Yes, thank goodness

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The Beauty of Ron Paul

Let me get the caveats out of the way first.  First, I don’t think Ron Paul has a chance in hell of ever being a presidential nominee, much less of actually ever getting elected president.  Second, even if he did manage, by some freak accident, to get elected, I don’t think a Paul presidency would be the panacea that some of his more rabid supporters seem to believe it would be (same goes for Nader, by the way).  In other words, I don’t think Ron Paul is a savior or a saint, although I do think that the cries of “reactionary” by certain leftish types are a bit overstated and based largely on ignorance of what his actual positions are and the ridiculous assumption that the government we’re currently saddled with is the result of some kind of inevitable “progress” and that any talk of rolling it back is just a barely concealed yearning to return to the dark ages, or some such nonsense.

But anyway, on to the point.  The great thing about Ron Paul is that he has this effect on the so-called conservatives in our midst:

Libertarians and Conservatives are as different as Libertarians and Liberals. The truth is libertarians are the worst form of political affiliation in the nation. Combining the desire of economic greed, with the amoral desire to promote any behavior regardless of its cost to our culture is a stark departure from the intent of the Founding Fathers.

And given the fact that the Ron Paul-toting, uber-disrespectful and, in many ways, disruptive ballot stuffing has wrecked the straw poll results, pinging completely unelectable candidates in two of the top three slots, perhaps more significance should be paid to the straw poll to be conducted by the conference that happens in the fall called the “Values Voters Conference.”

You might think Ron Paul had showed up at the church dance with 20 friends, all of them stumbling-down-drunk, and wagged his dick at the ladies before peeing on the Rice Krispie treats and passing out.  And while I’m at it, let me just point out the absolutely ham-fisted construction of that second paragraph, not to mention the clunky compound adjectives and bizarre word choices: “Ron Paul-toting”?  “uber-disrespectful”? “pinging”?

The argument is even more bizarre, though pretty much standard fare as far as conservative critiques of libertarianism go.  Libertarians don’t “desire economic greed,” they desire economic self-determination, even if some of them confuse this idea with apologetics for corporatism.  As for the idea that they desire to “promote any behavior regardless of its cost to our culture”: 1) there’s a difference between promoting a behavior and opposition to throwing people in jail for engaging in said behavior; and 2) I’d say the desire to repress certain behaviors is more of a threat to “our culture”—a culture supposedly built on respect for individual liberty—than a few people smoking weed or “gay marriage.”

Those who don’t understand the first point are idiots.  Those who do yet still advocate punishing people for engaging in behavior they disapprove of are asshole authoritarians who don’t deserve any respect.  As for the second point, I’ll just add that it’s a bit ironic seeing self-described conservatives breaking out such collectivist chestnuts to justify pushing people around.

Libertarian elements, because of their strange combination of policies that add up to anarchy without moral limits, don’t mix with conservative ideals.

That’s right.  Let’s get rid of the conservative ideals then and bring on the anarchy.

(Also, I have to say, I really love that part of the outrage directed at the Paulistas is because one of them called Dick Cheney a war criminal.  This is described as “slandering a public servant.”  I’m not sure which is funnier: the idea that Dick Cheney is not a war criminal, or that his career in government could somehow be described as public service.)

Three Documentaries

I watched the following documentaries over the course of the past month or so.  I was going to write about each of them separately, but since they all deal in one way or another with government—more specifically, with how governments serve the interests of the wealthy and politically connected over and above everyone else’s; how they downright neglect the interests of the poor and non-politically connected; and how they think nothing of killing or destroying the lives of people who, for whatever reason, have been deemed a threat—I thought I’d put them all together under one post.  So here goes, in order of viewing:

The Art of the Steal deals with the private art collection of Dr. Albert Barnes, worth an estimated $30 billion, and how it was effectively stolen by “the city of Philadelphia” (i.e., the gaggle of wealthy elites who dominate the city’s cultural and economic institutions), with a little help from “the state of Pennsylvania” (i.e., Ed Rendell), using the Pew Charitable [sic] Trust as a front.

