dear Americans: your country is doomed. (part 3)

Continued from part 1 and part 2.

The symptoms of an ailing body politic, treated at the expense of the solving the fundamental processes of political organization: elections, the media, and education. How they inter-relate is straightforward:

  1. The educational system fails, on average, to impart necessary critical thinking skills.
  2. Without these critical thinking skills, we are poorly equipped to deal with the media’s propagation of massive amounts of information, misinformation, advertising, and propaganda.
  3. Without a clear understanding of reality that comes from processing the world around us, we can’t act effectively within (and/or against) a political system that is intentionally designed to work against us. We are also easily divided, distracted. and exhausted by the endless supply of crises that mask the core problem – control over the political apparatus.
  4. Whomsoever controls the political apparatus exerts control over education. Go back to 1.

Straightforward, of course, but also a vicious circle that makes it challenging to identify the most vital pressure point for a political revolution to hit. And if I talk about pressure points, it’s because a slow-burn political revolution risks getting snuffed out all to easily. What we need is a spark.


There’s no question that education reform is critical, since education is the foundation of any society. Education is also about more than schools. As Henry Giroux puts it at CounterPunch:

At issue here is the need for progressives to recognize the power of education in creating the formative cultures necessary to both challenge the various threats being mobilized against the ideas of justice and democracy while also fighting for those public spheres, ideals, values, and policies that offer alternative modes of identity, thinking, social relations, and politics. But embracing the dictates of a making education meaningful in order to make it critical and transformative also means recognizing that cultural apparatuses such as the mainstream media and Hollywood films are teaching machines and not simply sources of information and entertainment. Such sites should be spheres of struggle removed from the control of the financial elite and corporations who use them as propaganda and disimagination machines.

But the problem with reforming education, other than the sheer scale of the challenge given the patchwork of educational systems throughout the country, is that it is a generational effort. We can’t spontaneously re-educate an entire population, and it takes time to put the framework in place to educate the next generation in a way that will yield the political results that we want. Simply put, education is not a pressure point.

The Media

Reforming the media is also a formidable challenge considering that the majority of the media is owned by a few large corporations. Yet as polls have consistently shown over the years, most people don’t trust the media. According to Gallup’s 2016 survey, “Americans' trust and confidence in the mass media "to report the news fully, accurately and fairly" has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32% saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from last year.”

The poll, interestingly, points to Republicans (pushed by Trump’s campaign) as a driving force in this mistrust. It also shows that the sentiments spans age groups.

Tangling out the causes of why people don’t trust the media is an essay in-and-of-itself, but the gist is that the media has increasingly blurred the line between ideology and partisanship over the years at the expense of actual journalism. It’s one thing for the media to report from a particular ideological position, particularly when that position is clearly articulated. Jacobin Magazine, for instance, is a socialist magazine, just as Forbes is capitalist.  No one reading either of those publications would be confused by the filter through which the news is discussed. But not all news sources need to start from any ideological position except for the Gold Journalistic standard of reasonably impartial reporting. Nevertheless, whether specifically ideological or ostensibly impartial, both are comprised when the media crosses over into partisan combat that applies a double set of standards. Just as Fox News tends to be reluctant to criticize Republicans, the more liberal-leaning establishment media struggles with mustering criticism of Democrats. The Gallup poll points to how upset conservatives/Republicans are with the media for their heavy criticism of Trump and light criticism of Clinton. But the complaint doesn’t come solely from the Right; leftists have argued against the media’s treatment of Bernie Sanders and third-party candidates in favor of Clinton, just as they criticized the media for providing Trump with a yuuuge (and free) platform on which to campaign, before finally deciding to do something approximating truth-to-power journalism.

Profit and the political interests of the corporate/wealthy classes go some way into explaining the partisanship posturing. So, what to do about it? Support independent journalism? Absolutely. Create new media that exemplifies the old-school values of journalism? Sure, but building a new source of journalism that can provide reasonable, impartial, and expansive reporting in a way that cuts through partisan bickering is a big medium-term undertaking. While it’s definitely a pressure point, in that whoever controls information shapes perception of reality, it’s not a fast-acting one.

The Elections

The proposals for reforming elections aren’t new; instant run-off, public campaign financing, and impartial districting that minimizes gerrymandering. They also aren’t especially complicated; in that they can be enacted through legislation and implemented fairly quickly. Unlike reforming the media and the educational system, which involve dealing with a number of intangible factors, electoral reform is eminently practical. It’s definitely a pressure-point, and one that can be hit on for the most immediate results.

The Pressure Point

If you’re tired of the same old politicians, and frustrated with a system that produces the same old politicians putting forth the same old failed policies, then breaking the duopolistic system is essential. Indeed, by giving voters greater influence over politicians – through votes and by mitigating the influence of lobbyist money – it should, in principle, yield policy results closer to what voters want. Whatever your cause – the environment, black lives, the war on drugs, guns, abortion right – progress boils down most immediately to the extent voters can influence elections instead of being manipulated by them. Given how widespread discontent with the political situation is, electoral reform can, with some marketing, be a cause embraced by people across the political spectrum.

But let’s be clear that electoral reform is only the first step, a movement that is part of a larger strategy and also concurrent with efforts at creating better media and a more effective educational system. It also isn’t a cure for bad politics; it is “merely” progress. Democracy is itself a problem, as Crimethinc argues, but not the only fundamental structural problem with our society. Bearing that in mind, activists would do well to unite and fight this single fight together, in numbers that make a difference, and use their success as the foundation for the next steps – progress on their specific causes.

