Sunday, June 26, 2016

Thoughts Inspired By Uproar Over Recent British Vote*

*I refuse to say "Brexit".

As with so many political things, I had, like Levin in Anna Karenina, no especial emotional investment in whether the UK remained in the European Union or not, but, as you know if you have any social connections with the educated cosmopolitan internationalist crowd, they are rather enraged and seemingly fearful at this development as if it marked an ominous devolutionary movement along the road to Progress that they all seem to have seen as very clearly marked out for the achieving. Certainly this view of the world has a strong appeal to me--I devour magazines and other media detailing the lives of its adherents, and at one time I very likely would have counted myself among their number in spirit. However as this cosmopolitan lifestyle requires most preferably a substantial amount of money, or at the very least good modern credentials and education, to take full part in it, none of which I have or am at this point likely to obtain, it naturally holds less meaning for me as something that must be promoted or preserved as time goes on. I have never been much of an EU enthusiast because of what I took to be its homogenizing influences, though these did not seem to me quite as pronounced in England as in countries like France or Italy or Spain, which were formerly much more worlds onto themselves and quite foreign places that have to my view been pushed into becoming more like the United States and England and Germany more than these latter countries have had to become like them. The increased freedom of movement for work and travel purposes has been wonderful for people in the traditionally poorer countries and the upper, best-educated ranks of the wealthier countries, including many Americans, but the benefits to the more ordinary people in these societies of the constant flow of people into what used to be considered "their" countries and correlating constant changes in the social contract are obviously starting to come under question.

The enlightened media, and its sympathizers in the social media universe, have not for the most part been shy about expressing its horror at the result of the vote and what they took to be the motivations behind it (namely economic ignorance and racism, two of the deadliest sins of the new social order), and by extension their apparent inability to guide a too great segment of the electorate to think and vote properly on important issues. Seeing as a great part of the resentment against the establishment as I see it is stirred up by the way all kinds of stories are reported, and what is emphasized in them, I wonder if there are not some changes in the presentation of certain stories that might assuage some of the hysteria which is currently afflicting much of the electorate in what used to be known as the advanced countries:

1. I know it is boring, but perhaps run a story once in a while about some ordinary person who actually paid off their student loans, maybe with some detailed explanation of how they did it over a period of years.

I have a lot of questions about the current way student loans are administered--I don't understand, apart from the necessity of pandering to various forms of greed, why it is impossible, for example, to just go back to the system that was in place when I was in school, which was low interest government administered vanilla loans with clear and consistent repayment schedules--but nonetheless the overwhelming majority of people still don't default on their loans, especially if they went to any kind of legitimate school, but you certainly would not know this from reading The New York Times. People below the upper middle class in general I think need more detailed straightforward explanation, not necessarily negative, but something like in the manner that magazines like the old Saturday Evening Post or Edward Bok's Lady's Home Journal used to do, from their media about practical matters and how to navigate education, find careers suitable to their abilities, how to work effectively in general, not get taken advantage of financially, and so on. It seems clear that current media is not helpful in this way and is promoting a state of widespread fear, pessimism and panic with regard to these areas,

2, Two, related to this, it might be helpful sometime to run a story about an ordinary person who got laid off and whose life was subsequently not ruined; houses were not lost, children did not end up in jail for selling meth or abandoned single mothers, the middle aged ex-worker did not develop debilitating health problems but was able to carry through, and so on. Surely there are instances where this has happened. I don't want to make light of the real problems people in this situations can face, and this is something that I often worry about it in secret with regard to myself, though the people around me have made it very clear to me that it in the event of such a thing happening, my innate proclivities towards weakness and emotional collapse will not be indulged, and I will be expected, as a 46 year old (one person even went so far as to say 'white') man with a college degree and six children, to conduct myself in a manner appropriate to what used to be understood by that station regardless of whether some sector of contemporary society would diminish it or not. There is something to be said for maintaining an attitude of dignity in the face of adversity that the media could promote more effectively, and with better results than I think has come out of this last decade or so. The  Times, Post, Atlantic, etc, seem to love to go to these towns abandoned by the modern economy and wallow in how pathetic and poor and bereft of dignity and self-respect all of the people left behind in them are.

