Wednesday, June 7, 2017

To Wang Chung and Die in LA

Ever wonder how well all the gritty movies and TV shows of the 2010s will age? It's worth thinking about, as the popular culture of an era so often defines it in the future, being a present reflection of how we think about ourselves and our situations.

And also because the "gritty" stories of ages past have aged about as well as unpasteurized milk.

To Live and Die in LA is a good example. A gritty neo-noir action thriller by that grittiest of directors, William Friedkin, it is a ludicrous parade of 80s cliches and adolescent characters. Or really caricatures - like Chance, played by the inexplicably respectable William Peterson, a Secret Service agent chasing the counterfeiter who killed his partner. His partner was of course two days from retirement and Chance is a loose cannon who gets results and blah blah blah, we've all been here before.

But Death in LA is something else because of how it cranks these usual cliches up to 11. Chance doesn't just play fast and loose with agency procedure, he also bungee jumps and sky dives and carries on a parasitic relationship with a criminal informant, usually with lots of angry sex. Combined with his dialogue being nothing but tough guy talking points, and Chance achieves the Platonic Ideal of the Reagan era's Manly Man. And that ideal is hilarious to watch when it tries to be serious.

Willem Dafoe is along too as the villain and it's easy to see why he went on to a long Hollywood career while Peterson had to settle for network TV. As Rick Masters, the counterfeiter pursued by Chance, he's both more charismatic and offers a more compelling narrative. The way he strings Chance along demonstrates much more intelligence than the nominal protagonist and his own romantic relationship with a dancer and her girlfriend demonstrates greater depth. You find yourself rooting for him as Chance pursues ever shadier means to bring him down, culminating in robing an undercover FBI agent and a high speed chase down the wrong way of the LA freeway, which is all anyone ever remembers about this movie.

This contrast of a suave villain and a snotty hero is likely intentional. Friedkin has been praised in the past for this film, the argument being that he updated The French Connection for the 1980s - however that just means he tried to do the same morally ambiguous cops and crims drama with double bloodpacks and a Wang Chung soundtrack. The end result is a very dumb film that clearly thinks it is very deep, which just makes it all the dumber.

And this is at least a story grounded in everyday reality. Imagine what The Avengers or Wonder Woman will look like in thirty years, or even the more "mature" superhero shows on Netflix. Popular culture today takes itself just as seriously as William Peterson's bungee-jumping secret agent, and now adds brightly colored tights and Nazis from outer space. It's going to make Miami Vice look like Middlemarch.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Most Important Book of the 21st Century

Climate change is not coming. Climate change is here and it's a motherfucker.

That is the single undeniable truth at the core of Loosed Upon the World, a science fiction anthology in the best tradition of the genre. Writers from around the world exploring possible near futures on this rapidly warming world, some more optimistic than others, but all grounded in very harsh realities.

Rains are a common motif. The entry by Kim Stanley Robinson begins with a flooded Washington DC, punctuated by a light political joke which doesn't keep with the overwhelming new normal of the District swallowed by the Potomac. Rain is desperately prayed for elsewhere, such as in the parched Amazon Basin of Vandana Singh's "Entanglement." We're already experiencing this reshuffling of the rainy seasons, with droughts across the hot countries while the wealthy Nor'east drowns.

Smog makes an appearance too, especially in stories by Chinese authors. Sci-fi is a growing thing in Chinese lit, from Cixin Liu's space opera to Ken Liu's silkpunk (no relation), but "The Smog Society" by Chen Qiufan is as much about the alienation of modern cities. A toxic atmosphere, both literal and metaphorical, chokes the life and joy from everyone, depression fueling sickness in a feedback loop similar to the one increasing particulate matter and necessitating the face masks that are already so popular in China.

And then there's the plain weird and gross speculations of a future world closer to Earth's primordial era than are temperate modern world. The aptly title "That Creeping Sensation" by Alan Dean Foster postulates a world where rising carbon dioxide energizes soft plant matter - like kudzu - causing a spike in the oxygen percentage in the air. We only breath about 20% of the stuff now, more being both flammable and discombobulating. And it makes insects grow larger. Foster's post ice cap world doesn't just feature wildfires and humidity, but footlong wasps and dog-sized cockroaches - all desperately culled by an elite US Army exterminator division. It's a losing battle, though, especially as the ants - already organized - get big enough to start making plans...