Barnes was a self-made man, coming up from a working class neighborhood in Philly, who became wealthy after developing a treatment for venereal disease.  An outsider and a bit of a renegade, he loathed the Philadelphia elite, personified by Walter Annenberg, owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer and one of the main forces behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Barnes’s hatred of these folks was solidified when they panned his avant-garde (at the time) collection after its first public showing.  He vowed to never let them get their hands on his art and, to make sure it never happened, he had what he thought was an ironclad will drawn up that not only prohibited the sale of the art, but also explicitly stated that it was never to be loaned out, or moved from the house for any reason. 

But then he died, and one of the lessons of this movie is that if they can’t fuck you when you’re alive, you can be sure they’ll fuck you when you’re dead.  Since Barnes had no children, his foundation passed into the hands of a personal friend, who ran it faithfully until her death some 30 years later.  Next in line was Lincoln University, a local black college, chosen because of its natural status as an outsider to the Philadelphia establishment.  Ironically, it was Lincoln’s involvement that may have sped up the eventual (and, honestly, inevitable) takeover by the despised insiders.  A pair of Lincoln-appointed presidents, with political connections and ambitions of their own, succeeded in nullifying parts of Barnes’s will (the first in order to send the art on a world tour), and when the second cut a deal, unbeknownst to Lincoln, to allow Pew onto the foundation’s board, the takeover and eventual move to more tourist-friendly downtown Philadelphia was sealed.  The final snag was Lincoln, understandably pissed about being pushed aside in such an underhanded way, so in stepped “Fast Eddie” Rendell with a nice grant to buy the financially strapped college’s cooperation.

Naturally, all of this maneuvering was done purely in the interest of saving the foundation, which, Pew claimed, was on the brink of insolvency, the only cure for which was moving it to the city (even though several million dollars had mysteriously appeared in the state budget to finance the proposed new building, money that presumably could have been used to “save” the old one).  The fact that this is what the Philly folks wanted all along is just one of those unfathomable coincidences.

Aside from power brokers, there’s an interesting assortment of characters in the film—artsy-fart types, stuffy curators, eccentric neighbors of the Barnes Foundation’s soon-to-be-former Lower Merion location, and activists bent on preserving the collector’s original vision for his art.  It’s pretty entertaining, too, playing like a whodunnit of sorts, and regardless of what you think about the importance of honoring the wishes of a long-dead crank sitting atop a trove of some of the most celebrated works of art in history, it’s hard not to see the naked venality and influence peddling on display in this movie as the way all political decisions are made, with the same predictable winners and losers.

At the other end of the socio-economic scale, there is Trouble the Water, about Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband, Scott, residents of the Ninth Ward of New Orleans who rode out Hurricane Katrina in their attic before making their way out of the flooded neighborhood and eventually (temporarily) the city.  The film begins with footage that Kim herself took with her own personal camcorder the day before the storm.  She walks around the neighborhood, while the sky darkens and the wind begins to kick up, interviewing people, asking them if they’re going to leave town or stay and take their chances.  She asks a young girl, eight or nine years old, if she’s afraid; the girl says, with bravado, that she is not.  She rousts a neighborhood drunk who’s passed out on a front step and tells him to get home before the storm comes.  He struggles to his feet and staggers off.  (Later, when Kim and Scott return, they go to the man’s house to see if he survived, and they’re met with the putrescent stench of his rotted corpse.)

The film jumps ahead and when it returns to the storm Kim and Scott are holed up in their attic with a cooler full of supplies while the water rises beneath them.  At its highest point, the water reaches nearly to the second floor of the houses across the street and a nearby stop sign is almost completely submerged.  After the hurricane subsides, they make their way to a nearby house with a dry second floor.  They wait for rescuers but none come.  At one point they call 911 and are told that there won’t be any rescue attempts until the waters recede further.  Finally, they tire of waiting and begin wading through the flooded streets—now waist deep—and gradually make their way to dry ground.  Along the way they meet the film crew that will eventually make this documentary (Kim thinks it’s a news film crew and approaches them with the hope of selling her footage of the storm and instead winds up starring in a movie.)

