dear Americans: your country is doomed. (part 2)

Read part 1 here.

In searching for a fulcrum, there are 3 general areas in which I believe we need to focus our attention:

Elections. Setting aside the questionable validity of democracy as a form of social politics (see Crimethinc) as well as the nonsense of the Electoral College, the mathematical fact remains that the majority-wins method of counting votes is antithetical to the representative and popular functions elections are supposed to provide. The proof: in an election with more than two candidates, a candidate can win with a minority of votes. For a duopolistic system, this is ideal because it makes it structurally easy to politicize third parties out of the process. Throw in money, gerrymandering, corporate lobbying, prejudicial Voter ID laws, and biased electoral institutions (such as the Commission on Presidential Debates) and it’s clear that the electoral system isn’t about empowering people to choose their representatives on their own terms. It simply isn’t designed for it. Instead, the system – as it was when voting rights were confined to white male property owners – the US electoral system is a means of keeping the people on a leash, and the leash in the masters’ hands. The fix would be easy enough for those who want to reform US democracy: instant run-off voting, public campaign financing, and debates open to all candidates. Until people agitate for it, however, the system will remain a game of five card stud poker with voters only being dealt two cards to play.

If that’s too sunny for you, let’s return to the questionable validity of democracy as a form of social politics with a question: what political power does a citizen actually have? Answer: the vote. That’s it. Once elected, politicians can work the government apparatus to pass and enforce laws as well a direct agencies to function in a particular way. Citizen input is not required. Of course, lobbying is an activity that’s open to us…but who has time to forego a paying job to continually exert pressure on the government towards this or that policy goal? And protesting is an intensive activity that requires strategy and resolve, two qualities hard to get in a productivity-obsessed economy. Unless you’re a paid lobbyist, chances are that you’re too busy running your own life to be able to engage the political process via lobbying, let alone orchestrate direct actions. This isn’t a bug; it’s a specific feature of democracy, and politicians know how to exploit it.

But the problem is even deeper than that, as Mike Lofgren explains in his essay Anatomy of the Deep State:

…there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose. My analysis of this phenomenon is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day. Nor can this other government be accurately termed an “establishment.” All complex societies have an establishment, a social network committed to its own enrichment and perpetuation. In terms of its scope, financial resources and sheer global reach, the American hybrid state, the Deep State, is in a class by itself.

If the presidential and congressional power that is shaped by popular elections, however loosely, is only the surface of the vast apparatus of power that is unaccountable and bureaucratic, then it what sense is voting a meaningful expression of popular power over the government? Answer: it’s not all that meaningful.

The Media. Corrupt and purposefully dysfunctional elections are bad enough, but a corrupt and corrosive media that misinforms citizens is worse. Noam Chomsky famously described the workings of the US media as propaganda in his essential Manufacture of Consent, but the recent election cycle offers many other examples. For instance,the condescending, nearly non-existent coverage of third-party candidates. Even NPR, notable for its sanity in the carnival of contemporary journalism, routinely fails to cover perspectives outside of the Democrat/Republican duopoly. Like most of the mainstream media, it perpetuates a set of government- and corporate-friendly assumptions irrespective of partisan politics.

The media’s propagandist role, along with discussions around the value and consequences of the Fairness Doctrine and its rescinding, is only part of the problem, as is the fact that our distance from newsworthy events makes it difficult to serve as our own fact-checkers. The consolidation of media into a handful of a few powerful corporate conglomerates is another as it comes with a consolidation of editorial direction. News stories selected and edited to fit a political agenda are subject to an even baser criterion: profitability, which affects not only advertising but the way news is produced to give audiences what they want rather than what they need. The news is a commodity, in other words, and not a public service. With the commodification of news has come an explosion of opinion, commentators whose job is to fill the airtime of a 24-hour news cycle with “analysis” that is rarely expert but nevertheless reliably forceful and tailor-made to fluff the audience.

