Meditations on

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Last Jedi?

Maybe you've already read a ton of reviews and think pieces on the newest Star Wars movie by director Rian Johnson, I'm going to go ahead and throw this into the pile anyways. I had a few different thoughts about the movie I haven't really seen elsewhere so I'm just going to throw them out there.

I can't talk about anything interesting in this movie without mentioning ***SPOILERS*** so don't read this if you don't want anything spoiled.

My impressions coming out of this movie were very similar to my feelings coming out of "The Force Awakens." I thought, "well that was kinda fun but...actually this part didn't really work....and really none of it worked."

"The Last Jedi" was more artfully done because Rian Johnson was looking to build off major themes rather than mindlessly creating mystery boxes and copping nostalgic techniques to help you get high on memberries.

The main and most interesting theme? Father time and girls are still undefeated...

Normally that's phrased differently but I don't want to be crass.

The most interesting thing about the new films has been Kylo Ren, hands down, no contest. Rian Johnson seemed to agree and built this movie largely off Ren. George Lucas seemed to belatedly figure that out about Darth Vader after "A New Hope" and built the rest of the original trilogy around that realization. Or maybe he knew all along, I don't know, don't @ me.

In "The Force Awakens" Kylo Ren and the First Order were a nice parallel to the modern world in which the Alt-Right and white nationalism are emerging issues in America. They (the First Order) are busy reviving old symbols and figures from the fallen empire, marching around like Nazis, and generally playing the heel. Kylo Ren can't bear being the bitter, disappointing son of boomer, free spirited Han Solo and he's drawn to the past while also hating it.

You'll notice that the First Order seems to be a "whites only" institution, save for Supreme Leader Snoke, and this point is really driven home when Captain Phasma's helmet is cracked open and we see the fair skin and blue eyes underneath staring back at Finn with malevolence.

This is also noticeable in Luke Skywalker's battles with the past of the Jedi Order. My favorite line of the film, by far, was Luke noting the hubris and failures of the Jedi order and how "at the height of their power" they allowed Darth Sidious and his father to bring the whole thing crashing down. He hates this repeated failure of the Jedi Order, largely because he found it within himself as well when trying to train Ben Solo and a new generation. Self-loathing is always the strongest kind.

Meanwhile the Force has evidently risen up Rey and Snoke to burn things down and allow something new (and hopefully better) to be born from the ashes. Given the juxtaposition of the "whites only" and backwards-looking First Order with the diverse and ultimately white male-free Resistance, there's an obvious theme here of an America that's looking forward towards a day when things are different and it's not just white males at the head of everything.

In "the Force Awakens" Rey seemed to be more of a feminist icon, a girl from unknown but surely amazing origins who was going to turn the galaxy upside down. In "the Last Jedi" she's a nobody, raised up by the Force to represent a new future. Her character is a blank canvass, filled with great potential that is ultimately highly alluring to Kylo Ren who wants to grow and become something newer and better than the past. So she basically from being a feminist icon to becoming a highly feminine archetype.

Kylo Ren's growth in this movie is driven by a desire to become what he needs to become in order to impress Rey and draw her in to help him build the future world he's envisioning. He's able to conceal his intentions from Snoke, murder him, and then take over the whole dang galaxy. Fortunately Rey is not won over. You'll have to do better next time, Kylo.

That's really the logical end point of this saga, Kylo and the old Skywalker family and heritage being redeemed by Rey and Ben Solo's decision to grow into the kind of leader that is worthy of the future represented by Rey. I guess it's more likely though that the series will end with his death, perhaps while saving her from some new threat, but these movies haven't been at all cohesive due to the director chair passing from Abrams to Johnson and now back to Abrams again for part nine.

I think I'll stick around for the next movie just to see what happens with Kylo Ren, he's an excellent and relevant villain. I have some doubts that his character will resolve in a satisfying way.

The problems? Many, they are...

One problem with this movie is that simultaneous to Johnson painting a picture of an old world and family line that needs to be burned down and replaced is him utterly failing to involve some of the new characters in a meaningful way.

This movie has glaring plot holes that largely emerge from the need to give Poe and Finn stuff to do.

Why didn't the blue-haired vice admiral, who's played by Laura Dern and who looks and acts like an incompetent HR drone, just explain the plan to Poe? Leia explains the plan to Poe in like 10 seconds and he gets it but Vice Admiral Holdo just issues vague platitudes and expects him to follow along. That's not leadership, that's just nonsense. That leads to Poe and Finn's meaningless journeys into meaninglessness.

Why is this slow-speed chase occurring in the first place. A friend of mine (@drryanpepper) noted to me that it doesn't make much sense that the First Order would content themselves with the slow chase rather than expediting things. In your massive, expensive, and advanced fleet you don't have any faster ships that can catch the resistance craft? Seems a major oversight.

Why not light speed jump some big star destroyers or dreadnoughts just a little ahead of the resistance craft and box them in? The First Order's plan isn't absolutely terrible, but it's not great either. @Drryanpepper compared it to the WR of a team that's up by 4 with 45 seconds left taking a knee at the 1 rather than just going into the end zone and ending the game.

Speaking of military strategies, another topic that has come up in discussion of this movie was the tremendous effectiveness of Holdo sending the main resistance craft light-speeding through the main First Order ship. That was a breathtaking scene, one of the more visually impressive of all eight (or nine I guess) Star Wars movies. It also creates problems for the future.

Lots of people are now saying, "why wasn't the rebellion doing this the whole time? Perhaps using droids as suicide bombers?" Well, that's a similar question people have asked for why the South insisted on large scale, pitched battles against the North in the American Civil War. Because they saw themselves as equals and equals meet on the battle field under certain rules of engagement until someone emerges a winner. Engaging in terrorism or insurgency tactics can frustrate a major power but it doesn't lead to credible authority as a fellow state that can wield power. See ISIS and the effectiveness of their terrorism juxtaposed by their failures when trying to build an actual state.

However, that's basically where the resistance is at by the end of the movie. There's like 15 of them left or something and there's not much else to do except to go plant I.E.D.s in space to thwart the First Order and recruit followers from the ranks of people that are disenchanted with life under Supreme Leader Kylo Ren's governance. That makes sense as a story, but that's probably not a story that the traditional Star Wars audience is going to identify with or enjoy.