Gross-out shock stories like this are good fun - and drive home the horror of global warming far better than rising sea levels - but let's return to Singh's "Entanglement." It goes well beyond the dried Amazon, looking in on an arctic researcher and a Texas widow-turned-activist, among many others. All united in a mission to make the world more livable for one another and future generations. Of all the stories here, it best contextualizes the global nature of global warming by presenting a global response. Not the technocratic geo-engineering of Robinson and other hard SF guys - and yeah, that's always guys - but through an international solidarity that puts every socialist movement to shame. More than a vision of the future, Singh's single work of fiction provides a blueprint for facing down the biggest existential threat to human civilization.

And there's so much more here. Not since the most pessimistic fiction of the Cold War has fiction been so close to fact. And so necessary.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Brief Adventure of Bodo

The air always felt like so much cold water at this time of year. Especially at this time of night. Bodo, his tunic dirty and his leggings damp, trudged through the once familiar woods on the way to the little cottage he'd shared with his family on the mense. He'd carried a heavy stick for protection halfway from Courbevoie, but had to let it go as his shoulder ached with every step.

Things just kept getting harder every day. Ever since the Plague drove them all from their homes, claiming both prince and pauper, the clergy and the laity, the old and the young and all those in-between. The Church blamed it on miasma and lack of piety while Bodo's neighbors - the few who still lived - claimed it heralded the End of Days. The timing was right, for did not the Savior himself say He would return after a thousand years?

Would that he hurried along, Bodo thought blasphemously to himself. For every day since their flight, he'd been needed in the fields along with all the other surviving men. His back couldn't take it anymore! He'd grown too used to Gerbert, his eldest son, doing the hardest plowing while he worked in the Abbé's house repairing shoes. But the Plague took Gerbert and so many others. Only Bodo remained to care for little Wido and Hildegard and he wouldn't be able to much longer...

Read the whole thing at Blood Moon Rising Magazine!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Dreams Reoccurring

All of this has happened before.

That's what I think when I read the news. The protests, the executive orders, the apocalyptic rhetoric from every corner - all of it happened a decade ago, as the Bush II presidency charged into one military failure after another. And then the hosing market dropped dead.

In between the Women's March and the Department of Homeland Security taking Muslims' side for a change, the Trump administration has been taking a slash and burn approach to Wall Street regulations. There's been about as much resistance from liberals as when Obama extended the bailouts, which is less surprising the more you think about it. These same liberals rallied around Hillary Clinton last year, the Senator from Goldman Sachs. More than eight years on and the loyal opposition still can't think in terms of wealth, labor, and real power because those concepts are alien to their experience.

I spend a lot of time in the sort of New York City neighborhoods that voted Clinton. Not just in November but in the primary that was closed off to churlish independents like me. None of them are hurting like the people I saw in Albermarle County in 2005 to 2007 - the good years of the Bush recovery. They're hurting in other ways, grandly affluent ways, but no one is losing their heart meds because an insurance company revised its fine print. Not even if Obamacare gets repealed - and increasingly unlikely prospect - as they were too well off to need it in the first place.

You see these urban liberals and you understand the disdain of the heartland rubes. Neurotic and overcaffeinated, but affecting a patrician concern for the "less fortunate" who don't do internships or grad school. If you've met enough people with masters degrees you know its no indication of intelligence. It is an indication, however, of social and economic status, something that grows more rigid and stratified with every passing year.

That's one thing you know Trump isn't going to change. The poor aren't real to him, except as adoring suckers at his campaign rallies. And they're not real to Democrats either, except for when they need a scapegoat for their own electoral failures. Something we all saw already when they rode to the rescue in the 2006 mid-terms on an anti-war ticket and proceeded to fund the Iraq War through Obama's first term.

All of this will happen again.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Fear and Loathing in Trumpland

I'm re-reading Hunter Thompson and you should too. There are few writers who better get this new era of Bad Crazyness, the only others that come to mind being Philip K. Dick and Sade.

