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Archive for October, 2011

This Will Not End Well

[ 38 ] October 28, 2011 |

Erik beat me to the Oliver Stone/Power Broker* project. And yet, I think it might be more promising than fellow Belaborer of the Obvious Alan Ball** doing a movie about George Tiller. Fans of actors reading lengthy position papers telling you things you already know who are still upset by the cancellation of Studio 60 should get more than their quota from that one.

Speaking of Ball, since it’s hard to overstate how badly American Beauty has aged, I’m disappointed that Robert Stacy McCain missed his recent opportunity to create some common ground between liberal aesthetes and conservative aesthetic Stalinists.   He asserts that Ball’s politics in American Beauty (which are flattered by comparisons with Adorno rather than Frank Rich) were expressed in a matter that is “contextual and nearly subliminal.” Subliminal? Christ, the only way they could have been more foregrounded was if the experience involved paying 10 bucks to have Ball to repeatedly hit you over the head with a 2×4 that has “suburbs are conformist and homophobia is bad” written on it. Which, come to think of it, is what re-screening American Beauty felt like. (The whole hilarious post via Roy, of course.)

*Am I crazy to be considering reading The Power Broker again? Look, I need something to tide me over until Caro’s LBJ: The Vice Presidential Years 1961-2 (2144 pp.) appears in 2016.

**I don’t mean to suggest that Ball doesn’t have him moments when other collaborators are able to moderate the BOTO. Especially in its initial seasons Six Feet Under was very good, although the dream sequences were not merely aesthetic disasters like 99.9% of dream sequences but also involved spoonfeeding the audience neat morals in the way that the show at its best resisted. And while True Blood is not for me overly crude politics aren’t really an issue. My one-line review would be “I didn’t understand what’s particularly interesting about vampires, and after a season of True Blood I still don’t.”

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Inequality Denialism

[ 12 ] October 28, 2011 |

Paul’s recent framework is also highly applicable to what we’ll charitably call wingnut economic thinking. See also.

Speaking of wingnuttery, Thers wins the Carl Palmer Award for best lame prog supergroup reference in a Jonah Goldberg takedown. Like David Freese, truly the heat of the moment showed in his eyes.

Game 6

[ 106 ] October 27, 2011 |

I dunno, I was hoping for a little more drama.

…And those of us rooting for a Game 7 above all get their reward. What a classic. But I’m not sure that Freese kid will ever be able to hit in the clutch.

…in graphical form.

…Did Nolan Ryan look more like Vladimir Putin at a military demonstration or like a Bank of America VP deciding to personally oversee a foreclosure?


[ 16 ] October 27, 2011 |

Too many worthy stories today, too little time to write them up.

If humans playing football suffer concussions, why don’t woodpeckers?

Oliver Stone directing a film about Robert Moses based on Caro’s The Power Broker sounds very unpromising

The drought in the Southwest affects all of us because 70% of our winter vegetables come from northern Mexico. Very high food prices will occur this winter. And the poor will eat less.

Will Valles Caldera become the next national park? Would that status ruin this beautiful area? Turns out that trying to run federal land for profit doesn’t work real well. Who could have guessed?

Colin on the Henry Louis Gates documentary on race in Brazil

How Much Did the Anti-War Movement Matter?

[ 115 ] October 27, 2011 |

Why did anti-Iraq War protests never reach the crescendo of their anti-Vietnam predecessors? There’s been some decent scholarly work on the determinants of public support for wars, but as a very quick cut this seems about right:

Instead of curing the Vietnam Syndrome or its symptoms, the Bush Administration insulated the American public from it. It formulated and executed policies that neutralized the nagging problems that Johnson had previously faced. Whether these decisions were made with Vietnam in mind or were implemented due to political ideology (tax breaks for example) can be debated, but the result was an American public largely distanced from the direct, day-to-day effects of a prolonged conflict. Although America was directly attacked, taxpayers did not pay higher taxes (in fact, paid less), young Americans were not subject to a draft, and the country did not experience the loss of a large number of its citizens. Additionally, despite the advantages of information technology and its professionalization, the anti-war movement never rallied or connected with a large audience in a long-term, meaningful way. Though there were individuals with strong personal connections to the on-going conflicts, they did not exist in significantly numbers.