You think they were mad when you killed off Luke and made Rey a nobody from druggie parents? What do you think they'll do if you turn Han Solo's son into the new emperor and then heroize people who hide and plant explosives to blow up his ships and kill his minions? It'd be an interesting story, I'd eat popcorn and watch it, but it's a risky move for a movie series that wants to sell tickets to an American audience. The latent "white males are the problem" themes have already angered lots of viewers so going in this direction would be a major double down.

Here was the biggest issue though...

The force wasn't terribly strong in the case against nihilism...

Let's go back to Finn and Poe. The mission to destroy the First Order's tracker, which gives Finn, Rose, and Poe something to do in this movie doesn't really make sense. It's awkward that they chose these characters to give the Star Wars greater diversity but then shunt them sideways while the white actors do all of the important stuff.

One interesting thing that happens in their side story though is their journey to the town of the 1%, where people who have made a fortune selling weapons to both the First Order and the Resistance like to gamble and abuse horse-things. It's here that they meet Benicio Del Toro's character, who can crack into the First Order's ship and help them out.

Del Toro's character understands the life cycles of the Universe driven by the Force. Darkness emerges, light overcomes it, light gets decadent and decayed, darkness emerges to destroy it, lightness re-emerges stronger and better. His thinking? Why not just get rich in the process and let the Force do its thing?

So he sells them out to the First Order and is apparently unworried that this will end the war and end the potential of future arms sales because the Force will find some other force of good/light to renew the struggle. He can always sell to them later, or just gamble away these new earnings until he's dead.

It's not obvious why he's wrong or what the Resistance should be doing or why they should even be striving at all rather than finding somewhere to hole up and get by for the various tumultuous cycles. Maybe see if Supreme Leader Kylo Ren might grow into statesmanship if you stop fighting him rather than trying to piece together the galaxy again under a single authority? Del Toro's character raises some interesting questions and perspectives within the larger themes of the movie...but maybe they should have just been ignored?

Especially when one of the main counters to this perspective seems to have been, "we don't win by destroying what we hate but saving what we love!!!" Well that's just total nonsense.

You're going to save what you love from what? Obviously from the violence of the First Order. How are you going to do that? Well considering that the header above the title says "Star Wars" I'm guessing you're going to end up fighting them, with violence. You probably aren't going to do that without developing a hatred of the evil within the First Order.

It was just sentimental nonsense that doesn't actually make any sense or answer how the Resistance is actually going to overcome the First Order or establish some kind of lasting peace that can avoid falling into decay and being destroyed by the next Sith Lord.

You can't help but wonder if Disney is the codebreaker, allowing the light vs dark struggles to go on endlessly while they collect stacks of checks. If that's the play y'all are going to make you'll need to start giving us more to sink our teeth into and enjoy that gives us "A New Hope" when you make episode nine or anything afterwards.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Civil war revisited...

All political ideology is a rationalization for "why we should be in charge." You point out a form of political ideology popular today, I can generally point to the people who espouse it and how it puts them "in charge" of things. Politics are inherently a struggle for the means to wield power.

Understanding that, and seeing past ideological platitudes, was very helpful for me in finally understanding the American Civil War and understanding the American Civil War seems like it might be useful for understanding the issues of today.

Growing up I was taught more or less the same thing about the Civil War as everyone else, that it was caused by slavery. The Union (north) wanted slavery gone, the Confederacy (south) wanted to preserve it. That seemed simple and true enough, and it is.

Later on I heard more nuanced takes about economic factors, the differences between the nations, and got a sense of the "lost cause" perspective in which southerners championed their efforts as primarily about "preserving our way of life over and against northern aggression." At one point I thought, "if the big dividing line had been about anything other than slavery, I think the confederacy would have been in the right." Then I learned better, here's what I learned.

The North and South were very nearly two distinct nations

If you track the "Albion's seed" theory of Anglo-American identity formation you can get the clearest picture of who was facing down who in the "north vs south" struggle. The south was essentially a transplanted variety of the sort of England you see in Jane Austen novels. You had an established, landed nobility class who ruled over things and then a sort of peasant class, including settlers and farmers.

As it happens, the aristocracy of the south was largely comprised of exiled aristocrats from England that came to the United States in the midst of a sort of "anti-establishment" period. Ironic that today monuments of confederate generals have been defended by an anti-establishment president.

Slavery was integral to this as the landed gentry were propped up by slave labor and thus freed up to pursue well-rounded excellence in multiple fields. So the aristocrats running things were comprised of highly intelligent elites with Thomas Jefferson as one of the shining examples.

The problem of course was that it was built on slavery. In addition to being an abominable evil that featured the forcible relocation, abuse, murder, and oppression of Africans, it was also a very delicate system. People today forget that the south fought hard to use federal power to maintain slavery, including with laws that punished people that supported runaway slaves. In addition to being abominably evil it was a maladaptive cultural system, which is no doubt partly why it was defeated.

The victorious north was a very different society that was adapting to the industrial revolution and building a society and politics based on a middle class built up via manufacturing. The "Albion's seed" origins of the north were largely comprised of exiled puritans and quakers, both of whom were well-educated middle class persons in England before becoming likewise in the new world. The Republican party was largely created out of a need for a party that was more directly designed to reshape American politics and law in deference to this new industrial society.

The vision by Republicans was to transform the United States into a middle class nation with no established hierarchy but a more meritocratic system. By this point Thomas Jefferson's vision of a Republic comprised of self-sufficient farmers was completely dead.

Clash of the nations 

The first major clash between these two nations was the "nullification crisis." This was essentially led by southern aristocrats aiming to protect the peasants that made up their communities from northern-passed tariffs designed to boost northern manufacturing. Ironic today that the only politician fighting for tariffs to protect American manufacturing and middle class jobs is the same one defending the confederate monuments.

Well the southern farmers didn't like the tariffs because it made it expensive to buy manufactured goods since European goods were cheaper than buying American without the tariffs applied. They deemed this an unfair exchange in which the more numerous northerners would impose upon them a policy that was to their detriment. The United States came close to civil war at this moment, with the always hot-headed South Carolina leading the way with claims that a sovereign state should have the right to "nullify" national laws.

This near-secession was ended in large part due to the first Democrat president, Andrew Jackson, who was a southerner but more the hero and advocate of settlers than the landed gentry. Jackson was firm and promised to treat nullification as a rebellion which he would crush. Jackson's ability to unite protectionist northerners, settlers, and southern farmers do indeed make him a fantastic comparison for Donald J. Trump.