Not just because Thompson dealt with the same patty malice and inflated ruling class egos that reached their apotheosis in Donald Trump, but also because the man was a pro-football oracle:

The consensus among the 1600 or so sportswriters in town favored Miami by almost two to one... but there are only a handful of sportswriters in this country with enough sense to pour piss out of their own boot, and by Saturday night there was an obvious drift among the few "smart" ones to Minnesota, with a seven-point cushion... But in reality there were only about 400 writers willing to risk a public prediction on the outcome of a game that - even to an amateur like me - was so obvious that I took every bet I could get against the Vikings, regardless of the spread... Moments later, when the Dolphins drove the length of the field for another touchdown, I began collecting money.
~Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl

Thompson saw the pro-sports angle of national electoral politics back when it was just taking root. He rightly railed against it but he also played the game far better than the horse-race pollsters of the time - and especially better than this time. Because politics, like football, is much more about the feel and sheer intuition than wonky numbers. If you know the game in your blood, you can feel which way the momentum carries in the same way sharks can feel the Earth's magnetic field.

I saw this in a microcosm over the long weekend. I married into a traditionalist family with lotsa guys playing fantasy football and dithering over statistics. While watching the Dallas V. 'Skins game on Turkey Day, I called it by the second quarter for Dallas with a tight point spread. One cousin rattled off how there was plenty of time and besides Washington just needed to intercept a pass, grab a fumble, get some other unlikely reversal and then they'd win the day.

Dallas won. With a tight point spread.

I don't know how many yards who's been rushing or who did what last season, I just played the game in high school. Once you've been on the ground, dirt in your face and grass in your mouthguard, you understand the game on an instinctual level. Anyone who's played the game for real knows that feeling in the first half, "We're gonna lose this one," and can always recognize it when it happens to some other poor sucker.

Saturday, I called the Iowa V. Nebraska game in the Hawkeyes' favor before the end of the first quarter. Short version: Nebraska's defense was solid but their offense was the worst I've ever seen. Iowa had a tank running their ball. I checked the final score the next day: Nebraska 10, Iowa 40.

So when I said a few weeks ago Trump's infrastructure plan would be a Yeltsin-style fire sale to big business, I wasn't going off any numbers. No one had any numbers yet anyway, but I've been living in New York City for three and a half years. I've seen exactly how construction works in this city, or rather how it doesn't work at all. Huge sections of Brooklyn are still a wreck four years after Sandy because this big city's government is by and four the leeching class in the construction business. Once you've sat in on a few Build-It-Back conferences, you know exactly how a bloated bloodsucker like Trump will operate.

Just like Iowa and Dallas, I called it:

Since the plan depends on private investors, it can only fund projects that spin off user fees and are profitable. Rural roads, water systems, and public schools don’t fall into that category. Neither does public transit, which fails on the profitable criterion (it depends on public subsidies).

It's not that hard to see, once you've been on the ground. Here in New York, where the greedheads ruled even before Reagan, construction has been little more than welfare for rich white people. And here's the depressing part: DC ain't much different.

I've worked for contractors to both Medicare and the DOD. The two untouchable federal programs - no matter what Paul Ryan is blathering about - because they both serve to transfer tax-payer money to wealthy private interests. This is well-documented with defense spending - the greatest scam on Earth - but let's talk a little about how Medicare keeps Humana and other such vampires in business.

You know Medicare A and B? Also called Original Medicare, it was the first model rolled out under LBJ and covers basic hospital and some outpatient care. Very basic, just enough to keep the machinery of the human body functional enough to keep shuffling around and consuming. It's also the only part that Big Government actually pays for.

What you might be more familiar with is Medicare Part C, or Medicare Advantage. That was Clinton's baby and in keeping with his submerged-state neoliberalism it uses public-private partnerships to disguise the role of the state and enhance the appearance of the market. Every health insurance company that can afford a Congressman has a contract with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a guaranteed profit source as aging Americans require more specialized care and CMS will baby the private sector through every step of the annual bid process.

