administration accountable for allowing such elements to sneak into our society and carry out such atrocious acts.  Yet, Omar Mateen was born and raised in the US, spending most of his life in Florida.

Rather than admit it was a hate crime and deal with it accordingly, the GOP is determined to make this into a political whipping post, claiming that if we allow more refugees into the country we will end up with more Omar Mateens and Dzokhar Tsarnaevs.  They insist on focusing on the Muslim descent of these homegrown terrorists rather than acknowledge that the vast majority of these shooting and terrorist acts are carried out by white Caucasians.

Worse, they refuse to pay more than passing reference to the huge hole this latest act left in the LGBT community, which already feels very vulnerable in our society.  When Trump did try to address the gay and lesbian community, he attempted to pit it against the Muslim-American community, unable to comprehend that being of different sexual orientation is not a matter of race or religion.

Sadly, for many conservatives they continue to deny the hate that is directed at the LGBT community on many levels, not just atrocious acts like that committed in Orlando.  Rick Scott has his own page on the LGBTQ Nation website and it is not a very flattering one.  This is a guy who has consistently fought against gay rights equality, yet now wants to turn this tragedy into a political tool to deflect attention away from his horrible record as governor.

Basically, the Republicans don't want to deal with gays, so they look for ways to morph this incident into something else entirely.  Persons who should know better, like John McCain, have even gotten in on the act, holding Obama directly responsible for the tragedy by saying he hasn't done enough to curb radical Islamic terrorism.

It's staggering to see this level of denial taking place.  The President tried to address it, but his words seem to have fallen on deaf ears in the conservative community.  Obama dealt with the issue of ISIL and demonstrated that it had nothing to do with the tragedy in Orlando.  Later, he met with families of the victims in Florida, something few Republicans have chosen to do accept in the company of the President.  Obama has tried to make this a time for national healing not political brinksmanship.

Unfortunately, it is an election year and no incident, no matter how tragic, is immune from being made into a political tool, which one party or the other seek to use as leverage in their state and national campaigns.  The Democrats seek to use it for pushing for greater gun control, while Republicans seek to use it in their campaign against "Radical Islam."  Maybe we should all step back for a moment and acknowledge the pain and suffering that took place not only in the LGBT community but the families of the victims as well.  A little love would go a long way right now.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Is the War on Drugs over?

Nixon and Erlichman

45 years on and we still are no closer to solving the "drug problem" than we were when Richard Nixon first launched the "War on Drugs."  His ill-fated campaign came under fire recently when a former top aide, John Erlichman, said that the principal targets were "blacks and hippies."  It never really was about drugs, but about disrupting these communities, according to Erlichman.  I guess it was a "success" in this regard, as there is a disproportional number of blacks and minorities in prison, although it is hard to quantify what a "hippy" is.

Most Americans favor decriminalization of marijuana and many would like to see it made legal, which is why so many states now condone marijuana to one degree or another.   Libertarian presidential candidate, Gary Johnson, would go even further and decriminalize all drugs.  He was recently on CNN defending his position.  He believes that this will actually lead to less substance abuse than we currently have with legal marijuana becoming the "safe drug" of choice.

Not so sure the numbers back him up on this as there were close to 50,000 drug overdoses in 2014.  Prescription drugs are rmost frequently abused.  However, alcohol related deaths are even higher, and we all know about the long term effects of tobacco, all of which are legal.

So, what is it with this "war on drugs" which appears to have ebbed in recent years?  Have we come to the realization that it has failed to curb the use of drugs, or are we just going through a lull before some conservative president gets into the White House and kicks into high gear again, as Reagan did in the 80s?

Ronald and Nancy telling everyone to "just say no."

Zero tolerance laws led to the massive confiscation of properties for the slightest trace of drugs in a person's house, car or boat.  Incarceration rates increased dramatically, despite the vast majority of these crimes being non-violent.  Through the Clinton years we saw even tougher drug laws, along with the notorious "three strikes" law that could land you in prison for life regardless of the severity of the crimes.  Most judges were against these laws, as it gave them very little flexibility when it came to sentencing.

But, somehow we managed to turn a corner in the new millennium.  George Bush wasn't as harsh as his predecessors on drugs and the Obama administration is actually mulling over the possibility of decriminalizing marijuana.  At the very least, this administration may reclassify pot this year, removing it from the Schedule 1 list, which Nixon had placed it on in 1972.

However, there is still very strong resistance to such liberalization efforts.  Mayor De Blassio found out when he decriminalized marijuana in New York City.  Police commissioner William Bratton vowed to keep making low-level arrests regardless of the policy the mayor set.