The issues came back up later though over the direct issue of slavery itself with the south starting to panic due to the Republican party's emergence and ability to unite a large, free-labor base of voters and states that threatened to end the southern aristocrats power within the United States.

Not only were southern aristocrats propped up by slavery but also by the 3/5 compromise that allowed them to speak on behalf of their black slaves (with 3/5 representation) and gave them seats and electoral votes commensurate with their "responsibility" to speak on these poor peoples' behalf. However the growing population of the north and increasing number of free states meant that they would no longer be able to win national elections or hold enough senate seats to rule or even effectively counter northern and industrial policy.

Northern ideology meant a manufacturing-based middle class was in charge, southern ideology put southern elites on top. The more adaptive (and less evil, thankfully) group won.

The costs of war

One of the sad truths about the Civil War is that at no time have Americans sacrificed more then did American southerners on behalf of the Confederacy. Cities and towns were destroyed, the economy took a huge hit, slavery was ended, and for every four military age men in the south one would be killed in the war and another would be permanently maimed.

That's why it's very hard, even today, for southerners to own up to the fact that all of that loss came in a pursuit to protect the power of ruling elites that relied on slavery. There's a sort of "they may have been a-holes but they were our a-holes and they did look out for us!" vibe to the whole deal in addition to the very real sacrifices made by average southerners in the cause. Most of the confederate monuments that are up in the south today were put up in the "lost cause" period of American history in which southerners looked back with sorrow upon their defeat and the destruction of their old way of life.

Of course the American south is doing really well today but history is complicated.

Many of the attempts to cast the south as a whole and everyone who fought for the confederacy as a villain to be white-washed (no pun intended) from history don't really appreciate how difficult that is for modern southerners who understandably take great pride in their heritage. It's not an easy or necessarily naturally good thing to look back upon your own heritage with loathing, disgust, and shame. 

I would suggest that a better way to replace the monuments would be one that allows southerners to take healthy meaning from the sacrifices of their forefathers rather than trying to continuously jam defeat and shame down their throats, radical-style. Lincoln understood this, but of course some crazy southerner shot him before he could execute that superior vision of reconstruction. Robert E Lee understood this as well, yet he's still lumped in with the rest of the confederacy as though he were the originator of the KKK.

The statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee still stands in Lee park in Charlottesville, Va., Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. The removal of the statue is in litigation and is at the center of the racial tensions and demonstrations in the town. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The north paid a great price as well, albeit a lesser cost in comparison to the south but still a very heavy sacrifice. They were the big winners though and the nation has been largely structured around protecting and building the middle class up until relatively recent history...which takes us to today's conflicts.

Yesterday Trump outlined a plan to rebuild American infrastructure and work to make sure that the nation is benefitting the middle class citizen of both what used to be "the north" and "the south" in an effort to aid all Americans that are citizens of this country. Instead his agenda and the news headlines are being bogged down by these street battles between discontented and hate-filled radicals on either side over symbolic battlefields. 

This portion of the Trump agenda is good one and can work on behalf of the descendants of the northern soldiers, the southern soldiers, and the slaves who's fate hung in the balance. Let's hope our nation can find some unity and pass it through.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Potter-world gets grim with "Fantastic beasts and where to find them"

I didn't get anything close to what I expected from J.K. Rowling's "Fantastic beasts and where to find them." I expected a return to the fanciful world of Harry Potter (which was increasingly dark later on but still mostly warm and escapist) but instead found a grim, noir film that seems to have wisely anticipated that the Harry Potter audience is now older and grappling with an interesting and challenging world.

I was dimly aware that some people got a sense of modern politics in the story. Typically if an average person sees a movie as somewhat political I'm going to feel hit over the head with a hammer since I'm generally more sensitive to the politics or worldviews expressed in a film. What I found in this movie's politics and worldview ended up being rather interesting and artfully subtle, or at least not over the top and cringe-inducing, nor stupidly simple or pandering.

If you ever follow Rowling's public statements on politics that's frankly rather surprising. She has a keen mind and intuitive sense of humanity on display in her writing...when she's being blunt on twitter she comes across as simplistic or "daft" as the Brits might say. In her stories however, there is real depth of insight. She's probably stronger at understanding characters and human emotions than abstract ideas.

Here's some of what I saw, I'm going to include spoilers in this so don't read it if you don't want plot details revealed.

So where do you find fantastic beasts?

The strangest thing about the movie is the title. It was named after a book on Harry Potter's reading list in year one, with the character of Newt Scamander fleshed out and placed within the context of Gellert Grindelwald's emergence in the early 20th century.

The movie juxtaposes Grindelwald's search for a young wizard who was repressing their magic inside and forming a violent, monstrous force with Scamander's search for magical creatures that are being threatened by the wizarding world.

Rowling clearly has very little respect for either the state or the press and both are portrayed in her stories as bumbling and constantly causing problems with their overreaching responses to various problems that emerge in society. In this story the problem is relations between the magical community and the non-magical world.

The wizard's plan is to hide their existence and thus avoid generating fearful and violent responses from the more numerous "no-majs." The problem is that this leads to them seeking to wipe out magical creatures, who are incapable of getting the memo that they should remain hidden, and in the apparent repression of magic within young people that don't fit within the protective shield of the magical community.

There is great irony in the juxtaposition between the motivations of the good guys and bad guys within the story. The story's "good guy" Newt Scamander is keen on discovering and understanding the magical creatures and educating his fellow wizards and witches on why they should find ways to protect them by pointing out their positive attributes.

Gellert Grindelwald is actually aiming to discover an "obscurus" or a magical child who's powers have been so repressed that they are bursting out in violent ways. On this point, I think Grindelwald is aiming higher than Scamander, but as so often happens with deeply emotional and justifiable motives, Grindelwald's methods and proscriptions are not as good or noble as that of Scamander.

Instead of seeking to educate fellow witches and wizards, Grindelwald has an ISIS-like plan to manipulate them into flocking to his banner by using the obscurus to provoke a war with the non-magical community.

The major question of the story isn't "where" to find fantastic beasts but rather "how" to approach them.

Identity politics in the wizarding world

Gellert Grindelwald spends the movie disguised as an American auror named Graves and is played by Colin Ferrell until his unmasking at the end of the movie where he's portrayed by Johnny Depp. They give him (Ferrell) a fasci hair style which lets you know that he'll inevitably prove to be a villain.