The next question is: what are the chances of a political revolution?


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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notes from LACMA: rain room washes out, but del Toro lights a bonfire of imagination

Rain Room

Rain Room has been a bonanza for LACMA, its popularity prompting extended runs to accommodate the demand. After the hype, of course, comes the deluge after a brief wind-up in the waiting line. Admitted in small groups of 15 or so, patrons are led down a short corridor that opens up on the famous space itself, a large room illuminated by a single bright spotlight and dominated by a grid of falling water. Sensors detect the presence of people beneath the nozzles and switch them off accordingly. The experience, then, involves wandering through the grid surrounded by raining water while staying reasonably dry.

There’s fun to be had daring the sensors to fail, and of course it’s a dream setting for artsy Instagrammers. But essentially, it’s a toy, not unlike splashing around a park fountain. It might be tempting to see in Rain Room an oblique commentary on California’s drought, but forget it: Rain Room is a content-less experience. No music. No supplemental imagery. Not even space for contemplation, as there are too many people bustling about. Whatever artistic aspirations one might want to uncover, they are overshadowed by that dreary and dreaded question: is it art?

Ever since Marcel Duchamp obtained a urinal, flipped it upside down, cheekily named it The Fountain, and submitted it to the Society of Independent Artists for exhibition only for it to be hidden from view, the Art World has reacted to Dadaist acts of subversion by erasing their most fundamental provocation. The result is an unfortunate trend in contemporary art to define as art any “thing” that is placed in an art gallery.

The critical problem is this: art that simply serves as a blank surface onto which viewers can project their own meanings is, in my view, scarcely worthy of being considered art. Ornamentation, perhaps, but not art. To that essential dialogue between artist, viewer, and the artwork itself there should be some communicable concept; the joy lies in fixing or loosening this concept, that is, in framing a work’s meaning. The meaning doesn’t have to be clearly articulated or overtly define. It can be vague, suggested, or even deferred in a post-modern gesture. (Whether it can be refused altogether is the Dadaist question, but Rain Room doesn’t manifest a Dadaist sensibility.) You can make it mean whatever you want, but the experience itself is just water falling from the ceiling in a darkened room. As with LACMA’s Levitated Mass, a rock perched above a walkway, Rain Room’s impression is of a gimmick who distinction is its artificiality. Make of that what you will, and decide for yourself whether it’s worth paying for a ticket.

Tickets for Rain Room are $30 and must be purchased in advanced.

Guillermo Del Toro: At Home with Monsters

A view inside del Toro's Bleak House.
Designed to provide visitors with the impression of walking into Bleak House, del Toro’s Los Angeles Home, At Home with Monsters is a phantasmagorical exhibit well worth visiting. Much like LACMA’s Tim Burton exhibit some time ago, At Home with Monsters works to provide visitors with a richer context for the imagination of one of cinema’s most visionary artists. The salon-style exhibit is organized by theme, which makes the experience more personal than the usual didactic, chronological arrangement. But once exposed to the buffet of artefacts, however, curatorial concepts become less important than feeling of wonderment at the paintings, sketches, sculptures, books, maquettes, movie props, concept art and astonishing assortment of curios that span the mystical, the horrific, the beautiful, the macabre, and even the humourous.

The crowd of visitors jostling for a closer look at the exhibit’s many curios can be jarring, but don’t let it deter you: the prospect of exploring the vast catalog of Del Toro’s inspiration should boost your courage for getting close and personal. From idea journals, displayed next to tablets allowing visitors to virtually scroll through the impressively illustrated diaries, to video monitors with film montages, the exhibit immerses us in the influences that drive Del Toro’s art. It particularly highlights the synthetic aspect of the artistic process, the convergence of artistic and cultural forces absorbed over a lifetime that produce singular visions. As with Burton’s exhibit, biographical insights emphasize how Del Toro’s outsider perspective and its embrace of the bizarre and freakish ultimately serves as an affirmation of humanity.

A page from one of del Toro's journal.
At Home with Monsters even comes with its own “rain room,” a simulation of del Toro’s home workspace that takes its cues from Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room to provide 24-hour rain and thunderstorms. It is, appropriately, the space in the exhibit dedicated to Edgar Allan Poe. But it also presents one of del Toro’s most potent insights: “The point of being over 40 is to fulfill the desires you've been harboring since you were 7.”

A particularly refreshing aspect of the exhibit is its sheer lack of pretentiousness. Where we might ordinarily distinguish between high and low art, the sublime and the pulp, At Home with Monsters reminds us that the best art knows no class. And insofar as visitors leave inspired not only to look more deeply into life’s shadowy and creaking nooks and crannies but to embrace the creative impulse for themselves, then the exhibit triumphs as more than just a showcase for del Toro.

On display at LACMA from August 1, 2016–November 27, 2016

Tickets are $25 and include general admission as well as admission to At Home with Monsters and other special exhibitions.


While You're Visiting ...

While you're visiting LACMA, be sure to visit the contemporary Islamic Art exhibit in the Ahmanson Building as well as the Enigmatic Image, an exhibit on symbolism and other fascinating aspects of Indian art. Both are beautiful,fascinating and insightful.


quick review: deadpool

Here we go again with another attempt to shock the bourgeoisie, only this time the outrage is perpetuated on superhero films after years of Marvel formula. Are we really outraged anymore by crass humour, crude sex, or gory violence, or are we just being good consumers by buying into the marketing?