Alongside the personal story, there’s the parallel story about government neglect.  There’s the press conference in which Mayor Nagin announces a mandatory evacuation of the city.  When a reporter asks how many people he thinks will wind up staying, he just says, “I hope they all get out.”  (Some text appears onscreen telling us that there was no plan to use public transportation to evacuate people.)  In the days immediately following the storm, there are plenty of cops guarding the Harrah’s casino and the downtown business district, but none in the Ninth Ward; and when the cops do reappear in the Roberts’ neighborhood, they seem to view the residents more with indifference or outright suspicion than as people possibly in need of help (the National Guard isn’t much better).

But the most telling scene is the one in which Scott and Kim return to the nearby Navy base where, in the aftermath of the storm, they heard that they might be able to find a room since many of the housing units were empty.  When they (there’s a group of them now) approach the front gate to see if they can come in, they’re told, with M16s pointed at them, to leave.  An officer being interviewed for the film admits, obviously without first being coached by the Navy PR department, that they were just doing their job, “which is to protect government property.”  This leads Scott to wonder (rhetorically?), “If the government’s not going to take care of the people, what good is it?”  Later, in Tennessee, a relative tells Kim that she’s not going to let her son join the military because she doesn’t want him fighting for a country that doesn’t care about him.  Too bad more people don’t come to this conclusion.

Throughout the entire ordeal, Kim and Scott maintain a level of generosity and good humor that should put the average pampered American to shame, and the movie does a nice job of showing what people do when they’re abandoned by the government that allegedly serves them: they take care of each other and themselves.

The final movie is Restrepo, about a platoon of US soldiers doing a tour in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, from sometime in 2007 to 2008.  Reputedly one of the more dangerous areas in the country, the soldiers go on patrols, or hang around the base, and engage in the occasional firefight with a mostly invisible “enemy.”  One night they sneak into enemy territory and set up an outpost (“OP Restrepo,” named after a platoon member who was killed earlier in the deployment).  This is portrayed as a great coup by the platoon sergeant, although it’s difficult to tell what it actually accomplished.

Once a month or so they meet with the local village elders to discuss whatever issues have arisen between the military unit and the people who actually live there.  In their first meeting, the sergeant, coming off like a cross between a car salesman and an asshole cop (a uniquely American mix, to be sure) and complete with Cro-Magnon forehead, talks while the village elders, a collection of gnarled and withered men with long scraggly beards, most of whom look to be in the vicinity of, say, 150 years old, listen in silence.

The sergeant tells them about a road that’s going to be built, which, he promises, will bring prosperity to the area.  Not one of the men so much as blinks.  Then one of them pipes up (through an interpreter) about villagers getting shot on their land.  The sergeant bristles.  This is clearly not part of the script.  He reminds the village men that whatever problems they had had with his predecessor are no more and that they’re working from a “clean slate.”  He’s impatient with all of this diplomatic bullshit.  It’s obvious that he views these little get-togethers as more of a one-way affair.

The regular soldiers, meanwhile, seem like a fairly ordinary assortment of young men with more energy, sexual and otherwise, than acceptable outlets.  There are the impromptu wrestling matches and the faux-homoerotic grab-assing and simulated butt fucking, along with various other forms of “manly” behavior, that anyone who’s spent any time in a high school locker room would recognize.  They’re like a football team with explosives and automatic weapons, a notion that doesn’t inspire much confidence.  In one-on-one interviews recorded after the tour was over and they had returned to their permanent base (in Italy, I believe), they talk about what it was like to be shot at and recount firefights in which friends were killed or wounded and try, mostly unsuccessfully, to put their emotions into words.