Indeed Grindelwald seemed an appropriate stand-in on many levels for the Alt-Right or other identity politics groups of our modern times.

Both he and Scamander (and co) are trying to reach "Creedence" the young wizard who's repressed magic has formed the obscurus that has wreaked havoc across NYC in the film. Then the bumbling state agents show up and murder Creedence, which leads Grindelwald to be the only who actually serves to provide a eulogy for the poor boy in which he asks his fellow wizards,
"Ask all of you, who does this protect? Us? Or them?"
The diverse world of magical people and non-magical people requires compromises and sacrifices and Grindelwald is asking whether those costs to the magical community are worth it. He sees his fellow magical people as an oppressed group and he wants them to instead seize power so they can protect themselves.

Of course when you put angry and aggrieved people in power they tend to use it to do some unsavory things. The movie's treatment of Grindelwald here is perhaps the best as they demonstrate the sympathetic nature of identity politics and the "why?" asked by groups that feel they are suffering needlessly for a negotiated outcome that isn't working out.

The good guy, Scamander, seems ill-equipped for the real search occurring in the film. He's better with creatures than with people and has his work cut out for him.

The state gets a pretty bad shake in this movie as they are seeking to ask their own people to take on some of the heaviest costs of maintaining peace with a non-magical world yet they're portrayed as incompetent and doing it in such a manner so that it's too costly and breeds grievances that grow into monsters like the obscurus and Grindelwald.

Scamander now has about four movies to explain to the world through the way he unlocks the potential of working to protect and get along with magical creatures that the same is possible in diverse societies. Depp's Grindelwald will be seeking to explain that it's easier to grab power and act on the interests of your own people. The result should be a rather relevant story.

Monday, March 20, 2017

John Wick and the appeal of the ruthless action hero

I was slowly becoming aware from conversations with friends and listening to some of the content from The Ringer that the John Wick movie franchise was really landing home with male audiences these days. I also get the sense that no one fully understands why and most either don't bother to think about it (it's good action, what else needs to be said?) or just aren't aware of where this is resonating.

That Ringer column linked above for instance, makes a point about the glorification of brutality in the film and how it seems counterintuitive that this would be popular today when the political zeitgeist (at least at places like The Ringer) is all about depicting gun violence as an abhorrent evil that needs to be recognized and eradicated. As K. Austin Collins noted, that's not what's happening in John Wick.

Intrigued by all the hype, I watched it last night for the first time (haven't seen the second one yet) and was struck by some of the lines in the film and some of the ways in which it approaches the typical "he's got nothing left to lose!" action hero plot and the way they depict the violence. 

The way they get Wick to the point of violence is a little bit amusing. Wick loses his wife (I'm going to litter this with spoilers so just be aware) who had clearly pulled him out of the criminal life to a terminal disease or some such thing. After the funeral it turns out that she arranges for him to be sent a puppy a day or so after she passes. Yes, a puppy.

Her plan is to give him something to care for and protect to give him meaning and help him grieve healthily, which is pretty important that he do because as a former underworld assassin his capacity for destruction is immense if he's not under control.

Unfortunately some Russian thug (LOL, it's always the Russians in movies today, the politically correct uber-villain) decides to break into his house, beat him up, steal his car, and murder his dog. Now John Wick has nothing left to lose and he's going to go buck wild on the Russian mafia to make sure this punk (the apparent prince of the underworld and son of the main Russian mob boss) and pretty much everyone else involved in the crime network.

The style of this film is to feature Wick winning endless close range gun battles and ruthlessly administering precise kill shots as he saves ammo, much like a savvy 1st person shooter would do out of an awareness of the need to save ammo for the later bosses.

As one fellow Texas Twitter blogger noted to me, "John Wick is to guns what Fast and Furious is to cars."

Wick is fueled by cold, focused anger and supported by a network of fellow underworld killers who understand the rules and structure that need to exist for their lives to work. Every battle is a contest of sheer will and he wins them all easily and with a casual indifference to the danger. Keanu works well here both for his ability to display that kind of cold anger and detachment as well as the fact that at 6'1" and lanky he's actually somewhat imposing in these shots. He evidently went through a ton of gun and combat training and it paid off big time.

Now this plot is really typical, a man who has been trained to be an absolute destroyer is pushed to the edge by villains, he has nothing left to lose, and he's loosed as a killer that acts as the wrath of God upon those villains that pushed things too far. What's interesting is that this is still really resonating with today's male audiences and its artistry seems informed by gamer culture with its bleak scenery, massive body count, and ruthless murders.

What John Wick really is is an adaptation of #GamerGate into the action movie genre.

If you're not familiar, #GamerGate was basically a movement that resulted out of a frustration by gamers that politically correct forces within gaming media world were trying to control and manipulate the gamer world to suit their political agenda.

It's my belief that what most young men want in this world is a chance to build and protect a family, the ultimate way of building and passing on a legacy, yet that's not terribly easy in today's culture. We don't have a society that's geared around pairing couples for marriage instead favoring casual hook-ups. It's not always obvious or easy for young men to find jobs that can set them up to support a family, and the political zeitgeist amongst progressives is all about destroying "the patriarchy" and eliminating the role young men would have expected to have in society before they can assume it.

Now I'm not saying all gamers use video games as a distraction or means of handling their grief over having their role in society appropriated, but it definitely happens. With #GamerGate a generation of otherwise detached and disconnected young men felt that being taken away as well...and so they went wild and sought to take down the entire system they felt was unjustly working against them.

So while I initially chuckled at John Wick explaining to the Russian mob boss that the loss of his puppy had robbed him of his chance to properly grieve his wife and as a result he was going to murder him and his son...perhaps the truth is stranger than the fiction.

The reason that these "he's got nothing left to lose!" action movies appeal to young men is that they speak to the destructive potential of uninitiated young men in society.

If the young men in your society aren't being directed to use their creative energy and capacity for violence and ruthlessness to protect and defend your civilization or structure, they're going to instead use it to bring it all crashing down. The Russian mob boss even pauses to ask Wick,
What happened, John?... We were professionals... Civilized.
To which Wick responds...

Do I look civilized to you?? 
...before murdering the boss. That's the whole movie and archetype in a nutshell.