Deadpool adapts an intriguing metafictional anti-hero – 31st on IGN’s ranking of Top 100 superheroes – but like most of Marvel’s film output, it’s a mediocrity. The plot is a rehashed revenge-driven origin story, the settings are banal, characters not named Deadpool/Wade Wilson are either clichés, bland pudding, or punchlines with little humanity to them, and the raunchy rapid-paced humour is more often hit-and-miss rather than the hit-and-run it hopes to be. (T.J. Miller’s comic relief is particularly limp, but if you’re amused by the description of Wilson’s disfigurement as the offspring of two avacadoes hatefully fucking each other, dig in.) There’s nothing in its metafictional makeup – breaking the fourth-wall, self-referential humour – that we haven’t seen done better elsewhere (by characters named Ferris Bueller, for example). Not even the addition of two X-Men helps. Negasonic Teenage Warhead’s contribution is to be the butt of moody teenager jokes, while Colossus isn’t even allowed to win his own big fight let alone be more than Deadpool’s naively moral straight man. At least the romance between Wade Willson and Morena Baccarin’s Vanessa is sweet. Awwww.

If Ryan Reynolds, who made the film his passion project, wasn’t so well suited to the title role we’d have a plotless bore. But Reynolds carries the film like it was his birthright, partly due to his charm but also because Deadpool is the only character the filmmakers care about. It’s a shame that the film comes across as money thrown at a low-budget indie production. Tim Miller stages his action scenes with verve, but there’s nothing about his direction or Ken Seng’s pedestrian, colourless cinematography to thrill the senses. Deadpool has its moments – enough to be worth a watch if the trailer intrigues you, and the character has potential, but as far as this pool goes Marvel is swimming in the shallow end.


how to manipulate voters: the DNC performs salome's dance

The RNC horror show has passed and given way to Salome’s Dance AKA the DNC. This is the phase in a presidential election cycle in which the distinctions drawn between presidential candidates – often sharply – during the Democrats’ primaries are hypocritically (but seductively) erased in favour of a mystical “party unity.” Hence, Hillary Clinton’s coronation in the most hyperbolic terms, laced with a disturbing appropriation of Ronald Reagan and right-wing cheerleading. DNC malconduct? What malconduct?

For Sanders supporters and everyone else who hoped that Democrats would be bold enough to field a candidate not named Clinton, the re-alignment has been jarring. But following tradition, Lesser Evil Logic has nevertheless taken hold among those who don’t accept Clinton’s merits as a presidential candidate with Clinton cast as the Lesser Evil to Trump’s Huge Evil. To which I say this:

The more honest of these Lesser Evil voters will at least heave heavy sighs with every proclamation that Trump must be defeated, after which Clinton and Democrats can be held accountable for implementing progressive policies. Meanwhile, a strong counter-reaction has arisen directed towards the Bernie or Bust folk or anyone else rejecting Clinton’s Lesser Evil Logic. At a convention hostile to Sanders delegates, Clinton supporters are directed to drown out vocal dissenters with counter-chants. Wealthy Clinton donors gripe about Sanders supporters who won’t go away. Third parties like the Green Party are dismissed as having no chance, and a vote for Jill Stein is considered equivalent to a vote for Trump.

When instilling fear of the Bogeyman doesn’t work, the shaming of non-conformist voters becomes personal. Among the various condescending attempts to lock the rabble into step is a pastime favoured by aging adults:  blaming “kids these days,” in this case those viewed as spoiled bratty narcissists unwilling to make the hard self-sacrificing choices like mature adults. Characterizing an entire generation based on anecdotal experience reflects precisely the sort of prejudiced attitude we condemn in right-wingers, but groupthink is a universal human failing. (Personally, I can think of many Millenials who are far from lazy; social entrepreneurs who use business for socially valuable work.)

If you’re not a lazy Milennial unwilling to adult-up and accept reality, commentators like Rolling Stone’s Joshua Holland (RNC and DNC Showed There Are Two Teams in America – Choose Wisely) will gladly bludgeon you with reminders that there only two sides to America, and you’d better prove your political sophistication by A) accepting the polarity and B) picking the right one or else – Trump!

Almost as galling as the repeated attempts to present Hillary Clinton as someone her record says she isn’t is the persistent description of American politics as a two-party system. From a propagandist perspective, promoting this myth makes sense for both the establishment right and left as each side can use the other to motivate their bases with the Monstrous Other that must be stopped. The media, of course, embraces the polarity with enthusiasm since it allows them to turn politics into sports and reality TV. It all works to delegitimize dissent and erase criticism.

Here’s what establishment politicians and the media don’t want people to think about too deeply, lest it upset the balance of power: America is not a two-party state. There’s nothing in the Constitution that limits the number of political parties to two, nor has congress passed any legislation to that effect. What we have is bad math in the way votes are counted, a system that intrinsically allows paradoxical and undemocratic results. For example, suppose we have four presidential candidates in the running. The votes split 43%, 34%, 16%, and 7%. Under the current system, the victor wins with 43% even though 57% of voters did not vote for him/her. It is precisely this sort of problematic outcome that ranked voting / instant runoffs methods are intended to eliminate.

