Meditations on

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.