3. It is clear that in the British election, the implied threat that if people did not vote the way the establishment wanted, they would basically be thrown into poverty almost as a punishment, backfired to some extent. This implication of punishment for incorrect voting is one of the more revolting characteristics of Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate by the way, because there is no pretense that she cares about the actual horrible consequences that are going to fall upon the deceived voter, it's intended purely as a threat to vote for her--or else. Something of that same dynamic looks to have been at work in the British vote. The instinctive response to this kind of threat for many people, especially men d'un certain age, is to think, jeez, if it's gotten to this state that I have to support this unappealing program or direction in which everything is moving or face imminent ruin than perhaps we had better return at once to a state of things where this was not a danger and we had more agency over the course of our lives. But this mentality is a blind spot that many people in power seem to have, or are at least dismissive of.

4. I don't know how the establishment's/media's message with regard to mass immigration can be massaged to make it more palatable to their antagonists among the backward elements of the native populace, though as it looks more and more like they are never, in the near future anyway, going to relent on their demands for welcoming endless numbers of immigrants into the western nations, and are willing to fight anyone opposed to it to at least the metaphorical death, especially if they have any sense that racism is an influence in the opposition, they might want to try. There is an emphasis and tone in most current pro-immigration stories in mainstream media that are going to be off-putting to some degree, either because the immigrant(s) under consideration is written about in a far more respectful or admiring way than the writer would ever express towards a non-millionaire or high level creative/knowledge class native citizen, especially if the native citizen is white, or the premise of the reporting is completely phony, like the story I mentioned that ran in my local paper a few years ago about a pro-immigrant rally that was accompanied by a photo of a person everyone in town knows to be arrogant and disdainful of most of her fellow citizens gleefully hugging an African refugee, or an article that ran recently in the New York Times about Muslim teenagers celebrating Ramadan against the backdrop of the Orlando shootings that was basically A Tree Grows in Brooklyn with Syrians taking the place of the Irish-Germans. I actually liked the article, and thought it would be nice if it were so. But is it so? The modern propagandist is often handicapped by his or her inability either to share and express the enthusiasm for America, or the vision of it, which many immigrants still really do have, or to feel an obligation to promote its adoption and an accompanying respect for the established citizenry, at least publicly, among the new arrivals where it is perhaps lacking. Apart from the question of how many people should be continually coming into these countries in the first place there is a conflict in many western countries over whether there are norms of behavior prevalent in the existing societies that immigrant populations should be expected to conform to in some degree, or what those norms even are, that as far as large swathes of the less-influential segments of the public are concerned, are not even being addressed.

I sat up until 3:53am on Saturday night to write this post.     

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Musing About Getting Feedback

The ten-year anniversary of this site is approaching. It has never attained much of a following. Since about 2010, I have been topping out at about one legitimate comment per year. I have some idea of how many people read this site on a somewhat regular basis, though I don't know who they are. I have tried at various points over the years to implement some of those stat counter type things onto the site that tell you where people are who are getting on the page but none of them ever work, or at least I can't figure out how they work. I am curious about a lot of things, what kind of people come to the site, why they come, what they like or don't like about it, what they think works/are strengths, what, if anything, has gotten better over the years, whether they believe I could really come up with better material and writing if I had more time.

Or maybe I don't really want those things. Because what I imagine is that there are people out there who are sympathetic to my general personality and worldview and that these can be persuaded to say kind or encouraging or enthusiastic things, or at the very least think them in secret, but in general life does not work this way, for me at least. Even when people are, I think, trying to compliment me, I usually am not able to feel it as such because my desire is for such a level of understanding or enthusiasm as I cannot produce, but that I feel others, my rivals, can produce, which naturally causes me great unhappiness. So I go on more or less, putting out my posts with the object of...what? Satisfying what at this point is left of what I once thought I was, I suppose.

Friday, June 17, 2016

A Bunch of Pointed Film Reviews

I'm very far behind on recording my movie impressions. So I'm just going to take this batch and make bullet points as to what I remember about them.