We saw in 2000 how a simple majority-wins voting system doesn’t work. Instead of admitting that the system is inherently flawed, however, the media gave us instead the Nader Effect (which is itself based on a misunderstanding that Democrats and their media enablers willingly exploit for their own benefit – see Truthdig’s Don’t Fall for It: The Nader Myth and Your 2016 Vote). Enter the spoiler, the result of distinguishing between “correct” and” incorrect” votes in a system judged by its outcome and not for the information it provides us about voter preferences across the board. Of course, “spoiler” is just tantrum-speak for “you didn’t vote the way I wanted you to, so you’re a bad voter.” We could just as easily describe Al Gore as the spoiler for Nader’s presidency. It’s an arrogant peer pressure tactic, one of many intended to bully voters into supporting the Democratic Party when they believe their political interest lie elsewhere. (Another tactic is mockery of the kind practiced by celebrities like Sarah Silverman and Samantha Bee). But here’s the rub: partisan Democrats use the same arguments at every election: elect a Democrat or flush the Supreme Court, Civil Rights, and any chance of progress down history’s privy. (Republicans, of course, have their own versions centered on “freedom” and money.) It’s an argument they make regardless of who the Republican nominee is. Granted, Trump brings a special kind of crazy, but a Cruz, Rubio, or Kasich would be equally problematic in terms of achieving progressive goals. Unfortunately, political campaigns have a desensitizing effect, which prompts greater and greater hysteria to achieve the desired fearfulness.

Which brings me to the biggest con of this whole election: the demand that voters surrender their reason and pay the price for craven leadership and political failures on the part of Democrats and mainstream Lefties. Democrats have had plenty of chances to reform; rigging the system against Sanders, who is meaningfully distinguishable from Republicans unlike Clinton, is but one example of their refusal to do so. The mainstream Left has had plenty of time, particularly since 2000, to form a non-partisan movement that could have pivoted, for example, to the Green Party (which has long promoted a platform intended to address structural inequalities and achieve progress on key issues spanning electoral reform and campaign financing, the environment and health care, and economic relief) in the event of Democratic intransigence. But complacency between elections on the part of party and community leaders has only fueled the desperate, deceptive, and manipulative logic of Lesser Evilism. It shouldn’t be a surprise that some voters are fed up and willing to act against the groupthink.


zootoopia and the culture war over diversity

Mulling over Disney’s magical Zootopia prompted me to check in with the American Conservative’s resident culture warrior, Rod Dreher and, sure enough, there was this gem with the pop-conservative click-bait title, “What If Diversity Is Our Weakness?” The article is essentially Dreher quoting a reader’s comment from a previous article, all the while channeling Nelson from The Simpsons as he points to the “left” and ha-has. The source of all this glee: a challenge to the cherished notion that encouraging interactive diversity will result in social harmony. But he cites no mere trolling from the unwashed commentariat. No; his citation is powered by a liberal political scientist from Harvard, Robert Putnam, whose research into diversity in 2007 yielded the counterintuitive result that diverse communities exhibited decreased civic engagement. People vote less, volunteer less, trust each other less in diverse communities compared to homogenous communities.

The rhetorical headline makes it clear that with diversity suitably chastened, Dreher is free (as if he wasn’t already!) to advocate for monoculture without being dragged down by liberal critiques of homogeneity (read: white, male, heterosexual). He can be perfectly happy in his very own little bubble – in his particular case a project he calls the Benedict Option where he can be insulated from anyone who doesn’t fit into his Orthodox Christian worldview.

But the results of Putnam’s research aren’t an end to the question of diversity; they describe, in fact, the very challenge diversity poses by its very nature and ubiquity. How, indeed, do we encourage the positive civic interactions capable of overcoming the dissociative factors at play in our multifaceted communities? How do we even sensibly define diversity in type (e.g. ideology, ethnicity, economics, etc.), scale (family, community, city, region, state, nation) let alone policy? The question is fundamentally personal; a matter of our approach to whether we approach diversity with curiosity, detachment or, in some vocal quarters, revulsion.

For an example, we could look to the controversy surrounding North Carolina’s law that bans ordinances denying discrimination against LGBTQ people and directly prohibits transgendered persons from using bathrooms according to their gender identity. The law is partly the product of dangerous misinformation and fearmongering about transgendered people (see Media Matters' debunking here). Broadly, however, it’s an expression of the religious right’s hostility towards LGBTQIA identities – e.g. sinful offenses to God, perversion of nature, heterosexual familial breakdowns. It can only be considered hostility when it isn’t enough to accept that legal doesn’t mean mandatory; to the religious right, what is deviant in their view must be forbidden to everyone.

It comes as a surprise that Zootopia, a Disney film, would offer a remarkably nuanced perspective on the challenges inherent in a diverse society, all the while delivering a crackerjack conspiracy thriller and buddy movie. The film’s creators previously offered us Frozen, a welcome call to girl power that nevertheless came across as glib and, worse, perpetuated Disney’s obsession with casting women as princesses. (What sort of subtextual goodness would have infused Frozen had its sisters been peasants?) That Zootopia dispenses with the fetish for aristocracy and instead gives us a proletarian view is a refreshing change on its own.

The film centers on Judy (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit whose keen sense of justice leads her away from carrot farming into the unlikely profession of policing – unlikely, because in Zootopia’s world small mammals aren’t generally considered physically matched to the demands of police work. A lesser movie would have dwelled in Judy’s challenges at the police academy, cataloguing every act of bullying and condescension from teachers and fellow trainees. But the filmmakers breeze through Judy’s challenges in an exciting montage that culminates with her proud graduation as the first bunny cop before launching into the film’s narrative. Unsurprisingly, being a trained and top-of-the-class graduate earns her no respect in the precinct to which she is assigned. The police chief, an imposing bull voiced with wonderful grit by Idris Elba, even assigns her to parking duty on her first day. It says a lot about Judy’s character that she commits herself to excel at the less-than-ideal assignment. She does excel, but by the second day we can sympathize when the job leaves her demoralized. Who wants to punish people for parking infractions and get abused for it?