But wait, as the infomercials say, there’s more: the Internet. Yes, it’s a marvel of communications that makes the Tower of Babel look like a high school science fair project. Yet it also amplifies the very worse cognitive biases we are prone to simply as a matter of psychology. If you don’t agree with reality, it’s easy to find a website that will adjust it to your liking.

Of course, there are some excellent sources of information and expert analyses out there. There are, however, countless more sources of bad opinions and distorted, if not outright fabricated, facts. The challenge is to sort out the signal from the noise. Combined with the forces of consolidated media ownership and commoditization with the sheer volume of “information” (or hyperdata, which is a non-informative simulation of information) and we see the crux of the crisis: an inability to agree on what constitutes reality, let alone agree on how best to resolve problems. (And I acknowledge the philosophical problem of arguing for an “objective reality,” but leaving aside the metaphysics let’s consider reality as our shared, verifiable experience of the world.)

Education. Education is a complex topic, of course, and a generational challenge. The struggle between public and private is a crucial battleground, but the question is timeless. What is the purpose of education, and what results do we expect from it? Partly, education has the role of indoctrination, which is only bad when it’s the wrong ideas being indoctrinated. (There’s a whole debate in that, naturally.) Education is also about, or should be, about teaching critical thinking skills and scientific literacy – in a word, Reason. Sometimes, it isn’t a particular perspective that is important but how one reaches that perspective and the extent we have the humility to change our perspective when presented with new evidence. Given the structural problems underlying the patchwork of educational systems, from funding to teacher training and retention, it’s not surprising that outcomes are wildly uneven even before we consider how politicized education is. It seems pretentious to suggest that “the people” are uneducated, and it’s clearly a risky proposition because it depends entirely on what we rate as “educated.” There’s also the risk of overestimating the effects of education, since many societies have been ruined by educated but morally or emotionally deficient political classes.

But the problem can be stated that while people may not necessarily be uneducated, they might be mis-educated, a phenomena that is obscured by the relentless focus on metrics and other so-called innovations resulting from applying the industrial revolution to the classroom model. In short, the problem is a lack of critical thinking capable of mitigating our cognitive biases along with a lack of humility in terms of our knowledge and capacity for reason. The problem isn’t confined to opinions based on faulty reasoning and bad facts, but extends to the cultural attitude that we must preserve our sense of rightness - our prestige and our power - over reality.

There’s more to be said, of course, about any of these three elements; these are just a sketch. The next question is: what does it all mean when put together?

To be continued…


dear Americans: your country is doomed (part 1)

The election cycle draws closer to its fireworks finale and, as Admiral Ackbar might say, “It’s a trap.” On one pole of the duopoly we have Trump, whose rise was made entirely possible by the confluence of the media, celebrity culture, the GOP’s moral bankruptcy, and the Democratic Party’s Machiavallian political maneuverings. There is nothing surprising about Trump himself. The surprise is that, after lavishing so much attention on him, the media has suddenly decided to do some actual dredging during the traditional electoral month of surprises. Of course, this suggests how blind, stupid, or both the media was in claiming shock that Trump was the Republican nominee. A few early primary wins, along with dramatic escapes from normally fatal controversies, should have been a cue that this wouldn’t be a “normal” election. But fuck all that. The commentary on Trump ranges either from banal expressions of outrage or shock, shock that the GOP’s sociopathy has been flying its freak flag so blatantly. Of course we have to denounce the criminal, the immoral, the injustice. But when the whole effort itself becomes a smug exercise tantamount to munching on popcorn while the city burns, Trump commentary and coverage deserves this scene from Happy Madison:

While Trump’s denunciators congratulate themselves for their moral acumen, there’s Hillary Clinton and the DNC. The eMails released by Wikileaks confirm – albeit to a great yawn by Big Media – that neither care about progressive issues, and both are institutionally sociopathic. The primaries were heavily biased against Sanders, who ironically turned out to be a paper tiger. Wall Street, the Oil Industry, and the accumulation of wealth for the few at everyone else’s expense – it’s all there too. And so is Clinton’s utter failure to pay more than lip service to the Left, if even that, and articulate a positive vision.Democrats represent the very problem of which the GOP is only the most cartoonish expression.