Opinions vary as to why marijuana continues to be treated as a controlled substance.  Some think it is the cynical attitude of politicians and law enforcement to fill privatized prisons.  Yet, many police departments have stated they would like to see marijuana decriminalized so that they can focus on more serious crimes.  There is even a non-profit organization called LEAP, made up of law enforcement officials who are against prohibition of drugs.

Of course, such informed opinion is usually ignored by conservative ideologues who continue to push the idea of marijuana as a "gateway drug" to harder drugs, and cite dubious medical studies of how much more toxic cannabis sativa is now than it was 45 years ago.

Ironically, one of the reasons for the higher THC levels in marijuana is that the tougher drugs laws literally drove cultivation underground so that marijuana was grown in highly controlled environments that allowed persons to come up with more potent strains.  If you regulate cultivation, as the government does the alcohol industry, you can control the THC levels in the same way the government controls alcohol per volume of beer, wine and spirits.  Otherwise, the sky is the limit.  There is still no definite data that higher THC levels cause greater health risks, just a whole bunch of speculation that serves as grist for the news mill.

One would like to think that clearer heads will eventually prevail.  There have been quite a number of conservatives over the years who have spoke out against the "war on drugs," including George Shultz, a former Nixon and Reagan cabinet member.  He was part of a 2011 UN study group that put forward suggestions for a new drug policy.  Having seen the disastrous effects of the "war on drugs" first hand, Shultz would like to see a policy that offers a science-based approach rather than the punitive model we have witnessed for the past half century.

It would be nice to see the White House follow through on its gestures, treating substance abuse as a health problem rather than a criminal one and dealing with it appropriately.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

An unwanted intruder at Disney

Between flesh eating bacteria, wayward alligators, unwanted pythons and lone gunmen, Florida has had a troubled history of violence, both natural and man made and has become a rather dangerous place to live.  Yet, the state is literally bursting at the seams with nearly 20 million inhabitants plus the endless stream of tourists to mega-amusement parks like Disney World.

This is a state that is constantly being remade anew ever since Henry Flagler ventured southward to establish his railway line along the Atlantic Seaboard, opening up the beaches to the rest of the country.  Gone were the Seminoles and other tribes that once controlled South Florida.  A 40-year Indian War initially led by Andrew Jackson expelled them, leaving only a docile band of Miccosukee behind.  Some Seminole ventured back, claiming land rights in the Everglades, but this was a hybrid tribe that included survivors of other decimated tribes, notably the Creek, and even runaway slaves.  As a result, they spoke a patois of languages and their culture was cobbled together from a wide range of precedents.  Nevertheless, they became emblematic of the state.  Their land was eventually made over into orange groves and sugar plantations.

That was until Disney bought a huge swathe of Central Florida, approximately 45 square miles, and remade it into one of the top tourist destinations in the world.  Unlike Disneyland in California, Disney World was going to be a vision of the future, which he called Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow or Epcot for short.  He unveiled his plan at about the 6:30 minute mark in the video after the long Disneyland promotion.   There would be a huge geodesic globe at its center, which would eventually be named Spaceship Earth.  I assume in honor of Buckminster Fuller who came up with the geodesic concept and coined the term.  There were also going to be planned living communities with all the latest technological innovations.

Florida already had its fair share of roadside attractions, notably gator parks, where you could see these massive reptiles in the flesh and watch men wrestle them.  One of the oldest is Gatorland in Orlando.   You could also see mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs and visit the Ringling Brothers Circus in Sarasota.

Unfortunately, Walt died while his fabled new "world" was still in planning, and the first thing on the block was essentially a clone of Disneyland, with a few more rides and a "Tomorrowland" that offered Disney's  Epcot vision in a nutshell.  Walt Disney World opened in 1971 and I remember going there with my mother in 1975.  It was enormous with a monorail system that took you from the parking area to the park passing through the futuristic Contemporary Hotel along the way.  After all, you have to first give the kids what they want and then worry about the parents.

Epcot was eventually realized but it became less a vision of the future than a showcase of world cultures, kind of a mini United Nations with 11 countries represented replete with "passport."  My daughter wouldn't leave until she had all the pages stamped.  The huge geodesic globe gave it kind of a dated futuristic feel, and itself became nothing more than "It's a Small World" for teenagers.  Since then Epcot has expanded to offer a "Living with the Land" attraction that offers a more sustainable view of the world.  Even Mickey has gotten in on the act, so to speak, but these are more gimmicks than any kind of "future" Walt had imagined.