The situation changes when she unwittingly helps a sneaky fox, Nick (voiced by Justin Bateman), pull a con on an ice cream store owner. She gets the upper hand on him quickly enough, but the stage is set for an oil-and-water partnership when a missing person’s case connects to a series of frightening incidents where Zootopia’s carnivores revert to their primal states. At stake: the civilizing influence that redefines the predator-prey relationship as one of peaceful co-existence.

Zootopia is exceptionally well-conceived and executed with superb voice work and animation, as funny as it is heartfelt, and inspiring for featuring a female heroine defined by her blend of kindness, toughness, and smarts rather than the usual romantic tropes. Cinematically, it’s one of the finest animated films in recent years solely on the basis of his rich characters a sophisticated narrative.

Layered interpretations aren’t necessary, of course, but when it comes to reading the film from a political perspective it stands out above the usual genre feel-good messaging by refusing to reduce its characters to stereotypes or allowing itself to be glibly mapped onto the conservative/liberal dichotomy. A lesser film would have sorted characters into unabashed racists and their victims, and the big villain would have been some sort of Trumpian blowhard. But every principal character is a nuanced mix of nobility, prejudice, wisdom, ignorance and righteousness of varying degrees. The difference lies in how each chooses to confront the legacy of a savage past: can predators evolve beyond their killer instincts? Judy and Nick – the rabbit and the fox – form a credible and touching friendship from a partnership of convenience, and in their relationship we have a positive, but by no means bump-free, response to the challenges of diversity. (It’s interesting to note that what separates them, more so than their species, is their positions as cop and criminal.) In the film’s startling villain, we find a destructive response, not unlike the rabid right-wingers who denounce Muslims and Mexicans, that illustrates how even understandable fears can upend empathy and moral reasoning.

Ultimately, Zootopia illustrates the take-away from Putnam’s research: we live in a diverse world, and whether we live well or succumb to conflict depends on our willingness to embrace that diversity and make it work. As the RNC convention demonstrates, with supremacists like Rep. King proclaiming that capital-C Civilization owes its success to white people, America has not freed itself from its legacy of racism. This is the context for culture warriors like Dreher, who fail to understand both the distinction and overlap between overt discrimination among individuals and the institutional discrimination of white heterosexual male privilege. In the end, though, it comes down to will. As reactionary conservatives and Trump’s New Republican Party – an expression of fundamental right-wing angst – prove, some people just don’t want to get along. A film alone may not change minds, but films like Zootopia that can deliver terrifically entertaining stories with nuanced cultural commentary go a long way towards fostering a better culture.


bar 9 and the art of coffee - no tips needed (at TFPO)

Bar 9 is my favourite coffee spot - great coffee responsibly sourced and crafted with care, friendly service..I interviewed Bar 9's co-owner about his no-tipping model in the context of a debate within Culver City over the minimum wage...

At the beginning of the year, Zayde implemented a no-tipping model in which the full costs of labor, sales tax, etc., are included in the price. The move represents a commitment to hospitality by removing the ambiguities and obligations associated with tipping and focusing instead on the whole guest experience. It also presents opportunity for baristas to devote themselves to their craft in a career with long-term prospects, a contrast to the typical short-term, part-time positions available in the average coffee chain. This beautifully manifests business that treats business owners and employees as co-producers, each taking pride in their work and cooperating with a shared passion for coffee culture and satisfying customers.

I caught up with Zayde to discuss his business model, coffee, and other Bar 9 news.

Now that we’re well into 2016, how’s the new no-tipping model working for you and your associates?

Our new hospitality-included menu has been ... READ THE FULL INTERVIEW AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


vote for a third party or don’t vote – or else

While discussing Sanders’ endorsement of Clinton with a friend the other day – a friend who thinks Clinton would be a “solid president” – I was surprised to be dismissed with a charge familiar to marginalized radicals: it’s all just talk unless you vote (and perhaps even work on behalf of your candidate of choice).

Before even considering the underlying vote fetish in our civic culture that sees the act of voting in-and-of-itself as legitimizing political opinion, the dismissal ignores the political reality American citizens aren’t the only ones with a vested interested in who occupies the Oval Office. Given the United States’ global influence, the entire world has a stake in American presidential politics; their interpretation of US policy is surely more than “just talk.” More directly, permanent residents (e.g. non-citizen green card holders) who pay taxes have as much of a directly vested interest in the country’s governance as citizens do. After all, their tax money goes towards funding the government just like an American citizen’s. So if you’re going to take my money in taxes, you’re going to take my opinion on how it’s being spent – and if you don’t like hearing my opinion you can give me my money back.

There’s more than taxation with and without representation to consider, however. The decision to vote or not vote relates to the decision to become a citizen or remain a permanent resident, which is a political decision in and of itself. Political chauvinists may denounce the non-voter, like the non-citizen, as politically irrelevant but that’s a self-serving way to avoid the uncomfortable truth that declining to vote, like declining to become a citizen, is a considered and purposeful response to political realities in the United States.

To unpack the voting issues, I’d direct you to CounterPunch, where Jason Goldfarb ably dismantles the arguments levied against non-voters.
The question asked is always “how do we bring the non-voters into our political process?” or “how can we engage voters?” but rarely “why are these voters not engaged” and never “is their disengagement correct? Should we join them in solidarity?”