The last two sentences are interesting for their assessment of the importance of the anti-war movement. The conclusion is debatable; while I think we can say with some safety that the 2006 elections went the Democrats way because of frustration with the war, it’s less clear that the shift in opinion was specifically the result of anti-war activism, or rather the inevitable result of a war that was going poorly. Jonathan Bernstein argues that the most important result of the 2006 election for the war was the Surge; had the Republicans held on, Bush wouldn’t have been as inclined to pursue a risky escalation, or to make the political concessions to the Iraqis that executing the Surge required. I don’t know that this is right, because Bush had pretty much lost faith in Rumsfeld by that point, and Rumsfeld was one of the key obstacles to putting more troops in Iraq. Petraeus was building a constituency for the Surge inside and outside the military well before the election, and might have been able to convince Bush that it was worth the effort.

But then in terms of effect, it’s also not clear that the anti-Vietnam movement had a huge policy impact. By 1968, there was a growing elite-level consensus that continuing the war was a bad idea. Nixon and Kissinger wanted to get out on their own terms, but they definitely wanted to get out, and mostly for international rather than domestic reasons. It’s worth wondering how the war would have wound down if an explicitly anti-war candidate like Bobby Kennedy had prevailed. I think it’s very possible that we would have seen something similar to the slow motion Iraq withdrawal undertaken by the Obama administration, hopefully without the periodic escalations launched by Nixon.

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You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, Boy, Back in the DPRK

[ 26 ] October 27, 2011 |

This sucks:

An estimated 200 North Korean nationals are in Libya and previously worked as doctors, nurses and construction workers, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. They had been dispatched to the country in order to earn the hard currency that Pyongyang requires to fund its missile and nuclear weapons programmes.

Yonhap reported that the North Korean nationals have been left in limbo, joining their compatriots who are stuck in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries with orders not to return home.

North Korean media has so far failed to report that Gaddafi is dead and the government has made no moves to officially recognise Libya’s National Transitional Council as the legitimate governing authority of the country.

The decision to ban its own nationals from returning indicates just how concerned the North Korean regime is of the news leaking out to its subjugated people.

While being banned from North Korea certainly has its upsides, recall that many of these individuals will have a lot of trouble finding work, shelter, etc. where they’ve been stranded. Also, they’ve been allowed to work outside of North Korea because they’re not considered defection risks, which in practical terms probably means that they have families to support.

This move seems very old school, and not in a good way. I suspect that the North Korean state is being far too optimistic about its ability to control information; North Koreans in non-Arab countries will probably also have heard of the Arab Spring, and I find it extremely unlikely that the North Korean populace is as in-the-dark about developments as the authorities seem to hope. Doesn’t mean that there’ll be a popular anti-government movement in the DPRK anytime soon, of course.

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Borking: An Unequivocally Good Thing

[ 26 ] October 27, 2011 |

I have a piece up at Alternet about the myth of Robert Bork.   Nocera’s representative whining notwithstanding, the defeat of Bork wasn’t unprecedented, it wasn’t obstructionist, it was justified, and it was crucial to maintaining fundamental constitutional rights.    And there’s a reason why so many hacks just quote the Ted Kennedy speech without bothering to point out why it was wrong:

Nocera is typical in that he quotes Kennedy as if his comments were self-evidently dishonest, without bothering to cite anything in the speech that was factually wrong. This is understandable because everything in Kennedy’s speech was based on Bork’s public writings. Bork did write an article for the New Republic denouncing the Civil Rights Act as unconstitutional and “based on a principle of unsurpassed ugliness.” (Nor was Bork’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act purely an academic exercise; according to Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm, Bork was instrumental in convincing Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater to oppose it.) Bork was a critic of the exclusionary rule – which prevents the state from profiting from illegal searches and hence inhibits them. He wrote a widely discussed article in 1971 that the free speech clauses of the First Amendment should “not cover scientific, educational, commercial or literary expressions as such.” He was a long-standing critic not only of Roe v. Wade but the right to privacy in general, and whether opponents of reproductive rights wish to acknowledge it or not bans on abortion lead to women getting maimed or killed by back-alley abortions.

The point about Roe is particularly crucial, because the Senate’s rejection of Bork saved Roe. In 1992, the Supreme Court re-affirmed Roe by a 5-4 vote, with Bork’s replacement Anthony Kennedy as the swing vote in the majority. Had Bork confirmed, abortion would be illegal in a significant number of states, and important extensions of the right to privacy to gays and lesbians would have been thwarted.

It’s also worth noting that Bork also believed that not only the landmark Afrcian-American disenfranchisement case Baker v. Carr but the housing discrimination case Shelley v. Kramer were wrongly decided.   Bork, in other words, on civil rights was to the right of a unanimous Supreme Court from 1948.   We’re supposed to see his defeat in 1987 as some massive outrage against human decency?