Orlando and its surroundings grew beyond anyone's control as it mushroomed into an international destination, loaded with hotels, restaurants, and other amusement parks feeding off Disney.  Eventually, it came to have a business center and all the accoutrements one associates with a city, even an NBA basketball team, appropriately called the Magic.  This was less the magic of Disney than it was the greed of developers, the real estate offspring of Henry Flagler, who were desperate to make Orlando competitive with Miami and Tampa.

There have been attempts at planned communities like Celebration, Florida, but this is less a vision of the future than a faux-Caribbean resort designed by the the well-known architect Robert A.M. Stern, who had a penchant for nineteenth-century planned communities, considering them more "vernacular."  Celebration had a hard time getting going.  Like Glenn Curtiss' theme-based Miami area communities of the 1920s, it was done in by recession and has had a difficult time recovering.  You might think of it as the remake of The Stepford Wives gone horribly awry.

It is convenient to blame Michael Eisner for this vapid commercialization of Disney's dream, but dear old Walt was not above commercialization himself.  Walt had simply packaged one of his animator's ideas, after Universal Studios has stolen his Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.  He clearly wanted to get back at Charles Mintz and Mickey was going to be his ticket to the big time.  After Walt became more successful he could afford to expand his boundaries, which he did in monumental leaps and bounds.  Eisner wanted to expand them even further, moving beyond a Sunday night Wonderful World of Disney to a Disney Channel and a huge movie company that would truly rival Universal Studios.  However, Walt's son pined for the good old days, feeling the Disney concept had grown too far beyond his father's vision and needed to be scaled back a little.

Disney is still huge and has parks in France and Japan as well, but it is Disney World in Florida that everyone wants to see.  This is Walt's testament.  In fact, many still think Walt is cryogenically frozen and laid in state in Cinderella's Castle to be awoken some day to a world only he might have imagined.  Other than marveling at some of the gadgets today, I think he would be pretty disappointed to see what Disney World and Orlando have become.

What Disney wanted was a place free from all worries, where you could let your children run free and enjoy the fabulous world he imagined for them.  The only reptilian behemoth anyone who came to Disney wanted to see was the crocodile that ate Captain Hook.  No one ever expected to have a close encounter with a real alligator at Disney, and as such the park didn't feel the need to warn anyone that they occasionally popped up in their many ponds.  They felt a "no swimming" sign was enough.

This fairy tale vision was severely disrupted this past week when parents lost their two-year old boy to an alligator.   Say what you will about this being the natural domain of alligators, but these are all man-made ponds and one would think would be more closely monitored for beasts of prey.

There are now so many alligators in South Florida that they often venture into the canals, lagoons and even the swimming pools of residential communities.  So much so that there is even a reality show based on a guy who retrieves these unwanted creatures and returns them to the wild, of which there is not much left in Florida.  Surely, Disney can hire "gator boys" of their own!

One can imagine the enormous law suit that will arise from this.  More devastating is the unwanted publicity that has arisen from this ghastly incident, which will make parents think twice about taking their kids to Disney World.   Of course, the pull is so great it won't be felt for long.  There have been other "freak accidents" at Disney World over the years, which have pretty much been forgotten.  However, a toddler being eaten by an alligator is likely to linger in the imagination much longer.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Aftermath of Orlando

It doesn't matter that the shooter was born and raised in the US, he is being treated as an alien.  Someone outside our society despite the fact that he lived and worked in Fort Pierce, Florida, as a security guard for G4S.  Before that he had been a prison guard, according at Marin Correctional Institution.  Omar has already secured his own wiki page.  It would be nice if the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting page focused more on the victims.  At least wiki took the time to name them.

None of that matters in the eyes of the GOP presumptive nominee and numerous conservative pastors and pundits.  Omar is a "radical Muslim" and should be called such, claiming that his faith is largely responsible for his radicalization.  Trump has revived his "Muslim ban."  Others have called for the immediate deportation of all Muslims.  Others felt the LGBT community got what was coming to them.  It is pretty hard to distinguish between two evils, but Trump seems to be trying to play the LGBT community against the American-Muslim community in his comments.  Dan Savage isn't biting.

Like it or not, Omar Mateen was a homegrown terrorist, just like Dylann Roof and Adam Lanza, but because his parents came from Afghanistan 30 years ago he is portrayed as an "immigrant."

In that sense, Donald Trump is also an immigrant, as his mother came from Scotland in 1930. His father,  Fred Trump, was a first generation American.  His parents came from Germany, which apparently was an issue for Fred during WWII, as he told friends and acquaintances they were of Swedish origin.  Apparently, we are supposed to distinguish between immigrants of European and Central Asian descent.