The sense of the overall “mission” given by the film is one of aimlessness punctuated by machine gun fire and bombs dropped from airplanes exploding in the green hills, with the latter producing the inevitable “collateral damage.”  But the incident that best epitomizes the tragicomical farce of the entire situation—not just this particular unit’s tour, but the entire US occupation of Afghanistan—is when one of the villagers comes to the platoon’s camp asking to be compensated for his dead cow, which some of the soldiers had killed after it had gotten snagged in a barbed wire fence and they had been unable (or perhaps unwilling) to free it.  Earlier there was a scene in which the soldiers, laughing, talked about what a great meal it had made.  Now this poor farmer comes asking to be paid for his loss and he’s told that they will not give him money, only the equivalent in rice and beans.  The man is not happy but the soldier just shrugs: sorry, take it or leave it, old man.  I believe this is what they call “winning hearts and minds.”

These Damn Kids

I stumbled upon this (about a teacher who was suspended for blogging about her students) in the local news yesterday.  It jumped out at me because she teaches, or taught, at the high school I graduated from (she was in third or fourth grade when I was a senior, so no, I didn’t have the pleasure of being one of her students).  The post, or one of the posts, that led to her suspension was a sarcastic rant expressing the contempt, to put it mildly, she apparently feels for a lot of her students—not specific students, or at least none referred to by name.  Explaining her distaste for the “canned” comments that she and her colleagues are encouraged to use on report cards (in lieu of their own thoughts, of course), e.g., “cooperative in class,” “achieving at ability level,” etc., she wrote out a bullet-pointed list of remarks that she would prefer to use if she were able to say how she really felt about certain students.  She drops a “fuck” and an “asshole” or two, but what’s really striking, frankly, is the degree of cattiness; it reads more like a high school kid talking shit about her classmates than the 30-year-old woman who’s supposed to be teaching them.

Following her suspension, she wrote another post defending her right to express her feelings on her own personal blog and chiding the students and their parents for being either overly sensitive or else unable to face up to unpleasant truths about themselves.  She may have a point here.  I actually have no trouble believing that a lot of her students are assholes.  Then again, I can see where it might be a bit, shall we say, problematic to have a teacher who’s made it publicly known–in spite of her protestations that it was only meant to be read by close friends–that she can’t stand a healthy number of her students.

Honestly, I can’t say I care one way or the other whether she keeps her job–that’s for the parties directly involved to hash out–and if that was all she had had to say I’d probably leave it at that.  But then she had to go and make this remark in the closing paragraph:

There are serious problems with our education system today–with the way that schools and school districts and students and parents take teachers who enter the education field full of life and hope and a desire to change the world and positively impact kids, and beat the life out of them and villanize [sic] them and blame them for everything–and those need to be brought to light.

Now who’s villainizing and blaming?  Plenty of kids enter the schools “full of life and hope” and a desire to learn and have the enthusiasm beaten out them, too; the indifferent, lazy students and the “grade-grubbers” she despises so much are just symptoms of a system–that word pretty much says it all–that’s more about acquiring credentials than it is about learning in any real sense of the word.  Take away the mediocre strivers and the nerds on a fast track to the Ivy League and you’re left with a bunch of kids who are only there because they have to be.  What’s amazing to me is that she seems totally incapable of comprehending this.  Kids don’t like school for the same reason adults don’t like their jobs–because it’s a prison.

I can only imagine what comments Ms. Munroe would have had for me if I had been one of her students: “Lazy fuck with a chip on his shoulder who sleeps in class and turns in tests with nothing but his name written on them…destined for the custodial arts.”  She wouldn’t have been too far off, either.  The thing is, a lot of my teachers weren’t much better.

You’re the brightest most wonderful person

I love when my local public radio station resorts to naked flattery in its pledge drives.  Immediately following a segment this morning on NPR, in which Cokie Roberts used the word “obstreperous,” the local pledge drive host came on and said: “Where else on the radio can you hear the word ‘obstreperous’?  Here at WHYY, we don’t insult your intelligence.”