Part of what’s going on is the phenomenon Krugman recently discussed: allegedly the dirtiest political tactic there could ever be is to discuss the consequences of conservative policies.   Apparently, one can only discuss motivations and assume that conservative motivations are pure as spring water.   This went double for Bork, since the many ugly consequences of his views were allegedly just unintended consequences of Deeply Held Legal Principles.   But the problem, as the Ackerman piece I discussed the other day makes very well, is that Bork’s “originalism” doesn’t even rise to the level of law-office history.   He spent most of his academic career as a theory-driven law-and-economics libertarian, and made his late switch to “originalism” without developing any substantial depth of historical knowledge.    The “originalism” in The Tempting of America consists almost entirely of question-begging and bare assertion that happens in virtually every case of ongoing controversy to line up with Republican policy preferences.    The idea that it was beyond the pale to note the consequences of Bork’s confirmation was absurd then and it still is.

General Strike

[ 73 ] October 27, 2011 |

Yesterday, Occupy Oakland approved a motion for a general strike, to be called for November 2.

I’m curious to see where this goes. General strikes have always had trouble gaining traction in American history. The most successful was in Seattle in 1919 and it only lasted a few days. The last general strike was also in Oakland, in 1946. I have little no doubt that knowledge of Oakland’s radical past helped influence this decision; the same public history exhibit at Occupy Oakland that mentioned the absurd myth of the Chinese peacefully living in America for hundreds of years before Columbus also taught about the 1946 general strike.

In these cases, the general strike was a work-based action, called by radical unionists who had spent years organizing people. So it’s obviously a very different scenario than Occupy Oakland. I think a very important factor in its success will be the response of Bay Area and national labor organizations. Labor and OWS have approached each other with wary caution, with OWS rightfully worried about being co-opted by the AFL-CIO. If labor actively supports the general strike, it could go a long ways in building important trust between the two groups. The legality of such a measure in union contracts is not often clear. Taft-Hartley outlawed sympathy strikes. On the other hand, it may be in the interests of unions to challenge Taft-Hartley and force the capitalists to show their hand in their drive to crush labor and take America back to the Gilded Age.

If labor doesn’t take the general strike seriously, I think it leads to 2 problems. The first is that the protestors alone cannot create an effective general strike because they are not working, in a traditional sense of the word. They are protesting on October 27 and they will be protesting on November 2. The second is that it would undermine any faith that labor is going to back the movement in a serious way.

I guess I’m a bit skeptical about the general strike because I’m not sure anyone knows what it will accomplish. But OWS has surprised people for a month now. I certainly see no downside to this strategy and I encourage organized labor in the Bay Area to take next Tuesday off and join the protestors.

Oh Mittens

[ 22 ] October 27, 2011 |

Why on earth would Mitt Romney wade into the SB-5 fight in Ohio? John Kasich’s union-busting bill is extremely unpopular and is about to go down to a crushing defeat. Given Obama’s somewhat surprising resiliency in the southern and western states he won (and also Arizona where recent polls show him doing pretty well against any Republican), the best Republican hope for victory in 2012 is to peel off the Rust Belt. Indiana seems pretty sure for Republicans whereas I’d bet dollars to donuts that the successful auto industry bailout pretty much guarantees Michigan for Obama. That leaves Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio, and Pennsylvania as vital states for Republicans. Yet Romney flip-flops over whether to support a bill that may well have doomed Republicans in Ohio in 2012? Why would he do this? It’s not like this is a key issue that Americans are clamoring to know about. It’s not as if the other Republicans contenders have weighed in. What is the possible gain Romney gets here? Making the Ohio Republican primary voter happy? A lovely tea party with classy Ohio Republican elected officials like Mean Jean Schmidt and Josh Mandel?

An absolutely stupid move that really hurts Romney in a key battleground state.

Kyle Leighton has more on why this matters.