Action movies tend to glorify this process by depicting the young man as justified because whatever he's taking down is rotten and evil, but that may or may not be the case in reality.

The fact that these depictions in video games and film are getting increasingly grim, violent, and ruthless should probably be sending off alarm bells but most people simply aren't hearing them. Our nation just elected a man who absolutely plays into the "I'm a maverick who's going to bring this all crashing down" archetype and no one saw it coming (well some of us did).

America's young men need to be initiated and directed to fuel their capacities into productive ventures or they may find other uses for their talents that we don't like as much. In their telling of the story they're going to be the heroes and that story is being told in a pretty compelling fashion right now.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

H-1B visas and nationalist policy

Back in the day, my own dad graduated with a BA and Master's degree in English from a pair of pretty well known American Universities. He was then confronted with the question of how to apply an education in the arts into creating a middle class income.

As it happened, the world of IT was taking off and American companies all had increasing need for workers that could do programming to build "technological infrastructure" and compete in the rapidly changing markets. At that time, the labor market wasn't flooded with IT-savvy workers. So they determined to hire people like my dad who had demonstrated high aptitude in college without specifically learning the art of programming, and then they taught them how to program.

My dad is still at that game, the skills he learned became the foundation of his entire career.

Under the current climate, I wonder if he would have ever received that opportunity, because nowadays we see extensive usage of the H-1B visa. This component of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act has allowed American tech companies to expand their pool of possible workers to other tech-savvy nations such as India and China. There's a cap of 65k per year (although Hillary in her campaign proposed raising that cap to 195k per year). You get six years to work in the US as well as a path to permanent residency through this program.

As a part of his nationalist/protectionist economic platform, Donald Trump in his campaign proposed putting limits on the usage of H-1B visas, with stories such as Disney forcing American employees to train their foreign replacements garnering some headlines.

Today in the House of Representatives, a bill was introduced to raise the minimum salary for H-1B visas (which were intended to help staff American companies with skilled labor from abroad) from 60k per year to 130k per year.

The obvious intention of the bill is to reduce the tremendous cost benefit that companies get from hiring skill foreigners over Americans. For $70k per year maybe you'd be better off hiring less qualified or previously more expensive American workers and either dealing with it or training them. The (probably) intended consequence of this action is to force American companies that want to do business in the world's largest economy to take ownership over the development and well being of the locals.

This bill is inevitably going to engender immediate outcry and panic that will produce the following liens of rhetoric:

This is a racist policy that's bad for Indians!

This will devastate the US economy and force IT companies to go abroad!

Keep in mind that many of the people who will be pushing these two lines of attack in the media have a significant, bottom-line interest in this policy not being pushed through.

The morality of nationalist policy

Besides the economics issues at play, I believe there are two key moral reasons for why nationalist policies such as this one are actually wise for the government to pursue.

The first reason relates to the role of the state. While the expansion of American empire and influence abroad has often muddled the lines of responsibility, the US government's first priority is to its own citizens that choose their leaders, pay their taxes, and work to maintain the nation. Just as a father's first responsibility is to his own immediate family, a state's first responsibility is to the people that are directly under its care.

To pursue actions that work directly against their interests, such as allowing corporations to constantly decrease the price of labor through immigration while simultaneously helping universities to increase the price of education through immigration as well as wide scale loan programs, is frankly immoral.

The two main beneficiaries of that system are American elites, who don't need much help these days, and foreign workers. Neither of those two groups are evil or bad, they're using the current system to their advantage as anyone else would do, but the state should be looking to create a system that works to the advantage of its own people. That's what they were elected and empowered to do.

The other moral reason relates to avoiding the likely consequences. Raising the price of education in a world where the job market puts an increasing value on education while simultaneously artificially increasing the labor pool to shrink the number of available jobs and the price of labor is frankly a societally risky, get-rich quick scheme.

The risk is that you create a generation of intelligent, hard-working young men (and women) who don't leave school to find themselves valued, don't find opportunities in the workforce, and don't find empowerment to start and raise families. Creating a supply of young men who are uninitiated, bitter, and highly intelligent is a preposterously foolish thing for a state to do. What do you suppose they might start to turn their energies towards?

Some of them will create new entrepreneurial ventures that fill this gap and enable their brethren. Others are going to become angry and potentially turn their energies and giftings towards ventures that are unhealthy for themselves, or society, or the state itself.

Every time you hear someone ask what will happen to India's skilled workers consider the flip side of that consideration, what is going to happen to American workers?

The U.S. needs to continue to embrace more nationalism in order to guarantee that Americans and American power are a positive force in the world rather than a bitter and frustrated one.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

My view of our choices in the 2016 presidential election

Voting is an interesting issue. Many of us like to take it very seriously, even though the vast majority of us have virtually no impact one way or the other even in swing states like Michigan, and it's really more about where we are putting our hope and loyalty than anything else.

Each candidate on the ballot represents a group of leaders, a particular set of solutions, and a particular message that we either do or don't want to sign on with. The leaders and coalitions that back a candidate are very telling in terms of predicting what that candidate will do. That's who a leader is ultimately accountable to, never forget that.

The solutions should be viewed more as a philosophy to suit the leaders and coalitions behind the candidate, specific policies mentioned on the campaign trail are worthless. Even Obama, who campaigned on Obamacare and made it the signature legislation of his presidency, had to go back on many of the details in his plan in order to pass it while in office.

Finally there's the message you're attaching yourself to, which is often either a belief in the leaders and coalition your voting with or else a big **** YOU! to the leaders and coalition that you don't want to see in power.

Here's my view of the five candidates and what we are choosing if we decide to select them on our ballots:

Jill Stein

Who does she represent?

Part of me thinks Jill Stein is actually drawing much of her support (in terms of finances, not voters) from Republican donors that want to use her to leech crucial voters away from Hillary Clinton. Much of her messaging is aimed more at insulting and attacking Hillary Clinton and drawing in people from the far left wing of the Democrat party than anything else.

Jill Stein represents the ultra-hippy liberals of our nation that can't abide the level of compromise needed to elect "a progressive who gets things done" like Hillary Clinton.

What solutions does she offer?

This is largely irrelevant, since none of her policies would have a chance of getting passed by Congress and she doesn't have a chance of being named president.

What message are we aligning with if we vote Stein?