I personally fielded tech support calls for four years where well remunerated, white collar professionals from Humana and Blue Cross tried to game the system, get crooked and excessive payment plans sneaked through the approval process. Let me say that again - private insurance companies try to extract illegal payments from Medicare beneficiaries every year. They even get away with it, with how buggy and broken the expensing software is by April, and this has been the norm through both the Bush and Obama years. Medicare for twenty years, for all the good it may do for your grandparents, has been just as rent-seeking and ruled by the greedheads as New York City contracting and as Donald Trump's coming infrastructure boondoggle.

And liberals love it because it was Clinton's idea.

This is why average Americans never understood why Yeltsin was such a swine. He tried to do in a few years what the Reagan Revolution has taken over three decades to accomplish: not just the upward transfer of wealth through government-supported corporate rent-seeking, but the normalization of this parasitic behavior. The celebration of vampires like Trump and Jamie Dimon and Mark Zuckerberg as paragons of "free enterprise" because they make money off of what a socially-conscious government would do for free.

And that's why Trump isn't going anywhere.

Recount or not, the orange egomaniac will be inaugurated in a little more than a month. Protests and even riots will accompany this but American police are always eager to crack some heads. It'll be a great pressure release valve for both the outraged humanists and the pig-ignorant revanchists who simmered in their own stupid malice all through the Obama years. It won't change a damn thing.

Trump's economic plans are just Ryan's plans with the "Trump" brand stamped on top anyway. And Trump did very well for himself throughout both Republican and Democrat administrations because he is normal. Reagan and Ayn Rand made him the American Normal long before he started ranting about birth certificates and he has the shameless cunning of a New Yorker. I tell you, these people are all noise - bark with no bite, smarmy chumminess while they pick your pocket. He's also vain enough to be easily strung along by a GOP machine long experienced in handling other ridiculous figureheads all the way back to Nixon - hell, he's been buddies with one of the original Nixon fixers since the 1980s!

Right to Left: Donald Trump, Ivana, Roger Stone.
Will he get serious pushback on his agenda? Not just protests and pithy editorials but pushback that matters, from the loyal opposition in Congress? Short answer: No. They had their chance in the election and the best they could do was talk-down to everyone outside the NY and DC pundit class. The Democrats are so hopeless that they haven't even taken the obvious step and just put Sanders out front, instead muddling about with "bringing the wings of the party together," in stark denial that it's not a matter of divergent views but a tiny Wall Street loving aristocracy who ignored everyone else, running the bastard child of Nixon and Muskie the same year the rest of the country would've voted first and foremost for Madame Guillotine.

There are few brights spots on the horizon. At least World War III has been pushed back by about a year. I appreciate that as it gives me time to get clear of the target cities. You should too, I hear Calgary is surprisingly sunny. Also, the stress of office will definitely be too much for a pampered priss like Donald Trump. The odds are about even he'll have a heart attack by the 2018 mid-terms if he doesn't get impeached by his own party. Not that the Republicans were ever his to start with - they were a convenient vehicle for his self-love project and now he's a convenient vehicle for the leeching class to squeeze some last drops of blood out of this desiccated country. As soon as he stops being convenient - and you know he'll do some impeachable shit in just the first week - he'll be out faster than you can say Black Iron Prison.

But the odds are even better he'll stumble through four years and get re-elected in 2020 when the Democrats run some other neoliberal dildo like Charlie Booker. I sure don't want that to happen but I can't shake that feeling I used to get in the first half: "We're gonna lose this one."

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

From the Vault: Virginia Tech and the Hysteria of Denial

Originally published April 22, 2007. Re-posted as the media blames Daesh for a Somali boy flipping out, just like they blamed North Korea for a mad nerd named Cho.

There’s something about a school shooting that makes everyone really really really stupid. In the past week, all the standard questions and attempted easy answers have been tossed around from easy access to firearms to the genetic disease of Asianess to Dan Brown-inspired jackassery about the shooter being some North Korean sleeper agent. Just enough to keep people nice and distracted from the much higher body counts coming out of Iraq everyday. Remember, deaths only count if they’re pretty white kids.