None of that, however, quite compares to the unprecedented challenges we face on a human scale; anthropogenic climate change, the nuclear arms race, global economic instability, environmental collapse…the list goes on until utter despair settles in. Taken individually, each challenge demands a movement, a collective and strategic action. But how many movements can we support as individuals? Activism for a single cause can require tremendous effort and engagement, which is why signing petitions and donating money is such an accessible alternative to joining the front lines.

Thinking of this, I wonder if there isn’t a single fulcrum that we can push against, or at least a smaller set of pressure points we can needle to affect systemic change. How can we act – and I admit I’m not asking an original question – if we see all the problems listed above as symptoms of the same fundamental disease? Is it possible to focus our efforts on a root cause and, in the process, make it easier to achieve progress on multiple fronts?

To be continued…


idle thoughts about art's political role against corporate power

Let’s consider two disturbing observations.

First, according to Global Justice Now, the ten largest corporations in the World are wealthier than most countries combined. From Common Dreams:

"Today, of the 100 wealthiest economic entities in the world, 69 are now corporations and only 31 countries," wrote Global Justice Now campaigns and policy officer Aisha Dodwell. "This is up from 63 to 37 a year ago. At this rate, within a generation we will be living in a world entirely dominated by giant corporations."

Indeed, multinational behemoths Shell, Apple, and Walmart each rake in more revenue than the world's 180 "poorest" countries—a list that includes Ireland, Greece, Israel, South Africa, Vietnam, and Colombia—combined.

And the top ten largest companies have a whopping combined value of $2.9 trillion, which is larger than China's economy.

See the spreadsheet for yourself here.

Second, corporate power has replaced popular, “democratic” power in the United States. It’s worth reading Chris Hedges’ piece at Truthdig in full, but here’s a key nugget:
Our political elites, Republican and Democrat, were shaped, funded and largely selected by corporate power in what John Ralston Saul correctly calls a coup d’état in slow motion. Nothing will change until corporate power itself is dismantled.
The corporate elites failed to grasp that a functioning liberal class is the mechanism that permits a capitalist democracy to adjust itself to stave off unrest and revolt. They decided, not unlike other doomed elites of history, to eradicate the liberal establishment after they had eradicated the radical movements that created the political pressure for advancements such as the eight-hour workday and Social Security.
This was planned:
Lewis Powell, then the general counsel to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in August 1971 wrote a memo called “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.” It became the blueprint for the corporate coup. Powell would later be appointed to the Supreme Court. Corporations, as Powell urged, poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the assault, backing candidates, creating the Business Roundtable, funding The Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and Accuracy in Academia. The memo argued that corporations must marginalize or silence those who in “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, and the intellectual and literary journals” were hostile to corporate interests. Powell attacked Ralph Nader and called for a concerted campaign to discredit him. Lobbyists eager to dole out huge sums of cash flooded Washington and state capitals. It soon became difficult and often impossible, whether in the press, the political arena or academia, to challenge the dogma of neoliberalism.
40 years after Powell wrote that memo and enmeshed himself in an effort to transform the country through increased corporate power, we find an intersection between neoconservatism and neoliberals.

The war corporatism the Knife Party warned us about so memorably in What Barry Says  - specifically the “visible yet sinister group” called the Project for a New American Century is only one chilling manifestation of the dangers presented by the substitution of corporate power for popular governance.

The political implications should be clear enough to anyone paying attention. My question is: what role can art play in resisting this corporate power grab, if not through direct action than at least through inspiration?

Our popular art forms often portray dystopian futures where the rule of law is supplanted by the rule of commerce. The cyberpunk genre, for example, is fundamentally rooted in extrapolating near-futures dominated by megacorporations whose powers transcend governments. Sci-fi shows like Continuum and the upcoming Affleck/Damon-produced Incorporated directly posit futures dominated by corporations.