Not only does the condescending attitude towards non-voters only further alienate them but such an attitude is also un-democratic. In the place of logical discussion are patronizing platitudes. The injunction Vote!” as an obvious, self-evident, truth masks the fact that there is no evidence to support such a claim. When every statistical indicator tells us that majorities are not happy with the state of democracy it is alarming that such a position is never taken seriously.
He then takes on several myths about not voting, many in the context of the 2016 presidential election. The piece is well worth reading on its own, along with others written from a specifically anarchist perspective over at infoshop.org, but the general point is that the decision not to vote is just as much a political decision as choosing to vote. While it can be an act of protest and an expression of political ideology, it can equally be a manifestation of indifference to a system undeserving of validation through participation.

For Bonus Points …

To provide context, however, it’s worth considering the fundamental quality of being a citizen as represented by voting. Underlying the injunction that voting isn’t just a right to be exercised or not at one’s discretion but a responsibility, nay, a sacred duty is the assumption that citizens have given their consent to the system. And by system, I refer to the entire apparatus of government-driven social organization – the nation-state. Lysander Spooner’s treatise No Treason comes to mind, calling into question the right of any nation to exist beyond the consent of the governed and pointing out how governments both democratic and despotic do not actually rest on consent but rather force.
Spooner is rather long-winded, so here’s a key idea in regards to the US Constitution:
The necessity for the consent of "the people" is implied in this declaration. The whole authority of the Constitution rests upon it. If they did not consent, it was of no validity. Of course it had no validity, except as between those who actually consented. No one's consent could be presumed against him, without his actual consent being given, any more than in the case of any other contract to pay money, or render service … The most that can be inferred from the form, "We, the people," is, that the instrument offered membership to all "the people of the United States;" leaving it for them to accept or refuse it, at their pleasure.
Furthermore, those who originally agreed to the Constitution, could thereby bind nobody that should come after them. They could contract for nobody but themselves. They had no more natural right or power to make political contracts, binding upon succeeding generations, than they had to make marriage or business contracts binding upon them. [Emphasis added.]
And therein lies the point: if people haven’t consented to the electoral system in the first place, then by what justification can refusing to participate in it (for whatever reason), while nevertheless discussing and critiquing it, be considered politically illegitimate? Therein lies the rub for the system’s defenders, and why it is important for political skeptics to be steadfast in their critiques even when pressured to conform.

So vote, if you like, and vote for whoever you want for whatever reason. If Hillary Clinton is your candidate, vote for her. If you remain suspicious of establishment politics in general and Clinton in particular, for your own sake check out an alternative like the Green Party (or the libertarian party, if you skew conservative). But don’t buy into the psychological manipulation telling you that refusing to vote isn’t a valid political action. After all, when we don’t like a company’s product, we don’t buy it. And if we seriously object to a company’s business practices, we agitate for a boycott. So how shall we respond to a political system that is so clearly broken?


farewell to the revolution - part 2

For part 1, click here.

For a few months, as the Sanders campaigned defied fundraising expectations and built an enthusiastic grassroots movement, it seemed as if something genuinely remarkable was happening in contemporary American politics. We were seeing a significant challenge to the corporate establishment in a process rigged against Sanders from the beginning (e.g. superdelegates pledging themselves to Clinton before the primaries). Despite massive opposition, Sanders managed not only to win in primary contests but also draw a very sharp distinction between himself and Clinton. Where Sanders had the ambition to reach for universal single-payer healthcare, Clinton was reduced to an uninspired advocacy for incrementalism under the banner of pragmatism. Even her support for a higher minimum wage was extracted, in real-time during a live debate, by a persistent Sanders.

As 2016 got underway, it seemed that despite Clinton’s triangulated step leftward, there was simply no way to reconcile her Wall Street candidacy with Sanders’ grassroots revolution. How could a Sanders supporter conceivably support Hillary when she clearly did no embrace the values or policies of the Sanders campaign, except in a half-hearted way obtained under duress? The fact that Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic Party, only espouse meaningful progressive values and policies when pushed hard says a lot about their natural instincts. Surely voters should not have to subject the people who courted their votes to tourniquet and thumbscrews, yet that is exactly what happens when voters are manipulated into supporting a candidate who doesn’t actually represent their interests. Add in Clinton’s record from First Lady to Secretary of State (see Don't Call Him Bernie Anymore at CounterPunch), her work with the dubious Clinton Foundation, her financial ties to Wall Street, the “extreme carelessness” she displayed in regards to her eMails, and the grotesque abuse of feminism wielded by surrogates like Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright, and the preponderance of evidence demolishes her progressive credentials. She is neoliberalism’s champion. (If you want more on this, see Ted Rall at rall.com and the folks at CounterPunch.org).

Then came the end game, demarcated by California’s compromised primaries (see California Calls Fraud at the Observer) . The biggest outrage came when the media abandoned journalistic ethics and professionalism by declaring Clinton the Democratic nominee before Californians even voted. But Elizabeth Warren’s endorsement of Clinton, after months sitting on the sidelines, was a special kind of kick in the teeth. Having built her political career on economic justice – by holding Wall Street accountable, for instance, and opposing the TPP – it was shocking to have her support a candidate so tightly embedded with the country’s economic elites. Then came talk of the Vice Presidency. Along with the fact that Warren withheld her endorsement until the primaries were effectively over, when her political support wouldn’t mean very much, her willingness to be considered as Clinton’s VP stained her endorsement as opportunism as well as political cowardice. Bravery would have been endorsing the candidate in line with her agitation for economic reform, Sanders, during the primaries when it could have made a difference.