That the Democrat party is not liberal enough and needs to be held to account! Liberals that want to send a **** YOU message to the Democrat party for moving back to the center after Obama with the Clinton nomination may choose to do so with Stein. Probably not very many will do so, though.

Evan McMullin

Who does he represent?

Evan McMullin is a (sorta) clever play by the neoconservatives in Washington to try and undermine the attempt by Donald Trump to transform the Republican party into a nationalist party that includes working class white voters.

His background includes

-Working for Goldman Sachs, who represent the worst of American banking and encouraging a debt-ridden, short-term thinking US economy.

-Working for the CIA, who represent the worst of American foreign policy and creating a "tumulta Americana" by spreading disorder across the globe in an effort to achieve American end goals.

-Membership in the Mormon Church, who represent the worst of "America is the end goal of God's plan for the planet" religious thinking that can also be found in some protestant circles.

The play here is for McMullin to try to leech some evangelicals who are traditionally Republican but uncomfortable with Donald Trump and to rally enough Mormon voters in Utah to win that state and rob Trump of its six electoral votes that could be crucial in the event of a tight race where he wins Florida and Ohio but can't nab another big state.

There's also a potential scheme in which neither Trump nor Clinton reach 270 electoral votes and the election goes to the house of representatives, who then choose McMullin instead. Now, this is a total pipe dream that would never happen unless the Republican party was willing to risk being literally tarred and feathered by their voters, but that's at least the story.

Evan McMullin represents the oligarchic or "deep state" elements of the Republican party that want to continue to pump the economy with debt and engage in wars across the globe packaged in a friendly face that pretends to be primarily concerned with social morality issues. The real goal is to throw the election to Clinton, who will maintain the same economic and foreign policies.

What solutions does he offer?

Basically the ones that Romney presented four years ago, not that it particularly matters. This guy won't be president, he probably won't even win Utah.

What message are we aligning with if we vote McMullin?

Many conservatives will vote McMullin as part of a "I want a leader I can be proud of!" message in order to avoid having to pull the lever for a sleaze bag like Donald Trump. However, under the table you're ultimately aligning with powerful elements within the party that hate Trump's policy proposals and are using the "personal morality" play because they think it will work, not because it's one of their true values.

Gary Johnson

Who does he represent?

This is Gary Johnson's second time running as the presidential candidate for the Libertarian party and he mostly represents Libertarian Americans who's main preference in politics is that it has as little to do with their everyday lives as possible.

He doesn't have big, powerful backing and he's not really targeting either Clinton or Trump voters but simply any voters he thinks he can get. The Libertarian party has tried to make a play in this election for the moderate, suburban middle class Americans that generally lean Republican but these are not "limited government!" people so it's not really been a genuine or promising alliance that is likely to actually yield long term fruit for the Libertarian party.

The modern Libertarian party today doesn't really take sides on the culture wars, preferring to let culture move in whatever fashion in wants while moving the government out of the way. So on social issues like abortion, gay marriage, or drug legalization they'd like to see the government end their involvement. They're also pretty hands off with economic or foreign policy issues, most people agree with at least some element of the Libertarian platform. Specifically whichever part where they personally enjoy or benefit from autonomy from the collective.

What solutions does he offer?

Gary Johnson is something of a goofball who thinks the US government is over-extended (it is) and wants to reduce what's on the Fed's plate. He'd drastically reduce America's imperial efforts overseas, perhaps drastically so, and work to cut any government programs that he could get bipartisan support to cut.

Ultimately though, the solutions that Gary Johnson offers aren't what he'll do in office, his goal in this election is to make third parties and limited government solutions viable options for the future. However, neither Johnson nor the libertarian party are really vehicles that can handle that kind of assignment. If they had positions of power, they'd just support the "keep government out of my life!" tendencies in either party while negating the "use government to impose X vision for the country!" tendencies in either party.

There's not really a major groundswell in the country for that kind of policy. To just obstruct everything that either party would like to do isn't appealing to most folks because the country has problems that people want to see the government attempt to solve.

A positive vision for the use of power usually trumps a hands off approach.

What message are we aligning with?

There are two messages that people seem keen to send with a vote for Gary Johnson. The first is a "let's stop using the government to address issues and try to sort out more with the free market and free-acting adults!" That's the typical libertarian message and seems to get about 1-2% of the vote in a normal year.

Another message is "**** this two-party system! We need more options and I'm going to encourage the most popular third option no matter what it is!" This is the message from people that can't bring themselves to vote for either Trump or Clinton and are happy to make a protest vote.

That's a potentially powerful message that could impact future elections if the major parties determine that they lost too many votes due to having candidates with a lack of appeal. Of course, the Republican party has completely lost control of their own process so unless they can retake control from Trump that's a moot point. The Democrats are more likely to be impacted by Gary Johnson snatching up a chunk of the electorate unless they find themselves victorious here or they keep their base in line.

It's more probable that those parties will lose key voters to staying home rather than them voting positively for the Libertarian option.

Gary Johnson is basically the play if you think the biggest problem facing America is a lack of options in presidential elections. If there are other matters that you think the US govt needs to address then you're better off compromising and doing the difficult calculus to determine which people should be empowered to bring solutions.

Hillary Clinton

Who does she represent?

Hillary Clinton mostly represents America's ruling class, the wealthy elites that control both parties through campaign donations and seek a neoliberal agenda for American empire around the world. Open borders, free trade agreements, and government subsidization of the working class are the main goals here.

On any issue where there's consensus amongst the ruling elites in our nation, which are mainly issues in which their power and influence over the country or interests abroad are expanded or preserved, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, or any establishment figure from either party is going to be more or less the same. They all come pre-approved from elite consensus.

On issues that don't particularly matter to the status of the elites, the difference comes down to what their constituents want. The GOP establishment represents voters that have traditional values whereas the DNC has to appease voters with a much more progressive vision for matters like abortion, gay marriage, or gun rights.

For a matter like Supreme Court appointments, there would be some massive differences between Hillary Clinton and someone like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, for a matter like Syrian policy or immigration then the differences would be rather marginal.

What solutions does she offer?

The neoliberal goal is to offer greater government services for the citizens to keep them safe and happy as ruling elites exercise greater control and influence over the nation and its resources. That means continued low interests rates to keep the stock market going, moving Obamacare towards a single-payer solution, continuing to try and assert Western hegemony internationally to suit Western business interests (it's not for the good of the Syrian people that the US is currently involved), and continuing to make the West into a multi-cultural empire through open immigration.