As President Obama alluded to in his speech, we went down this road before and it was an ugly chapter in our history.  We forcibly removed and detained Japanese-Americans in holding camps throughout WWII, resulting in these families losing their property rights, and being denied their basic civil liberties including the right to vote.   This is what many conservatives are now calling for with Muslim-Americans.  Obama went onto note that never has our armed forces been more diverse, referring to a commencement ceremony he attended at the Air Force Academy.  Are we to divide our armed forces as well?

It's not like the conservative community has been very friendly toward the LGBT community either.  In fact, many states have gone out of their way to defy the recent Supreme Court decision to allow gays and lesbians the right to marry.  Numerous states still ban sodomy despite another USSC decision that ruled these laws unconstitutional.  Gay clubs have long been targets of attacks.  Yet, many conservatives see Mateen's attack on the Orlando club as something distinctly Muslim.  One can only shake one's head in wonder and how conservatives try to reconcile these conflicting emotions.

In fact, many conservatives seem to think the real victim here is the AR-15, the assault weapon used by Omar Mateen, which is once again subject to attack by liberal anti-gun advocates.  The Democratic filibuster in Congress to bring a vote on gun control stretched for 15 hours, beating out Mr. Green Eggs and Ham himself.  Since the assault rifle ban was not renewed in 2004, sales of the AR-15 and other military style semi-automatic weapons has risen astronomically.  There are now over 5 million AR-15 rifles in circulation.

Rather than mourn the victims of this awful attack and try to bring peace to the community, the Pulse night club attack has become a political high water mark for all the wrong reasons, forcing the President to address the awful rhetoric spewing from Donald, who has decided to make this incident about himself.  Not to let "Cheeto Jesus" soak up all the attention, some conservative members of Congress have decided to spout off as well.   Trump even implied that Obama has some kind of hidden agenda by not responding to what the Republican nominee sees as a blatant case of "radical Islam."  Essentially, Donald is reviving the birther argument, which he tried to spearhead in 2011.

Sadly, conservatives have politicized "radical Islam," refusing to acknowledge that this "war on terror" knows no boundaries and isn't confined to one religion.  In fact, the so-called "radical Islamists" we hear about are more akin to anarchists, wanting to create chaos in the world and overthrow Muslim states without any coherent plan as to how they would govern such a state.  Afghanistan was a prime example of this, where the Taliban led the country to ruin in a handful of years, making it fertile ground for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

In Trump's view, he represents America.  He not only portrays Omar Mateen, but Barack Obama as outside the mainstream of this country, and Hillary Clinton as guilty by association.  It is this noxious attempt to project the opinion of a relative handful of supporters onto the nation as a whole that carried him through the primaries and he now tries to do the same in the general election.

To the credit of the GOP, many leading Republicans have challenged Trump on this political posturing and are now trying to distance themselves from him.  However, Trump has ignited the base of the Republican Party so it is really hard to see how this will serve the party well in the months to come, especially as his national poll number slide precipitously, which of course he refuses to acknowledge.

This should have been a time we rallied together and showed our support for the LGBT community, but rather we find ourselves bitterly at odds once again over the motives for the attack.  Whatever demons Omar Mateen carried inside him were entirely his own, not those of Muslims or anyone else.  As reports trickle out, it sounds like Omar was battling his own sexual identity and picked the cruelest, ugliest way to play out this internal battle on others.  If we want to call this attack what it is, then call it a hate crime.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Donald Trump, Pocahontas and Liz

Leave it to Donald to drag Pocahontas into the mix by making fun of Liz Warren's presumed Native American heritage.  Everything is fair game in Donald's world, it doesn't matter that he has ticked off more Republicans with his ethnic slurs, notably Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, who is a member of the Chickasaw Tribe.  Rep. Cole felt that this slur should have never entered the conversation, referring to the current twitter war between Don and Liz.

To be fair, Elizabeth Warren hasan't exactly distinguished herself either, goading Trump with all the pot shots she has taken recently.  I'm not quite sure what Liz's game plan is here, other than to act as Hillary's surrogate.  She has made some pretty crude remarks herself.  The problem is that when you play these games with Donald, you usually end up losing.  Just ask Marco Rubio who was forced to take back all his hand jokes.

Trump's latest twitter attacks stem from Liz claiming she was part Cherokee, based on family lore.  Her family originally hailed from Oklahoma, where there are a large number of Cherokees, along with Chickasaws and other tribes, were marched there in the 19th century leaving behind a "Trail of Tears."  There was no way to confirm this link, so Scott Brown had a field day with these claims during their bitter Senate election fight in Massachusetts.  Brown has since sworn his allegiance to Trump.