A Prophet (2010)

1. French prison movie, which I have gotten the impression over the years is a surprisingly robust genre.

2. Very well made, compelling movie--one might call it the Paris movie Woody Allen didn't even think about making, though apparently many people in France thought the degree of violence in it was exaggerated and the filmmakers were too much influenced by Hollywood.

3. It felt like it was dealing with things that are real and important happening in the world that a certain segment of the population such as myself is largely sheltered from, and does not particularly want to know about. Somehow I always feel personally implicated for the condition that these guys find themselves in, not directly, but because my general lukewarm and retiring temperament is accepted as being within the normal range, which puts these more naturally violent people in contrast with mainstream society, which is then biased and discriminatory against them.

4. Pretty much the entirety of the prison population are people who are not "French" as most people would have considered that term in 1968 or so, mostly being of Arab/North African or sub-Saharan African origin. The only old style European people in the prison are a gang of Corsicans, most of whom are pretty old (over 50) themselves, with the kid of that group maybe able to pass for 35. There are no traditional French people under the age of about 50 in the entire film, and the only older ones who appear are judges and lawyers and prison administrators who might as well have descended from outer space in the world of this movie. I wonder if this is not a trend in European films, where young people of native stock have either vanished more or less entirely from the picture, or you have the Amelie-(or Midnight in Paris) style escapist fantasy where all of the angry Muslims have disappeared and it's all about Marcel and Fabienne drinking wine at the cafe again.

The English Patient (1996)

1. I remember this being a big movie for the somewhat sophisticated adult set when it came out (it won the Oscar for Best Picture in its year) which I was probably interested in but never got around to seeing at the time and now twenty years have passed.

2. Having come out just before, to my mind, the internet broke big, it still has an underlying pre-internet mentality that I recognize, and am in many ways fond of, but which also in other dates the film considerably.

3. One example of what I mean by the pre-internet mentality is in the general book-informed mental makeup of some of the characters, which is a little contrived, but the filmmakers and the actors both have an idea of and appreciation for the kind of person they are trying to depict. I don't know if a character of this type holds any similarly vivid place in the imagination, let alone the esteem, of people who have come along in the ensuing years.

4. I went back and forth several times in the course of watching this movie between liking it and not liking it. The best parts are those that evoke pre-war nostalgia, upper-class British variety, music, cocktails, black tie dinners, walking through the Cairo bizarre like you own the place. The movie's raison d'etre however is in its romances and those did not work for me. It is well-established that I am a sentimental person and am very fond of certain romantic movies whose situations move me, but that was not the case here. The premise of the Ralph Fiennes romance was that he was a prickly man but possessed of a dominating intellect and the ability to wield it with both charm and severity who would require a mental equal to even consider the possibility of romance entering his life, which seemed unlikely to happen up until it did. I found this relationship to be a bit of a snooze though, despite the objective superiority and even perfection of the involved parties. They were lacking the qualities of actual real people, which I guess was one of the themes of the movie, seeing as the main character ended up suffering injuries which caused his face to be unrecognizable and he also claimed to have forgotten his name, where he came from, and his life's history, though he continued to speak an clipped and elegant English and to retain in his possession a well-thumbed antique volume of Herodotus so that we know is not just some ordinary guy.

Kommisar (1968)

1. Deep Soviet-era movie set during the Russian Civil War which followed the 1917 Revolution. I had read the book And Quiet Flows the Dow, which deals with the same period, not long before I saw this, and it was on my mind while I watched this.

2. It was banned in the Soviet Union upon completion and not seen there, or anywhere else I think, until the late 80s. I forget why (according to Wikipedia the censors wanted more heroic realism which the director, Aleksandr Askoldov, refused to accommodate, and was banned from film-making for the remainder of the Soviet era, which was a great loss to the profession.

3. The movie stars Nonna Mordyuka, whom I had never heard of, though a major British film publication named her one of the 10 greatest film actresses of the 20th century (sadly, I cannot easily find the rest of the list).

4. The movie conveys with some success the psychology of being caught up as an ordinary and unaffiliated citizen in the midst of a war.