Novels, of course, have long been a source of cautionary tales. Books like 1984 and Brave New World, for example, insightfully amplified real societal trends in terms of totalitarianism and social control to depict worse-case scenarios with applications to actual politics. There are countless more examples, of course.

Yet for all the vivid dramatizations about social ills, it doesn't seem enough. We seem distinctly unable to generate enough popular momentum to reverse deep, structural changes in our society. We can achieve some important victories, like marriage equality, but when it comes to challenging the forces controlling the fundamentals – health, shelter, food, economic security – we are stymied by the neoliberal/neoconservative programs that have taken root in our society’s most essential legal, political and economic operations. But at least the heroes on TV can win, right?

One of the most significant functions of art is to present us with fictional scenarios that allow us to safely explore the issues and consequences of real-life challenges. While we can debate the extent to which art that is fictional is as effective as art that can also be journalistic, like photography, it seems that art is experiencing a crisis of relevance. Not personal relevance, as it can’t be denied how artistic expressions is beneficial on a personal level, but political relevance. Whether a mirror of our anxieties or a prophet warning us of doom, art in all its forms seems more like a Cassandra. We respond emotionally to the ideas we are presented with, then move on to the next item of consumption with the delusion that art and reality have no necessary relation to each other.

Perhaps that’s where the problem lies: art struggles to be revolutionary because it is commoditized. Like everything else, art has been subsumed by the capitalist economic machine and, in the Internet age, drowned in hyperdata that dis-informs us. It’s so much easier to dismiss the ideas underlying fiction as fiction themselves; consume, dispose, repeat.

There’s historical precedence. Without being “productive” in the sense that being a labourer is productive, artists have always been dependent on society’s support or, more typically, on patrons for the necessary subsistence that enables them to devote themselves to producing art. Today, the patron is more often than not the marketplace in which case artists make money when their supply is matched to the demand – and the demand is for safe and pretty ornaments.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. It largely depends on our own individual conception of, and relationship to, art. So while the “system” requires criticism, we should also give some thought to how we interact with art.


Did DC commit hara-kiri with suicide squad?

Here we are, after Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, with another comic book ersatz-blockbuster bloodied by critics while running the gauntlet of marketing hype and fan expectations. As the mighty box office pronounces its own apparently victorious judgment on Suicide Squad, one can’t help but if wonder if DC/Warner Bros executives and filmmakers are starting to feel like Pyrrhus after his costly victory at the battle of Asculum. “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans,” the Greek general reportedly said, “we shall be utterly ruined.”

While not strictly a bad movie as the media would have us believe, Suicide Squad does suffer from a failing that consigns the film to a footnote in DC’s film universe rather than a milestone: a lack of ambition, which is all the more obvious in contrast to the acid trip promise of its marketing campaign and the relative novelty of its concept. It’s not just that Suicide Squad ends up subjecting its supervillainous Dirty Dozen to a rather banal save-the-world plot, but that it sets up promising ideas only to give us lackluster follow-through. The most obvious example of this rests in David Ayers split-personality direction. He starts us with half-an-hour of exposition delivered with a modicum of guerilla style (complete with cutesy graphic overlays), but then drops the guerilla and settles for the usual hum-drum once the plot gets going. A catalog of characters, even when livened up by Batman and the Flash, is no way to start a film – remember show don’t tell? – and abandoning the flourishes that might electrify an otherwise middling narrative is no way to finish a film. Suicide Squad should be edgy, but the tame results beg the question: what happened to the grit and harrowing pathos that David Ayers so capably delivered in the WWII tank drama Fury, with considerably more panache than he does here?

Perhaps it’s time to dispense with the industry’s obsession with realism – Marvel movies all look the same, and DC has so far relied on Zack Snyder’s moody aesthetic and Christopher Nolan’s urban pragmatism. Let’s have the idiosyncratic and unabashedly artsy approach Tim Burton used for his Batman films and Robert Rodriguez for his Sin City films. Or how about taking inspiration from Kerry Conran and his criminally underappreciated Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow?