Pocahontas herself was a member of a Virginia tidewater tribe led by the famous paramount chief Powhatan, about 200 years before the Trail of Tears.  He was the one who allowed the English to set up a colony at Jamestown and ultimately lost his daughter and most of his tribe as a result.  She bears little relation to Liz's family tree.  However, being the most recognizable Indian in American history, she is the one most often evoked, as in Neil Young's song.

Donald says he didn't mean any disrespect to native Americans, he was just teasing Liz.  Even his "ferocious foe" Lindsey Graham thought it was pretty funny, saying if you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen.  Liz's response was to "delete your account," picking up on a retort Hillary had made earlier to Trump after calling her "Crooked Hillary."  It just shows how juvenile this campaign has become when presidential candidates and their surrogates are resorting to teenage slang on the Internet.  As John Oliver points out, this only brings the game to Trump's court, where he is the undisputed master of tweets.

All this name calling has everyone scratching their heads.  No sooner does Trump try to make himself look presidential by reading a prepared speech, apparently edited by his daughter Ivanka, than he reverts right back to his old self.  This led Mitt Romney to convene a special session at his Park City Utah home to decide how to respond to Trump.  He had gathered Meg Whitman, Paul Singer and other GOP mega-donors, and invited young Republican Senators as well, notably Paul Ryan and Ben Sasse, to discuss a post-convention strategy I assume.

As expected, Mitt was bombarded with angry tweets  from Team Trump when he emerged from his cozy retreat to speak with Wolf Blitzer, calling Trump's language "trickle-down racism."  The problem is that this racism is already in the fabric of his supporters.  Trump is just confirming it with his vitriolic attacks on opponents, whether real or imagined.

The Pocahontas tweets are just another distraction from what is a serious riff in the Republican Party.  Meg Whitman, founder of eBay and current CEO of Hewlett-Packard, is actually considering supporting Hillary.  This would be a big blow for Republicans and for Donald, who doesn't appear to have the assets to cover a national campaign.  Mark Cuban suggested that Trump had to liquidate assets to come up with money during the primaries, and that he is currently far behind Hillary when it comes to financial resources to carry him through to the general election.  But, Donald doesn't want anyone to know that so he takes out his frustration on Liz.

The convention couldn't come soon enough as far as Republicans are concerned.  They would like to get Trump on track, representing their party, not playing these puerile games.  It has cost them dearly in the past few weeks.  However, Trump isn't going to change his stripes, and who is going to support him in a national campaign?  The Koch brothers have also ruled out Trump.

This leaves notoriously cheap conservative benefactors like Carl Icahn, who spent less than $100,000 in the 2008 campaign.  Since Donald has already tapped him as his presumptive Sec. of Treasury, maybe Carl would be willing to ante up more this time around.  However, that $150 million super-PAC he promised last year never materialized, and it would take approximately 6 times that amount to cover a national presidential election.

Of course, Donald can try to drag Hillary into a five-month twitter war, as he did his past GOP opponents.  That's cheap and certain to get news coverage.  However, it is doubtful the Hillary campaign will go down this road.  Meanwhile, Liz is egging Donald on, making it even more uncomfortable for traditional Republicans to support him.  You might call this one, Pocahontas' revenge.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Last Tango in Vegas

Reading this piece by Hunter S. Thompson, written three months after the notorious first fight between Ali and Leon Spinks, brought back a flood of bad memories.  Ali had already succumbed to a number of highly questionable fights, including one with Chuck Wepner, who Ali couldn't put away and became the basis for the movie Rocky.  He had also fought some dubious exhibition fights like the one with Antonio Inoki, a Japanese mixed-martial-arts fighter, who spent virtually the entire fight on the ground kicking at Ali's legs until the Champ could barely stand by round 15.  However, nothing could prepare us for that awful night in Vegas when Ali looked every bit the haggard old man in losing his belt to a toothless light heavyweight with only seven fights under his belt, none of which against any fighter of note.

Ali looked so lethargic in the early rounds that you began to wonder if he was throwing the fight.  After all, he won a unanimous decision against Earnie Shavers just a few months before, who was a much better fighter than Spinks. This fight dragged on 15 insufferable rounds with Ali giving up round after round so that nothing short of a knockout would win it for him by the 15th.  The only problem was he had no gas at this point and very nearly got knocked out himself by a wild overhand from Spinks in the last round.