So now here we are, with Sanders having satisfied the Democratic Party’s wish for unity and endorsed Clinton. His supporters are now expected to vote for her in a bid to stop the latest GOP bogeyman. The question, then, is whether he did succeed in creating a movement beyond himself that will endure to apply the tourniquets and thumbscrews the Democratic Party after the election. It might, but all that Sanders’ political revolution has to show is a symbolic party platform that contains some admittedly good ideas. Without opposition to the TPP and fracking and support of universal single-payer healthcare, however, the DNC’s symbolic party platform document is another example of throwing a few crumbs to the birds so they don’t notice the cage being built around them. And again: it’s a non-binding document. So what is it about changing the language on a rhetorical document that constitutes a victory for Sanders’ political revolution?

If I were really cynical, I’d think the Clintons put up Trump to run on the GOP ticket in the effort of providing a monster so scary that voters would line up behind the generally disliked Hillary Clinton. There’s no need to take out the tin foil, however, because the reality is bad enough: Sanders did as he said he would, suggesting that in the end he wasn’t himself transformed by calls for political revolution. Whatever his intentions, the end result is precisely the Clinton-friendly, revolution-neutering scenario imagined when he first announced his pursuit of the presidential nomination.


farewell to the revolution - part 1

When Bernie Sanders announced his campaign to run against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, a cynical scenario came to mind: Sanders would talk a grand progressive game, sweep up all the people frustrated by President Obama’s neoliberal administration, and deliver his supporters to a candidate whose progressiveness in everything but social issues can be charitably described as Republican-lite. It would be a neat shell game of establishment politics driven once again by fear of the Republican presidential candidate.

The surprise was that Sanders ran a campaign that seemed authentically revolutionary in the limited scope allowed by the American political system. Although not a socialist in the technical sense of the word, his New Deal liberalism was a fresh drink of water in a political system parched of everything but corporate and military-industrial interests.

Naturally, the system conspired against him. The media and political elites (e.g. the DNC), championing a de facto Clinton nomination, consistently (and with great condescension) echoed the narrative of Sanders as political outlier and usurper. Throughout all this, Trump was made to play the role of Democrat’s bogeyman better than the media could have hoped, although Ted Cruz would have been equally noxious. Naturally, it became even easier for establishment politicians and their media cheerleaders to rally around Clinton. With the dismissive and reluctant coverage provided to Sanders – in contrast to the obsessive reality-TV coverage of Trump and the sycophantic support for Clinton – it’s no surprise that Sanders ultimately didn’t win the nomination.

Regardless of Sanders’ policy difference with Clinton and Republicans, there were reasons at the outset not to feel the Bern too deeply. There was, of course, the matter of his so-called socialism, which remains a provocative label misapplied to old-school liberalism more than an expression of radical anti-capitalist politics. For committed socialists, the mislabeling was rather jarring. There was also the fact that his record didn’t neatly fit in with the values and policies espoused by deep progressives. Apart from his willingness to criticize Israel and put in a good word for Palestinian dignity, Sanders’ voting record on foreign policy issues is a bit dodgier than his reductive assertion that, unlike Clinton, he voted against the Iraq War. The same could be said of his voting on domestic issues, although in this respect he is better than most politicians. See Ron Jacobs’ The Problem with Bernie at CounterPunch.) But the most obvious omen of Sanders eventual capitulation were his own words. Most notably, Sanders was adamant about third-party candidacies as spoilers, making it clear when asked about running as an independent candidate that “I made the promise that I would not, and I will keep that promise.” (See “No, Bernie Sanders still isn’t going to run as an independent” at the Washington Post )

It was there all along – but it’s easy to see why Sanders’ supporters glossed over it as the primaries picked up momentum.

(to be continued)


Ginna Carter Prevails in PRT’s Eccentricities of a Nightingale (at TFPO)

Review of the Pacific Resident Theatre's production of Tennessee Williams' The Eccentricities of a Nightingale

Misfit, freak, geek – whatever the description, it’s easy to see why Alma Winemiller, the delightfully odd and sassy bird who gives The Eccentricities of a Nightingale its title, was so loved by Tennessee Williams. Her indomitable spirit stands bravely against the condescending and conformist influences of a disapproving community. Today, we wouldn’t overthink the bundle of exaggerated mannerisms that is Alma, nor view her penchant for sitting in the park to feed and chat with the birds as a preliminary sign of lunacy. In turn-of-the-20th-century Glorious Hill, Mississippi, just as in many communities, the pressure to fit in creates ... READ THE REVIEW AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


playing catchup: a meditation for Orlando, and two play reviews (at TFPO)

I've been neglectful in updating the blog with what little writing I'm doing these days - I have a doctor's note if you want it.