[ 78 ] October 27, 2011 |

Neyer has more on Scioscia trying to rationalize his horrible misjudgment of Napoli. A few points:

  • The Napoli for an $85 million anvil deal is the most irrational organizational move in many, many years, and everyone with decision-making authority in the Angels organization has to take a hit (and has, in the case of the guy with the ultimate responsibility.)   But Scioscia can’t escape blame; if he valued Napoli at all there’s no way he gets included in a trade for a legendarily bad contract the Jays have been trying to offload for years.
  • Having said that, claims that Scioscia has not been a good manager are not tenable.   It’s not consistent with the best empirical data for evaluating managers. And while the Birnbaum database is not the God’s truth, I think a qualitative analysis would show the same thing.    Given the success of his first decade, to argue that Scisocia was costing his teams several games a year is to argue that the Angels had a great roster that should be winning over 100 games most years.   I think this is somewhere between “implausible” and “ludiciruous.”    Seriously, you’re telling me that this team — with one player who could be even loosely described as “great” (9th best WAR in the league) and a grand quality total of zero premium starting pitchers in their primes — should be expected to win 100 games?  Please.   For most of his tenure, Scioscia has achieved quite remarkable results with the rosters he had to work with.
  • With that said, as I said about Francona it seems very likely he’s contributed what he has to contribute and it would probably be best for the Angels to move on.   His emphasis on Doing Things the Right Way actually has led to real wins for the Angels over the years.   But getting rid of Napoli to play the hapless Mathis suggests that his vision has passed into self-parody.  And it’s not just that — he no longer runs a good bullpen and the team’s baserunning is ordinary.   (They’re still excellent defensively, but Sociscia has sacrificed too much for it.)   He seems to have the job for as long as he wants it, but I think that’s a mistake.   Again, only the greatest managers are effective for as ling as Scioscia has managed the Angels, and there’s every reason to think that he doesn’t qualify.
  • You know who is an outstanding manager right now while getting very little credit for it, though?  Ron Washington.   The Rangers are by far the best baserunning team in the majors, play good defense, have an excellent bullpen, and hustle.  His players often perform to or exceed reasonable expectations.  Everything the Angels are supposed to be, in other words, only without Scoscia’s baggage; having coached for Billy Beane he understands that good fundamentals aren’t incompatible with power hitters.    And while (just like the Hall of Famer in the opposing dugout in this World Series) he does overmanage in the postseason he’s generally sound tactically — only Francona issued fewer intentional walks this year.  Hell of a manager.

Early Jazz, Looney Tunes, and Cultural Rebellion

[ 93 ] October 26, 2011 |

I’ve been making it through the many Looney Tunes collections over the past couple of years. Last night, I watched “I Love to Singa” for the first time in a very long time:

This play on The Jazz Singer is fantastic from the modern perspective not only for the art of the cartoon, but to remember how revolutionary and threatening jazz was for a lot of people. A decade ago, I was sitting in on a job talk for a Gilded Age/Progressive Era historian. This was one of those searches that had 400 candidates, of which 50 would have been awesome. Anyway, this guy worked on southern music and talked about the reactions to ragtime, which unleashed a furious response in the white community of fears that these beats would turn our good young white women into the sexual conquests of black men. In other words, a response that would repeat itself in one form or another with jazz, rock and roll, the music of the counterculture, and of course, hip-hop.

Never mind that the jazz used in Looney Tunes was an extremely white form of it, whether here or in so many other cartoons. This is your Benny Goodman/Andrews Sisters 1940s version of jazz. When black musicians are portrayed, they are caricatures, which of course was common for any racial minorities in these cartoons (not to mention that most of the major characters use speech impediments as defining characteristics). The music is still great and satirized real cultural fear of older Americans. That the very people who enjoyed this whitened jazz would flip out over rock and roll is hardly lost on the modern viewer.

“I Love to Singa” is perhaps best known today thanks to a direct reference to another form of cultural innovation that freaked out conservative parents:

God, that’s funny.

While I love the well-known characters of Looney Tunes, there’s something great about the cartoons that don’t push those narratives because they can be completely anarchic and creative. This isn’t only when they bring jazz into the equation, but especially when they do. Take “Katnip Kollege” for instance:

I also adore the many cartoons that reference stars of the day. As someone who sees W.C. Fields as a guide to growing older, I can’t get enough of those references. But I’ll leave these cartoons for another post.

On Selling Out

[ 19 ] October 26, 2011 |

Oh. So that’s how it is.

Well, whatever. I want to make a pledge* right now to all readers of LGM; we will NEVER** go corporate, or sell out, or place ourselves under the umbrella of some larger media organization, no matter how big of a dumptruck full of money they drive up to our respective houses. It’s about freedom, man.***

*This pledge should not be taken literally.
** This might be a good time for SEK to write a post about the visual rhetoric of dramatic foreshadowing.
*** It’s more about the money than the freedom, actually.

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