No sooner was the fight over than Ali was demanding a rematch.  When Spinks turned down a match with Ken Norton to fight Ali again in September, just about everyone assumed the fight was fixed.  The WBC stripped Spinks of his title and set up a fight between Ken Norton and Larry Holmes.  That left the WBA title for them to fight for in the Fall, the so-called "Battle of New Orleans."  Ali won the grudge match with a unanimous decision, claiming his "triple crown," the first man to do so in  heavyweight boxing.  Seems Ali was trying to secure a special place in history more than anything else, and Spinks could be counted on to oblige.  Ali vacated the title the following year.

It was probably the most ignominious chapter in his boxing career and one most of us have tried to forget.  Thompson, like everyone else, couldn't believe the Champ could lose to someone like Spinks, but as the doctor noted the writing was on the wall.  Just as Sonny Liston didn't know when to hang up his gloves, so too proved to be the case for Ali.  If you are getting $5 million to step into the ring regardless of who you fight, what does it matter.  Thompson estimated that Ali had bagged $56 million since he took out Liston, which at that time made him the highest paid athlete in the world.  Thompson further estimated that the highest paid basketball player then, Bill Walton, would have to play 112 years to match that kind of money.  Today, a fighter can get four times that amount for one fight, and basketball players don't do so bad themselves.

Still, you expect more from the Champ.  He was a living legend.  What was he doing wasting his time on guys like Wepner and Inoki and Spinks?  Ali also fought exhibition matches against Lyle Alzado and Gorilla Monsoon, which became fodder for later Rocky movies.   Some have claimed that prolonging his career in this way contributed to his Parkinson's disease.  Certainly, he must have suffered some severe concussions.  The Inoki fight left his legs so battered and bruised that he probably had circulation problems after that.  As it was, it delayed his highly anticipated fight with Ken Norton.

None of these fights added to his legacy.  If anything, they took away from it, but Ali was determined to get as much money as he could from the sport before he hung up his gloves, which is why he stepped in the ring yet again against Larry Holmes in 1980 hoping to claim a fourth title, but Holmes pummeled Ali until the referee was finally forced to call the fight in the 10th round.

If that wasn't enough, Ali tried to stage the so-called "Drama in Bahama" against Trevor  Berbick that similarly ended in a loss.  Not much drama since there was no title at stake.  Ali was pushing 40 at this point.  For Berbick, who was 12 years younger, it lent him notoriety that eventually earned him a title fight in 1986, which he won, only to lose it the same year in a second round KO to Mike Tyson.

If anything, Ali set a new precedent in that you were never too old to step into the ring.  George Foreman returned to the ring after a 10 year absence and eventually won the WBC title from Michael Moorer at the ripe old age of 45.  Ali was now suffering from Parkinson's so there was no way he could step back into the ring, but he went on promotional tours with Foreman and Frazier, recalling the good old days the best he could.

Thompson leaves you hanging with the article he penned back in May, 1978, for Rolling Stone magazine, and I haven't been able to find a full follow-up article.  Maybe RS will make it available like they did this one from its archives.  All you get is a snippet of what transpired after all hell broke lose in Room 904.

Sadly, the Leon Spinks fight brought Ali crashing down to earth and we would never look at him quite the same way as a boxer.  We all knew there would come that time when Ali would have to cash it in, but why couldn't he have gone out after the Shavers fight?  We would have been spared the horror that happened that ill-fated February night in Vegas.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Where the Boys Are

Mike Judge and Alec Berg with the cast of Silicon Valley

Every once in awhile someone gets it right.  That's certainly the case with Silicon Valley, an HBO sitcom that has given life in the "valley" a Seinfeld-like quality, largely because Mike Judge has teamed up with Alec Berg, who was both a writer and producer for arguably the greatest sitcom of all time.  These two are naturals for television.  Their movies have bit hit and miss, largely because their brand of humor needs room to play out.  Their quirky characters need time to develop until a natural repartee emerges that makes the jokes click.

People forget that Seinfeld bombed in its first season and was very much in danger of being cancelled.  It took a while for these four seemingly mismatched characters to come together and learn to play off each other.  That was pretty much the case with Silicon Valley in its first season although it had the benefit of being about something that captured viewers' attention.  It cast a light on Silicon Valley that allows us to laugh at its presumption that it is "making the world a better place."