Or, more straightforwardly: “You’re so much smarter and more sophisticated than the riffraff that listens to those other radio stations.” 

Not that there’s anything surprising here.  They’re just playing to their audience, or their perceived audience—or perhaps just that portion of the audience most likely to break out their wallets.  But still, it’s funny how this also feeds into the negative stereotype of the typical public radio listener: essentially an elitist whose progressive, socially conscious views (often on display in the form of bumper stickers on the back of his suitably “green” automobile) are just further evidence (in addition to his master’s degree in corporate handjobbery) of his superiority to others.

“Conflict of Interest”

So, the CFTC (Commodities Futures Tra…whatever—one of the banking regulators) holds a “public hearing” on derivatives reform and eight people show up.  Guess how many of those people are from the banking industry?  Now guess how many regular, concerned citizens show up?  If you guessed 8 and 0, respectively, you are correct!

The informational hearing for regulators somehow turns into a job interview for banking people. Banking people who are advising regulators about writing the new rules, and who happen to have millions riding on the outcome of those rules.

Here’s the thing. You ask both lobbyists and regulators about this conflict of interest and they will tell you it’s not ideal, but of course it works that way.

“You can’t possibly expect people in the government at all levels to understand all this stuff,” says Tim Ryan, a lobbyist who represents many big Wall Street firms. “They’re not market participants.”

The idea of regulations being written by the very industries being regulated isn’t terribly noteworthy, at least not to those of us who view this sort of collusion between government and business as, well, business as usual (ho ho), but the thing that gets me is how this is described as a “conflict of interest.”  What conflict of interest?  Seems to me that the problem here is that there’s no conflict of interest.

The Jingo Bowl

Will Grigg on that annual spectacle of national self-indulgence disguised as a sporting event:

Superbowl Sunday, the High Holy Day of our de facto state religion, has become such a brobdingnagian spectacle of militarist self-worship that Leni Riefenstahl would probably find the proceedings a bit excessive. The Caligulan feast in Dallas did offer one small source of consolation: Contrary to what compulsive mosque-baiters would have us believe, the culture on display is not haunted by the specter of impending Sharia rule.

I had a similar thought while watching the pregame show, although I probably would have gone with Kim Jong-il instead of the Nazis.  But no matter—gaudy displays of militarism and paeans to the dear leader (or, in our case, leaders) are all more or less the same anyway.

My favorite part was the tribute to the glories of the US Government narrated by Michael Douglas.  Images of past emperors—I mean, presidents—flitted across the screen, accompanied by references to their most famous speeches.  “Where would we be if He hadn’t asked us what we can do for our country,” said one of those supposed America-haters from Hollywood.  

I almost spat out a mouthful of crab dip when I heard that one.

Let’s see, where would “we” be if JFK hadn’t made a bullshit speech 50 years ago?  No doubt we’d all be dead, all 300,000,000 of us having long ago succumbed to collective inertia and self-neglect.

Truth in Advertising

The local NPR affiliate in Philly, WHYY, is in the midst of one of its annual pledge drives, and this morning its main pitch man, a pompous twit whose affected highbrow manner of speaking arouses a powerful urge to drag him to the nearest high school and stuff him in a locker (after dumping his backpack and stealing his lunch money, of course) was going on about how “you, the listener” are responsible for financing the station and how they’re able to bring us the high-quality programming they do because they’re not beholden to the commercial interests that other stations are.

Then, I swear less than two minutes later, the other pitch person said something about how they’re probably going to get less money from the federal government (not a “commercial” interest, true, but certainly a pretty big interest nevertheless, wouldn’t you say?) this year, so listener pledges are even more important than usual; and this was followed by a spot for a local hospital that specializes in cancer care.  So, for shits and giggles, I went onto the station’s website and, sure enough, there’s a page dedicated entirely to soliciting corporate “underwriters.”

Well, gee whiz, and all along I was wondering why their programming is basically no different than the so-called commercial media outlets.