5. It's very good, the work of serious people who are able to think about things in a multitude of aspects and from all kinds of sides, which is the striking strength of the great Russian novelists as well. It is not like other movies, even European ones, in a way that I am having some difficulty conveying. It is not stylized, but has a more tactile and unvarnished atmosphere, that still manages to impress the viewer with its beauty.

I Married a Witch (1942)

1. There was some talent on this movie, starting with the usually high-toned French director Rene Clair, who was serving his wartime exile in Hollywood when he made this (I enjoyed his 1945 effort And Then There Were None a few years back, recorded in these pages). It starred the always capable Frederic March. 1920s and 30s New York creative world legend Robert Benchley acts in the movie, as does future Oscar-winner Susan Hayward.

2. Veronica Lake plays the witch, who went by the then somewhat unusual name of Jennifer. Having never seen her in a movie before I had an image in my mind of her as a rather vapid, over-the-top blonde bombshell type, but in this she looks and even talks like what I imagine the more attractive girls at Middlebury or Williams to be like (sorry that I use colleges for reference so much when talking about women, but I really don't have any other references for where one might expect to encounter intelligent ones socially in any kind of concentrated numbers). She was extremely tiny--4' 11", and a wisp of a figure. Her ancestral background was similar to mine, and especially to my children's, mostly Irish with some German on one side. Her career and eventually her life were cut short by alcoholism and mental illness.

3. I cannot remember a lot of the details of this rather odd film, but I like the time period, I found Veronica Lake to be very appealing, and Rene Clair's directorial style seems to tend towards a kind of understated, even spare gentility that is pleasing to me. So I liked it.

The Anna Movies

This is not even including The King and I, which I have not yet seen. I saw these because I had recently read Margaret Landon's 1944 novel, which I wrote about on my other blog.

Anna and the King of Siam (1946)

With Irene Dunne as Anna and the distinctly non-Asiatic Rex Harrison as the king.

1. It is not the greatest movie from 1946, and its seems a little overlong--though the overlong part was more in the beginning and middle I thought--I liked it more as it went on.

2. I did find Rex Harrison to be amusing and to have some presence as King Mongkut. That he was obviously English does not upset me too much. The story is very much in the tradition of encounters with exotic peoples through Western eyes, the more so as I believe the book and the various movies made about it are still banned in Thailand to this day, and the more Western one's eyes are, the less necessary it is that the King or anybody else be played by non-Western actors.

3. Irene Dunne as Anna strikes me as being very much as she comes across in the book. This is also why I usually find film versions of books that come out close upon the book's publication to be more satisfying as interpretations of the book, as opposed to pure films. They are invariably more attuned to the vision that the author was probably working from in the book.

4. Like the book, the movie is episodic (and several incidents were changed--Anna's son did not die in the book for example) but as is often the case, the interest for me is not largely in these episodes as in the king's and Anna's and to a certain extent the Kralahome's (the King's chief minister's) individual eccentricities in how they respond to situations, as being the people with the only really autonomous and interesting minds in the story.

Sultry Linda Darnell awaiting her execution for disloyalty and defiance while being a wife of the king.

Anna and the King (1999)

More modern version starring Jodie Foster (whom I generally like a little more than most stars of her generation). The king is played by Chow Yun-Fat, who is from Hong Kong.

1. I did not finish the whole movie here. This was not willful, it was just that with about half an hour left in it, the disc froze and I couldn't get it to start up again. This version is pretty long (about 2 1/2 hours) and I think I saw enough to get the idea of where it was going.

2. This version was very beautiful in a meticulous way. The wonder of modern production values and all that. It was not particularly joyous.

3. Like all modern movies based on the past, the West cannot be allowed to hold any inherent cultural superiority or moral authority over a non-Western culture. Whereas the book managed to balance a certain respect and affection for the king especially while obviously considering most of the customs of his kingdom barbaric, this film version, while regarding the various atrocities carried out in King Mongkut's name as legitimate atrocities, it takes care not to present them as contrasting with the more enlightened societies of the West, or in need of an infusion of those Western values. Ironically, for a modern movie, more effort is made to emphasize Anna's naivete as a negative quality than in the older versions of the story, where it is perhaps seen as abetting her considerable pluck. Also in this film, all of the British officials and businessmen who turn up are awful people, racist, sexist, condescending, scheming against the indigenous population, etc, while in the book the staff of the British consulate especially, as well as various Americans who happen to be in Bangkok, tend to be a helpful and reassuring presence, at to Anna (it is the book it is the French who are awful, condescending, scheming and all of that).