As Andrew Marantz writes of the show's staying power, now in its third season after what could have easily been a one-and-done season, in this  New Yorker article.   The premise arises from the clash between the idealism of Steve Jobs and the libertarian forces that now shape the tech world.  The story of Richard Hendricks, the show's chief protagonist, is grounded in whether he can hold onto his vision of a universal information compression platform that he believes will make the world a better place without compromising it in a vapid libertarian world that is product driven.  No longer does a program or app really have to do anything, it just has to be marketable, which the show mercilessly pokes fun at with such apps as Nip Alert.

The show gets away with a ton of sexist and racist jokes because it is done in a jocular office banter that we can all immediately identify with, and also because the characters rarely get away with it.  There are immediate consequences to almost every off-color joke,   Poor Richard takes the brunt of these blows as he struggles mightily to hold onto his vision.

Judge and Berg go out of their way to make the show seem real, unlike The Big Bang Theory which is content with the domestic comedy of its science nerds.  In Silicon Valley, the writers actually take time to explain what compression is with the hilarious "dick jerk" analogy from season one.   Beavis and Butthead meet Jerry and George.  As a result, the show has become the buzz of  the real Silicon Valley, which the writers mine to find new material for their show.  Bring in Dick Costolo, former Twitter CEO and once a student at Second City Theatre and you feel like this show could go on for a very long time.

It also helps that the casting is nearly flawless.  The actors play their roles to razor-sharp perfection, almost making you feel that these are their real selves.  This is also what made Seinfeld work or any good sitcom for that matter.  The actors embody their roles.  One actor does seem a bit out of place however.  Amanda Crew is not given much to go on as Monica.  Not even the romance the writers hinted at between her and Richard ever materialized.  I guess they were afraid they would end up with a situation like that on Big Bang where soon they would have to provide a quirky girlfriend for all their characters, which they similarly made fun of in a recent episode from season three.

You quickly understand that Judge and Berg aren't very good at the romance thing, as made painfully evident when Richard tries to court another woman in that episode.  The romance was a carry-over from the previous episode, but Richard and Rachel break up over a tab-vs-space bar squabble before they have had time to even consummate their relationship.   It's best when the writers stick to fantasizing over relationships like the one Dinesh imagines with an Estonian girl over the Internet, presenting himself as "Pakistani Denzel."  It works until he devises a higher resolution image feed for the two to use, at which point the gig is up.

With the third season now drawing to a close, the actors have all gained celebrity.  T.J. Miller, who was probably the best known actor heading into the series, enjoyed sharing an anecdote with Marantz where he met Elon Musk at an after-party in Redwood City.  A woman came up to them asking if she could have a picture.  Naturally, Musk thought it was him who she wanted to have a picture with and was visibly disappointed to be the one left holding the camera.  Musk apparently wasn't very high on the show to begin with, so this probably killed it as far as he was concerned.

It is this overblown sense of self-importance that is the show's ultimate target.  Miller's character Erlich Bachman is the stand-in for many over-inflated egos; as is Gavin Belson on a larger scale, the head of Hooli, the show's stand-in for Google.  They even had fun with Google X in one episode in which, you guessed it, a monkey jerks off with a bionic arm.  I don't know if this puerile humor is the staple of the real Silicon Valley or simply Mike Judge's brand of humor but it fits well with the characters.  It apparently didn't sit well with Astro Teller, the head of Google X, who believes the company's "moonshot factory" is devoted to serious research.  Likewise, PETA was none too pleased with a recent episode that featured horses having sex, in what has been a long line of animal jokes.

I suppose Silicon Valley isn't for everyone, but it is a great pleasure to see Judge and Berg turn their witty brand of humor on America's most well known incubator of high tech ideas.  If success is measured by google search, the sitcom comes up first when you type in the name, and dominates the entries thereafter.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Vietnam: A State of Mind

or why Hanoi Jane won't go away

Who me?
A couple weeks ago, President Obama lifted the US arms ban on Vietnam, bringing to an end a chapter in our history many of us tried to forget.  It is still a "communist country," although it has adopted an economic model similar to China and is open for trade.  Vietnam is part of the Trans Pacific Partnership and a key part of our overall strategy to counter China economically and to some degree militarily in the Pacific Rim.  Quite a reversal from our time there 40 years ago, when we were forced to pull out of the country with our tails between our legs.

The Fall of Saigon remains vivid in some persons' minds, given the memes and screeds that continue to pop up on facebook, like this one penned by CMSgt Ronald Sampson castigating Jane Fonda.  It dates back to 1999, beginning as a chain e-mail, but has been updated a few times over the years to further reflect the writer's indignation.   There is also a pic being widely used to honor Vietnam vets that actually comes from the movie Tropic Thunder.  I think it was initially meant as a joke but it seems many persons don't recognize Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. (albeit in blackface) and Jack Black.  Then there are the constant reminders of all the homeless Vietnam vets and those who have been getting shoddy treatment at the VA and those who are just plain angry that persons like "Hanoi Jane" can get a presidential award, given the "traitorous" thing she did in standing up for the Vietnamese.