If you have access to a degree and higher paying jobs then this vision includes some future for a middle class but it also greatly expands the pool of people who are de-facto serfs, living (hopefully rather comfortably) under the protection of big businesses with government subsidization that takes care of their health bills and retirement.

It's a far cry from the Republic of self-sufficient peasants that Thomas Jefferson envisioned or that the Republican party nominally tries to protect, but it probably sounds okay or even great to many Americans. The major problem is whether America's elites are actually competent enough to deliver on everything they're promising to deliver if their control and influence expands, or if they're competent enough to protect and expand American influence abroad in the face of 4th generation warfare and uber-competent rivals in Moscow and Beijing. There's also the question of whether they're too corrupt to accomplish those aims and actually serve the people they're asking to trust them with greater and greater power, particularly with the Clintons in charge.

What message are we aligning with?

There are three messages that people can send or align with by voting for Hillary Clinton. One is an open-eyed "I understand this vision for a globalist, multi-cultural empire run by American and Western elites and I think that's our best path forward."

Another is the, "I care deeply about progressive social values and since the president is going to be either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump then that means I need to vote Clinton! She's the closest, realistic option I have to my preferred vision for the country."

The final one is "**** that bigoted, sleaze bag Donald Trump! **** his deplorable voters! I'm not letting those people get anywhere near the levers of power in this country!"

Donald Trump

Who does he represent?

Trump represents the self-sufficient Americans who see the chances of their children having the lives they were able to build completely slipping away as the country becomes increasingly diverse, densely populated, debt-ridden, and dependent on Government subsidization.

He's done something interesting by uniting working class white folks from the North and South who once fought a bitter civil war with each other. However, his loose lips and sleazy past don't make him the favorite of all the traditional, college-educated Republicans in the suburbs or evangelicals.

Within his sphere of advisors there are some figures that have been friendly to the "Alt-Right" which is a new right wing movement looking to replace conservatism with something that emphasizes white identity, there are moderates that favor more nationalist policies that focus on law and order and internal improvements at home rather than adventurism abroad, and then there are "paleo-conservatives" that hate how the Republican party was co-opted by the neocons to emphasize aggressive foreign policy. Historically it's very difficult to conserve a culture and values if you're extending your reach and bringing new people under the umbrella.

So the advisors for Trump will likely push for stricter immigration policies, stronger law and order policies in the inner city (ala New York's crackdown in the 90s), and de-escalation abroad in which the United States stops trying to influence foreign governments and project power abroad. For the sake of his constituents, which are working class Americans (mostly white although his coalition is proving more diverse than expected and more diverse than Romney's) you can expect an attempt to pass protectionist laws meant to protect the American worker from immigration reducing the cost of labor or American companies moving factories over seas and removing options for Americans to get middle class jobs in manufacturing.

What solutions does he offer?

Clinton wants to keep the America of the 90's and 00's going, that's the one she knows (like the back of her hand) and the one she's always been working under. Donald Trump wants to back track to the 1950s when America was defined by the working class family, fathers could make enough money to allow their wives to stay home, the US hadn't engaged in a series of disastrous wars trying to impose regime change to serve the empire abroad, and the ruling elites had much more limited control over the country.

If your view of the 50s is picket fences, happy Americans, and good opportunity for all then this is probably exciting to you. If you view the 50s as racial oppression, white supremacy, and untapped promise then you're probably less excited.

Of course in reality, America is never going back to the 50's. What Trump will probably actually do is oversee a controlled decline of American empire abroad by deferring some of the "Pax Romana" role of maintaining global order to Russia and China and halting the transformation of the West into a multi-cultural empire.

Essentially Trump's "make America great again" is really a "try to preserve America as a nation of self-sufficient middle class peoples with traditional values" with a likely result of America becoming less "great" abroad. It's essentially the Byzantine or English "steady decline" approach rather than the Roman "bring it crashing down" to the descent of an empire. If you don't think America should accept a decrease in the empire then you probably won't like Trump's solutions unless you're willing to trade four years of gradual decline in exchange for a better option for re-amping things in four years when Clinton most certainly won't be on the ballot (assuming she loses here).

What message are we aligning with?

I think there are three main messages people are sending with a Donald Trump vote. For many traditional, conservative Republicans the message is basically "**** Hillary Clinton, that woman is full-on corrupt and represents the worst elements of the democrat party. A.B.C. Anyone but Clinton." For many of these people, the two to three supreme court justices appointments at stake in this election are tantamount to everything that's at stake.

Another is from working class Americans who feel (justifiably) that the democrat party has left them behind and are voting to put "one of their own" into power to see that their interests are protected. Trump obviously isn't a working class dude, but he's always connected with them, check out his appearances on WWE. Many of these people are traditionally democrats or disenfranchised folks who haven't voted in a while. Both the working class crew and the traditional GOP voter are probably also highly motivated by the way that Obamacare has left a smoking crater in the banking accounts of many middle class Americans.

Finally there are the people who see Trump as the figurehead of a movement to turn back the clock on America and prevent it from being transformed into something wholly different than what it was for them growing up. In the sense that Trump wants to slow immigration, fight to keep traditional middle class jobs in the U.S., and go to war with the way that political correctness is redefining American values, he represents a new (or very old) brand of conservatism that is resonating.

The potential evils of extreme nationalism are well documented by history, and Trump's embrace of the nationalism moving across the West has earned him the tag "the new Hitler!" But I think the West has oversteered too far away from Nationalism in the wake of WWI and WWII and that some course correction is due or else we risk changing American too much and too quickly for things to go down well.

I'd probably be an ABC voter no matter what, but for all his prodigious faults, I'm for sending a message today that we need to back track and seek to conserve American from the neoliberal overhaul it's been subject to for the last few decades. I'll be voting Donald Trump, God help us all and God bless America.

Monday, September 26, 2016

A guide to the first 2016 presidential debate

I've not really seen a consensus from election analysts on how much these debates really matter. I'm guessing for the vast majority of the people who tune in they only serve to confirm what they already were already thinking.

I imagine most people watching the debates are doing so with a "I hope undecided Fred is listening to this...maybe I'll go on Facebook and make sure he hear candidate's X point, then he'll surely realize what a worthless buffoon candidate Y is!"