This is all for now.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

I Take the DNC Voter Survey

I have been without access to a computer, other than my phone, on which I am not going to write blog posts, for about two weeks. Before that I had thought I ought to write something stating my position on Trump's winning the presidential nomination, how it was affecting me, how I could convincingly express my aversion to the whole phenomenon without sounding like every other pantywaist who feels compelled to get it on the record before whatever terrible consequences resulting from a potential Trump victory ensue that They Were Against This From the Beginning...but I didn't have much enthusiasm for this, perhaps because everyone else is on the case already, albeit not terribly effectively as I can see it, but also because I can't really make any sense of it without coming to the conclusion that the country really is coming to ruin, or is about to implode socially. Obviously there is a leadership void for a sizable segment of the population which the pundits have been at great pains to try to identify, and which the Trump candidacy is evidently seen as an attempt to fill, though I don't understand it.

I received an official-looking letter in the mail the other day in which was enclosed a letter from Debbie Wasserman-Schwartz, the head of the Democratic Party National Committee, and a survey. Since I never get such personal attention from the Party, I was intrigued enough to peruse these materials. Wasserman-Schwartz immediately attempted to butter me up by telling me I was "one of a select group of local Democratic leaders"--my eyes were arrested by that phrase and I imagined for a moment that it was true, and that all the world regarded me as such a leader, before going on to complete the rest of the sentence--"chosen to participate in this (survey)". The letter went on to a recitation of this year's usual DNC boilerplate and a reminder of the terrifying policies the Republicans threaten to pursue if they get elected, followed by an appeal for money. Here the Koch brothers and their (alleged) vow to spend $889 million on the election were invoked. "The DNC needs your help NOW to counter the GOP's piles of special-interest money, mudslinging, and dirty tricks." This should give some idea of the overall tone of this missive.

The contents of the survey give a picture of the supposed mindset of the mainstream democratic voter and party operative, which mainly reveals an obsession with keeping the Republican enemy out of power and furthering various pet agendas that interest me little. I will go through the questions here in my desperate 12:30 am fatigue and try to say as nearly as possible what I really think of them.

Section I is concerned with personal information, but Section II, "The Republican Threat" asks five questions, and provides the voter/donor with a choice of answers. I had a hard time coming up with a clear answer to any of the questions on the entire survey, except one:

1. Which elements of the radical Republican agenda are most dangerous to America's future? (please choose up to three)

There were nine options for this question, some of which made me laugh ("Denying the existence of climate change"), some of which don't seem overly dangerous to America's long term future ("Dismantling the Affordable Care Act"), and none of which seem to me likely to be implemented in the degree that the most rabid Republicans would like even if they should get elected. Of the items on the list that I would even consider to be of legitimate importance to the national interest, the blowback to any extreme Republican overreach would be very severe; as I see it, the current left wing fanaticism and scorched earth tactics are an ongoing response to the arrogance and excesses of the first George W. Bush administration, which psychologically trampled on and embittered many of those who identify as left-liberals such that no revenge short of total annihilation of their enemies will suffice. I still cannot pick any of the options (Affordable Care Act, women's reproductive rights, LGBT civil rights, Social Security and Medicare, a right-wing Supreme Court, minimum wage increase, immigration reform [on the pro- side], climate change, and handling international affairs diplomatically) as anything I am truly worried about, though I did hate the Bush administration's foreign policy approach, so I guess I should go with that one. If I really thought they would be able to get away with gutting Security Security and Medicare I might choose that, though I think the possibility of that happening is pretty remote. In general, what I really don't like are their tax policies and total lack of interest in making the country a more civilized and livable place for the bulk of the citizenry, but those were not questions.