One figures the resurrection of Ronald's meme is in response to Obama dropping the arms ban.  It got less attention than his historic visit to Hiroshima, similarly condemned in memes, but there are those watchful eyes out there that monitor his every move and feel compelled to respond.  I think most of these people just exploit the Vietnam imagery.  For all we know this mysterious chief master sergeant may be made up too.  But, the meme sounds more compelling coming from someone who was presumably there to see "Hanoi Jane" in the flesh.

Ever since Vietnam we have been going through a catharsis that we still haven't quite brought to a conclusion.  We engaged in nasty wars in Central America and the Caribbean, got involved in civil wars in Central Asia, and ultimately went to war in Iraq to try to rid us of our demons from Vietnam.  Each time, we pretty much repeated the same mistakes on the ground, but the propaganda arm got better and the soldiers became packaged as genuine American heroes protecting our freedom.  If bad decisions were made, they were made in Washington.  Don't blame it on our boys and girls on the battlefield.  They are just there because they have been called to duty.

You cannot say a bad thing about our armed forces without being severely reprimanded, which is why I usually don't respond to these memes on facebook.  Patriotism has become a flag which we drape ourselves in, rather than confront hard issues.  This helps explain why Congress has yet to pass a comprehensive VA reform bill or numerous other efforts to help those vets who are genuinely struggling to get by.  Congress would rather squander its money on stealth fighter jets and war games in Europe than address the domestic issues that many vets face on a daily basis.

President Obama has chosen to address our past demons in a different way by reaching out to the countries that have been and some that are still considered to be our mortal enemies.  Most of us have gotten past Vietnam.  It is far away and poses no imminent threat to the US or Israel.  But, sadly Cuba and Iran still remain in the crosshairs of vengeful patriots who aren't ready to normalize relations with these two countries.

Happier bipartisan days
A large part of Vietnam's rehabilitation stems from its willingness to let the US track down POWs and MIA thought to be still in the country.  John Kerry and John McCain, both Vietnam War vets, co-sponsored the resolution after their famous visit to Hanoi in 1993.  This brought to an end the trade embargo and opened the door to normalization that has been ongoing for the last 20+ years.

The US never apologized for its actions, which resulted in anywhere from 1.5 to 3.5 million deaths on the ground.  It's not just the war between 1965-75 but the war that preceded it as well, as we were active supporters of the French effort in Indochina dating back to 1954.  We were determined to maintain a firewall in Vietnam against the spread of communism.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, we failed.

It is this failure that haunts us.  The US truly believes it is the vanguard of Democracy in the "Free World," and has taken on the responsibility to defend it regardless of whether the circumstances are favorable or not.  Unlike the other proxy wars we engaged in during the Cold War, we got directly involved in Vietnam over what we perceived to be an attack on our naval forces in the Gulf of Tonkin in August, 1964.  This led to a rapid acceleration in deployments the following year, reinstatement of the draft and a draining of our budget that threatened the long term sustainability of the Civil Rights Act and other hard-earned social programs that had been initiated during the Kennedy-Johnson administration.  Ultimately, the Vietnam War became Johnson's undoing, and paved the way for Richard Nixon to win the White House in 1968, the great Cold Warrior himself.

The war became hugely unpopular.  Protests and rallies were being held throughout the country.  Jane Fonda, along with Donald Sutherland and Fred Gardner, had created a Free the Army tour, a vaudeville act that went up and down the West Coast trying to establish dialogue through comedy with soldiers about their upcoming deployments to Vietnam.  She was also active in groups like Vietnam Veterans Against the War, before embarking on a Pacific Rim tour with FTA during the summer of 1972.  When she reported back the atrocities that were being committed by the US in Vietnam, she earned almost universal condemnation.  She has since apologized for that chapter in her life, especially for the photos that earned her the nasty title.

In the overall scope of things, Jane Fonda's anti-war crusade had virtually no impact, but the press had found a convenient foil and one that has been dredged up time and again to show the ungrateful nature of the Hollywood liberal elite toward our armed forces.  All liberals for that matter, as clearly we don't know the costs of war.  It doesn't matter that many returning vets, notably Ron Kovic, were just as much against the war as Jane, it's a convenient image to exploit, which is why the Hanoi Jane meme still makes the rounds 17 years after it first appeared.