Here's some of my own guesswork on how this thing is likely to go down and what the results will prove to be.

None of the facts, figures, or arguments really matter that much.

No one really cares too much about those, no one's going into this debate waiting to hear the numbers on tax policies that will cinch the deal, confirm which ideology is best, and explain which candidate is the "Honest Abe" that's going to reunite this country in a utopia.

What will matter is how each candidate makes you feel and what kind of narrative and impression you attach to each candidate. The facts and figures that "fact checkers" will look into...everyone knows those are largely bogus or irrelevant and people only care when the other candidate gets called a liar so that they can go on Facebook and say "see that, undecided Fred! I told you candidate X was full of it!"

So the real story here will be which candidate works against the caricature being created for them by the opposing candidate and sells a vision or narrative of their own candidacy that is compelling enough to lure in undecided voters and inspire their own people to actually show up and vote.

Clinton's strategy will be to try and draw a contrast between herself as a seasoned, worthy veteran of governing and avoid taking shots other than to demean various Trump comments as "unpresidential" or indicative of an unqualified buffoon who's in over his head.

If you were one of the few unfortunates who watched Biden vs Ryan in the 2012 Vice Presidential debate you may remember Biden talking over Ryan, interrupting him, and rolling his eyes at virtually every comment.

It'd be going too far for Hillary to match that performance, but something similar where she treats Trump like a reckless child that needs to be reined in by a strong adult would make a lot of sense.

The worst thing that could happen would be for him to look presidential in direct comparison to her and thus gain credibility with the college educated voters that are avoiding jumping on his wagon.

If she wants to play this aggressively then she'll look to press Trump on any issue where she feels he gave a weak or ignorant answer to a question from the moderator. Marco Rubio did this to some effect in one of the later GOP debates but then it only served to bolster Cruz as Trump's opposition.

The problem she has in this format is that she tends to operate off a script with highly detailed, prepared plans whereas Trump reacts in the moment. So any plan she has for going after him could be derailed if he goes off script in an effective way and then she's left without a prepared response.

The safer plan would be to rely on the media and her supporters to draw a contrast.

Most of the advantages in the debate are Trump's

Here's a list of just a few of the ways in which he's at advantage in this thing.

Advantage 1: A favorable point spread

Polls indicate that most people, outside of those who already expect to vote for Trump, believe that the debate format will favor Clinton. That means that voter's expectations are higher for Clinton and the debate betting line is basically Clinton -5.

To beat Clinton -5, Trump doesn't have to actually win the debate or tie with her, he just needs to play within five points (so to speak) and he'll come out ahead as a result of exceeding expectations.

If he demonstrates a greater command of policy, details, and avoids any particularly boorish moments that make him hard to take seriously then he'll exceed the expectations of many voters. Clinton has spent much of the last few months building a caricature of Trump as a reckless, racist madman who can't be trusted with the nuclear codes. It's been pretty effective but the problem is that it's such a cartoonish caricature that it may not be that hard for him to blow it up by simply acting like a responsible, measured adult for 90 minutes.

Advantage 2: A simpler message

On an issue like national security, Hillary needs to craft explanations for why being welcoming to immigrants is useful in the fight against terrorism, why her interventionist policies abroad actually do work to the advantage of Americans, and why Russia is a pernicious threat who's activities in the old Eastern bloc should be taken very seriously.

None of those positions are obvious at first glance and will have to be explained in simple, convincing fashion for Americans to hop aboard. If you haven't listened to her much, Clinton isn't necessarily a natural communicator so this should be interesting to observe.

Trump's positions contain a great deal more plain, obvious sense and he communicates them at about an 8th grade level. When Trump says something like, "we need extreme vetting to make sure that dangerous people aren't coming into our country!" that just makes a lot of obvious sense and it then falls on Clinton to explain why we wouldn't use extreme vetting to protect the borders or why Trump doesn't have a monopoly on keeping dangerous people out of the country.

When Trump says something like, "why should we be opposed to Russia? We should be working with them around the globe to defeat radical Islamic terror," it then falls on Clinton to explain why it's better to continue to position our country against Russia's foreign policy despite this shared concern for an issue that is much larger concern to Americans at home then who rules Crimea.

Clinton will try to dismiss his policy prescriptions and campaign values as "racist" and "unserious" while outlining her own policies as being more nuanced and intelligent, but this could be tough given how easily he'll communicate whatever sense there is behind his own stances.

Advantage 3: Hillary's health

The health issues that have dogged Clinton's campaign couldn't be worse for her in terms of the overall persuasion battle for the trust of American voters.

While Clinton is trying to paint Donald Trump as a reckless, racist who shouldn't be trusted with the nuclear codes, Trump is trying to paint Hillary Clinton as a corrupt, conniving, and sickly figurehead of an establishment that doesn't actually care for the average joe.

When videos go viral of her coughing uncontrollably, getting dragged into her van after nearly collapsing, or losing control of her eyes while making really fleshes out the caricature and serves his purposes extraordinarily well. Either you see her as more corrupt or as unfit to protect the nation, both of which are killers for her election hopes.

Anything that happens during the debate that even hints at a lack of health on the part of Clinton would be pretty devastating. Of course, if she's actually sick and her eyes go crossways or she faints at her podium...all the more so.

The likely outcomes and consequences

There are lots of legitimately undecided voters out there, or voters who haven't committed in one direction or another at least, who are likely to use the debates to cement their leanings. The big question is, which way are these people already leaning and will the debate serve those leanings?

If you're leaning towards Clinton then a moderate execution of her plan to spell out nuanced, presidential sounding positions while avoiding a seizure should probably do the trick unless Trump really amazed. If he makes some stupid comment then she's in great shape.

If you're leaning toward Trump but just can't bring yourself to do it then a debate in which he avoids too many Trumpisms while having a chance to lay out his simple principles might be enough to convince you to fall in line with the GOP. If she coughs and sputters while trying to explain how Trump is the candidate for the ultrarich despite their massive investment into her candidacy then he's probably in great shape.

My guess is that sharing a stage with Clinton and having a chance to outline his message in his own words to an audience that may include people only familiar with the caricature is probably going to work to Trump's advantage.

Whatever happens, the more politically active Facebook users will declare victory for their preferred candidate, as will the political strategists on television.

Ask yourself, "how did this candidate make me feel?" and you'll have a more accurate sense of what the actual results will be from this charade.