So here's the latest since my review of those For Beginners books:

  • Orlando: A Meditation for Loving-Kindness Another day in America. Another mass shooting. Another grievous wound. The news will swell with posturing politicians, opiniated commentators, circular policy debates, and strident finger-pointing. Beating through the noise will be human hearts suffering over the loss of life. We will remember the victims. People with names. People targeted because of their sexual orientation. I have previously written about ... CONTINUE READING AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE
  • The Existential Superhero Takes a Leap (theatre review of The Superhero and his Charming Wife)Interpretative dance, moving platforms with gymnastics, video backgrounds, crafty props – these elements form the raw materials of writer/director Aaron Hendry and Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble’s imaginative and exuberant theatrical experience, The Superhero and his Charming Wife. But ... CONTINUE READING AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE
  • A Lukewarm Dinner at the Odyssey (theatre review of Dinner at Home Between Deaths) - There comes a moment in Dinner at Home Between Deaths when it seems like the characters will sail into the bleak waters charted by Swimming with Sharks, the singularly unpleasant film starring Kevin Spacey and Frank Whaley. We are mercifully spared the pointless nasty cynicism, but the ... CONTINUE READING AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


Can two "For Beginners" Books Fight Racism? (at TFPO)

Although my review of Black Panthers for Beginners and Civil Rights for Beginners, within a discussion of race in America, is focused on "right-wing" racism, it would be worthwhile to examine how "left-wing" identity politics pose their own set of challenges in terms of achieving social justice. In brief, it seems to me that where right-wing identity politics are tribal, manichean, and absolutist, left-wing identity politics are more discursive and relative. The problem with this sort of postmodernist form of identity-conception is the tendency to favour the theoretical and symbolic over the empirical and practical -hence, the internecine struggle that tends to hinder unity among various identity groups.

Anyway, that's a big discussion in and of itself. The point still remains that the Republican party and its parade of grotesques remains the single biggest obstacle to having a rational discussion on the topic let alone implementing solutions that will genuinely help non-white ethnicities achieve social parity.

As always, these For Beginners books provide a valuable starting point, in this case by offering an accessible entry point to the history of the Civil Rights movement in general and the Black Panthers in particular.



on netflix: dimension-hopping with "parallels"

I came out of watching Parallels feeling the rush that comes with being exposed to high-concept science-fiction. A mysterious building that serves as a focal point for travelling between parallel universes? Yes, please! Years after Sliders went off the air – and failed to catch on with me given storytelling marred by behind-the-scenes production shenanigans, character switch-ups, and a series cliffhanger – now seems like a ripe time to revisit the concept with a grittier, hard-science approach.

There was every reason to be optimistic, as the show is the creation of Christopher Leone and Laura Harkcom, the pair who delivered the underrated but fiendishly clever miniseries The Lost Room. Having already demonstrated a thrilling flair for handling space/time anomalies with a sci-fi perspective, I was curious to see how they would freshen up a familiar concept.

The good news is that Parallels is, overall, rather gripping. Unfortunately, it suffers from its ambiguous status as a movie slash series pilot slash digital product. With too many ideas crammed into 83 minutes, it doesn’t offer enough of a self-contained narrative arc for it to stand reasonably on its own, even as it sets pieces on the chessboard for the long game. Its last 10 minutes alone raises more questions and introduces more plot points than a cliffhanger, however intriguing and appetite-whetting, should be asked to handle without being frustrating and anti-climatic.

Disappointing to various degrees are the characters, which consist of a taciturn brawler, a dork, a blank, and a streetwise traveler who tutors the other three on the finer points of universe-hopping. Of the four, only Mark Hapka’s Ronan, a troubled lad who left his family out of guilt to get himself beaten up in underground fighting contests, can be measured out in more than two dimensions.  The savvy traveler, named Polly, stands out for her portrayal by the film’s strongest cast member, Constance Wu: pay attention to her as the gang travels from one Earth to another. As for the remaining members of the Scooby gang: the dork, played by Eric Jungmann, is a public defender named Harold who is positioned as a geek with occasional insight but is really there to shriek, panic, and irritate. The blank is Ronan’s sister Beatrix, an unremarkable character supposedly smart enough to be admitted to Princeton but who displays a shocking lack of thought or curiosity…but shrieks and panics almost as well as Harold. Thankfully, Jessica Rothe is less irritating than Jungmann.

And what can I say about the decision, yet again, to feature yet more white protagonists (all but one)? To the film’s producers: I sigh and shake my head in your general direction.

You would think that, in an age of comic books and sci-fi blockbusters galore, characters confronted with the weird would do more than stand around screaming about what happened. But no: the characters, except for Ronan, indulge a meltdown. And the lack of method and consideration? Sure, the characters will speculate and ask some of the obvious questions. Beyond that, however, they act like the protagonists of a horror movie: rushing into things without much forethought. Granted, they aren’t trained scientists…but shouldn’t they at least be somewhat intelligent and methodical in their approach to the unknown? Shouldn’t we expect more from a lawyer and a Princeton candidate? The weak characterization is a letdown given how Leone and Harkcom have shown themselves capable of delivering believably clever characters in unusual situations, such as Peter Krause’s cop protagonist in The Lost Room.

Still, in that rush to the end, the needs of the plot outweigh the integrity of the characters. There’s the inexplicable ability for a stowaway named Tinker to hook up a device to controls the Building…about which he knew nothing about until the Scooby gang stumbled into his world. Also: a surprising familial development should cause the characters to raise a serious existential question, but is simply cast aside in favour of getting to the next parallel earth.

The good news is that none of these shortcomings are insurmountable if Parallels does, indeed, become a bonafide series as its creators hope. Characters can be refined and deepened – their initial ineptitude waved off as shock and inexperience – while big, and not so big, questions can be allowed to breathe with the more relaxed pace of a series. In the proverbial big picture, none of the pilot’s limitations derail the effort to present a rich, intriguing, and intelligent variation on the many-worlds story. Although I’m wary when Leone states that the story that could be completed in 5 seasons, in part because of past history: The Lost Room, though self-contained insofar as its protagonist is concerned, didn’t come close to resolving its narrative and, years later, shows no sign of resuscitation – I do hope is given a chance. My optimism may be cautious, but optimism it is given the really fascinating premise and compelling world-building.