Stylistic inconsistencies might be overlooked if Ayers had opted for a more sophisticated narrative approach. Off the top of my head, the film could have started mid-mission and used flashbacks to fill in the gaps. Or it could have more openly aped its inspiration, The Dirty Dozen, which provides a more plausible perspective of how a team of misfits could be forged into a cohesive unit capable of fighting a dire menace. It could have used stories of encounters with Batman and other heroes as a means of bonding the villains together. Heck, it could have just followed the path Ayers capably tread in Fury. There are any number of creative ways to tell the story, but instead we get as many empty promises as genuine pleasures, particularly in how characters are described versus how they are developed throughout the narrative. Joel Kinnaman’s Colonel Flag, for instance, comes across especially poorly; although described as the world’s best special-ops commando, he acts like a wishy-washy mop, a far cry from Lee Marvin’s Colonel Reisman. (He even hugs Deadshot at the end.) And Karen Fukuhara’ Katana, ostensibly Flag’s bodyguard, is described as not only the deadliest woman in the room but gifted with a soul-stealing sword that is depicted as little else than a good listener and a sharp blade. This all typifies the struggle Suicide Squad has in managing an ensemble cast; some characters get more attention than others, and only one – Jay Hernandez’ tragic criminal-with-a-conscience El Diablo – is given the opportunity to grow and change. Even the story’s major players – Will Smith’s Deadshot and Robbie Margot’s Harley Quinn – are kept in neutral. Essentially, Suicide Squad’s dramatic conceit is limited to the notion of forcing villains to act on behalf of the great thanks to implanted explosives. How the experience changes them, or reinforces their initial villainous proclivities, is yet another missed opportunity.

Strip away the film’s unrealized potential, and you’re left with a serviceable action movie that plausibly contributes to DC’s world-building and is punctuated by enthusiastic but unambitious character design. Will Smith is enjoyable as a version of his usual action movie personal, and Viola Davis offers us a terrifying and sociopathic Amanda Waller (creator of the Suicide Squad), but Margot Robbie especially sparkles as the psychedelically psychotic and homicidal Harley Quinn. Her gleefully off-kilter performance, however, is limited by the film’s refusal to emancipate Quinn from her definition as the Joker’s victim and plaything.  A telling scene is when the film’s supernatural antagonist offers the Squad their deepest desires in exchange for loyalty; Quinn’s wish is for a domestic bliss with a de-Jokerized Joker, which suggests that her innermost psyche is just as much an appendage to the Clown Prince of Crime as her body. In the comics, Quinn achieves an independence that doesn’t rely on the consent of men. The film, however, squanders a major opportunity to give her agency distinct from male expectations. And Clara Delevigne, as an archaeologist possessed by an ancient evil witch, gets even less than that.

On to the Joker, then, performed by Jared Leto. His version, a suitably deranged synthesis of Nicholson and Ledger generously seasoned with MTV and Miami Vice chic, worked for me. Where some complain that there is too little Joker in the film, I submit that there was too much. However deliciously menacing, and however much Leto and Quinn share a disturbing chemistry on-screen as the King and Queen of Gotham, the Joker is nevertheless locked into a “love” story that goes nowhere and takes away from other characters. Once again, the impression is that the filmmakers didn’t have the courage of their conviction, preferring to elevate the film’s most marketable elements at the expense of fully embracing the ensemble nature of its cast of villains forced to do good.

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Enjoy Star Trek Beyond, but for Smart & Fun Sci-Fi – Watch TV

What would Paramount’s Star Trek film franchise look like had they launched with Star Trek Beyond instead of J.J. Abrams’ slick counterfeits? We’ll never know how much better it would be, but at least we finally have a film that acknowledges the substance of Star Trek instead of merely grafting its modernized aesthetic onto generic action movie plots.