2. Which aspect of Donald Trump's and Ted Cruz's candidacies do you find most disturbing? (please choose one)

This has eight options. closely paralleling those in Question one, again, none of which exactly captures what disturbs me about them. I don't think of myself as a particularly ideological voter because I don't have a lot of passion or anger, but I am wary, and generally frightened, of people who appear too much to value money or power as great goods in themselves, and who would extrapolate that influence through the broader society even more than it is. Donald Trump has been a most unfortunate and pernicious influence in this way for over thirty years. I have difficulty perceiving how his notoriety has been beneficial to the psychological and moral health of this country over that time, and this is before he began running for President and won the Republican nomination! While also apparently an extreme narcissist, Cruz struck me as the leading edge of the type of new meritocratic man that has been emerging from the top schools over the past few decades, meticulously capable as least as far as managing his own advancement, possessed of a triumphant intelligence that has been so relentlessly reinforced at every turn so as to preclude any development of either humility or fellow-feeling for other (lesser) people. He is not a reassuring person to entrust power to either. Of course, neither is Hillary Clinton, or her would-be empowered supporters, from my vantage.

3. Which of the following election outcomes would be most catastrophic for our nation? (please choose one)

The choices were, Republicans winning the White House, tightening their stranglehold on Congress, or increasing control of state and local governments. I think Trump getting elected president is probably the worst possibility, because the potential to do damage is so great there, and also because of late who the president is has had such an effect on the overall mood of the populace. In my state we have had a few lapses in recent years where too many Democrats have stayed home during off-election years and in one instance a vindictive right-winger was elected governor and in another a cabal of Tea Party enthusiasts were able to get control of the legislature. In both instances we had to endure a couple of unpleasant years during which, in addition to the slashing of various institutional and other public funding, there was a lot of aggressive taunting of milquetoast liberal types, which impulse often unfortunately afflicts the manlier elements of the far right when they ascend to power, and tends to undermine their broad support for the next election.

4. Which group of GOP backers do you think will have the biggest impact on the 2016 elections? (choose one).

Choices are: "Right-wing billionaires, such as the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson"; "Ruthless political operatives, such as Karl Rove"; "Extreme far-right organizations, such as the Tea Party Nation and the Club for Growth"; and "Conservative Media Outlets."  None of these dreaded collectives has been able to manipulate the voting to their liking thus far, if we are to believe what we read in the papers regarding their position toward Trump and his riff-raff supporters. I assume the billionaires, whether right wing or otherwise, will have the most influence after the election regardless of who wins.

5. How do you View the Republican refusal to even consider confirming Merrick Garland, President Obama's nominee to the Supreme Court? 

I didn't like any of the options given for answers. I've written before about my confusion with regard to the obsession of political partisans with the selection of Supreme Court Justices, where the object is to determine how reliably the prospective justice will rule with one's preferred side on various issues, with the intellectual acumen to visibly humiliate the enemy's partisans in argument featuring as an especially delectable bonus. Among other things, this undermines the authority of the Court's rulings, since the "losing" side never accepts the "winning" side's arguments and decisions as the result of a serious inquiry into the truth or Constitutionality of a question by a wise and dispassionate expert. But this is what people think the court should be.

By the way, I think in the abstract that there should be a vote on Obama's nominee. Not to do so shows both a lack of confidence in and even a kind of contempt for the Republic. That said, if the same situation had occurred when Bush was president, I am sure that I would have been pleased at a show of resistance to his nominee, whom I doubtless would have thought was awful. However, that illustrates the problem with this partisan system, that the appointment of a judge by the opposite party has become terrifying to people. This is not how any court should operate in this country.

Section III involves a bunch of questions about 2016 Democratic election priorities which I am not going to go into at length. There was one question, the only one on the survey that I saw as having a sensible answer, which was Which of the below Democratic actions to level the playing field for middle-class families do you support? for which I chose 'Ensure access to basic retirement security and affordable education and healthcare", though I do think there are arguments for taxing the wealthy more, not into penury, but because there is no other viable way at present that I can see to prevent the wealth gap from continuing to widen ever more exponentially, due to the nature of capital, and I think this is becoming too much of a problem and is stifling too much of the country.

Hopefully I can get another post up before a month goes by.