Star Trek Beyond is the trekkiest of the films set in the so-called “Kelvin Timeline,” mostly because unlike its Earth-bound predecessors it actually does go, if not quite boldly than at least with greater confidence, into the unknown to seek out new life and civilizations. Set mid-way during the Enterprise’s 5-year mission, it positions the series where it was meant to be all along: out in space. Although the planet hosting the majority of the film’s action is just routinely beautiful, the film makes up for it with the stunning Yorktown, a majestic starbase whose cityscape twists and loops on itself, Inception-style, and looks every bit the futuristic ideal of civilization Roddenberry’s Star Trek strove to represent.

Given the low standards established by the previous films, it almost doesn’t matter that Star Trek Beyond’s plot is ultimately revealed to be yet another revenge drama. The cast – always the new franchise’s strength alongside production design – is in its finest form, giving us an Enterprise crew worthy of representing the original thanks to focused and often funny script. (Yes, Spock’s romance with Uhura still grates. But it’s handled here with enough nuance to feel less like a stunt and more like a genuine relationship – and this is less critical than the surprisingly thoughtful interaction between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy as well as the introduction of a pleasingly tough new character, Jaylah, played with smarts and sass by Sofia Boutella, and Shohreh Aghdashloo’s dignified Commodore Paris.) Justin Lin achieves a brisk and exciting pace for the film, revving up the action scenes and deftly managing spectacular special effects while also letting the film breathe during its character moments.

It does matter, however, that Star Trek Beyond remains mired in Paramount’s – and Hollywood’s – resistance to high-concept films, particularly in the science fiction genre, and preference for action to ideas. Like the recent glut of superhero movies demonstrates, there is the trend in the industry to look for conflict and drama only in situations involving violence and combat – a trend that has afflicted TV-to-film adaptations beyond Star Trek, like the Mission: Impossible series, as well as generally excellent higher-concept films like Edge of Tomorrow and Oblivion. Although very entertaining and a welcome throwback to some of the elements that made us fall in love with the Original Series, Star Trek Beyond presents us with a villain – Idris Elba under heavy makeup – reducible to a vengeful menace with an appetite for mass destruction. The idea that the Federation might meet opposition by alien races who view them as a colonialist rather than a cooperative force never gains traction as anything other than the stage on which yet another apocalyptic scenario is played. And in the end, just as Starfleet’s identity crisis in Star Trek Into Darkness’ somehow fit into the single character of Peter Weller’s warmonger, it boils down to a personal confrontation between Kirk and the villain.

Lacking a majestic sense of grandeur – which only Star Trek: The Motion Picture succeeded in achieving among all the Star Trek films – as well as well as grand and grandly executed ideas, Star Trek Beyond’s by-the-numbers action-adventure plot just doesn’t stand alongside Star Trek’s best stories – like “Devil in the Dark” and” Encounter at Farpoint,” to name two of many.

The lesson, then, is that the best science-fiction stories aren’t to be found in film but in television, which is rather sad given how different the cinematic experience is from the small screen. It comes down to economics, of course, and the cost of production that studios need to recoup even before profit is factored in. But what does it say that television, with its lower budget, can succeed at telling smart stories rooted in fiction about science while movies run the hamster wheel of exploding blockbuster action movies? If you’ve never done so, I suggest watching shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek Voyager, Odyssey 5, and FarScape.

There’s a vicious cycle at play, in that studios don’t typically present audiences with beautiful and smart science-fiction films (Duncan Jones’ Moon and films by Neil Blomkamp being notable exceptions), so audiences don’t get exposed to what is possible and, consequently, don’t demand better than the usual action movie formulas. Yet there is also a technical element, in that visually demanding film productions don’t seem to have benefited from computers to significantly reduce costs and make it easier to depict strange new worlds – worlds limited by imagination rather than budget.

Nevertheless, Star Trek Beyond certainly is fun. But I do wish people could see what the wonder and challenging social commentary science-fiction is really capable of offering.

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