“But why did it happen? How could it happen?” wails the idiot public. Simple: he was pissy, he bought a gun. If this were Gaza or Fallujah, he would strap on a C4 vest. The Middle-east has human firecrackers, we have the Second Amendment. Why he was pissy, there’s the six-hundred-sixty-six dollar question people aren’t going to ask. Well, they’ll ask it but only in the rhetorical “Why do you hate America?” way. Because the answer is so glaringly obvious, it’s been the answer to every school and office massacre in this country since Charlie Whitman: Cho was picked on.

Bullied, abused, teased, however you want to say it, bottom line is the kid was shat on long enough he got fed up. Hell, he fucking lays it out in his video package for NBC:

Do you know what it feels to be spit on your face and to have trash shoved down your throat? Do you know what it feels like to dig your own grave? Do you know what it feels like to have throat slashed from ear to ear? Do you know what it feels like to be torched alive? Do you know what it feels like to be humiliated and be impaled upon on a cross? And left to bleed to death for your amusement? You have never felt a single ounce of pain your whole life. Did you want to inject as much misery in our lives as you can just because you can?

Now I’m no forensic psychiatrist... but that seems like a pretty clear statement Cho was bullied.

People scoff at this. “So he was teased, so what? That’s no reason to go off and kill a bunch of people!” And that’s exactly the kind of attitude that let’s these shootings happen. Nobody wants to talk about the elephant in the room, even when it starts shitting on everyone. Michael Moore touched on it, almost, in Bowling for Columbine, but chickened out and won an Oscar. Mark Ames has been screaming the truth for years and lives as an expat in Moscow: The whole of American culture is one of bullying and oppression! From Baghdad to El Salvador to Kabul to Littleton, we engage in a grand game of prison rules where the man on top makes you his bitch. When the whole of society is organized on this concept, how does Cho’s rampage, or any of the dozens of others strike anyone as surprising? When the world has forced you down in a hole, how is grabbing a gun not the sane thing to do?

Weep for Virginia Tech, but also weep for Seung-Hui Cho. An awkward, nerdy kid who became the target of the true American past time, who in a few hours of horror gave this country a bright shining chance for serious self-reflection, and who will be quickly forgotten by people who will not look into that mirror, who will never give up their god-given right to be assholes. And it will keep happening.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The First Hundred Days

So that happened.

American liberals, never ones for honest political analysis, are still filling social media with self-pity and whinging. They just cannot believe the country would be so backward as to not vote for the Wall Street loving neocon. They really thought George W. Bush in a pantsuit could win against a Philip K. Dick villain, having never known the nihilism that rises from daily desperation in the vast swath of America that has been made worse by globalization. There's so much noise, you almost miss the fact that Clinton won the popular vote with less votes than Romney scored in 2012. Because so few people, barely a third, could hold their nose and vote for either side of the shit sandwich that was Election 2016.

So many apocalyptic pronouncements have followed, like no one else lived through the Bush years. Although I have seen few comments on the worst part of a Trump presidency: Having to wake up and hear or hear about that lump of obesity and cocaine for four years. Trump's voice sounds like his ass smells, making political reporting even more disgusting.

But let's try to think calm and cold about this. So many parody articles of "Trump's First 100 Days!" appeared during the campaign, penned by smug urbanites who thought neoliberalism would last a thousand years, but very few took a look at the man and the Beltway culture he would be entering. So here is a little bit of that honest political analysis that liberals spurned, along with the much more electable Sanders:

  • Trump's cabinet will be the same basket of has-beens as have already gravitated to his campaign. In keeping with the vicious mobsters he borrows money from, he will reward only those craven enough to flatter his enormous and fragile ego. Giuliani really will be Attorney General, finally giving libertarians something worth complaining about. Chris Christie will be Secretary of Transportation, or maybe of eating all the pies. It will look like one of those third-tier concert tours of aging Boomer rock stars.
  • The key point being it will not be like the Bush cabinet. Bush presided over not just an ideological movement but of ideologues who'd made "respectable" places for themselves in the halls of power stretching back to the Nixon years. Trump will have the men who lost out in that same system, all bluster and empty rolodexes. Networking matters to a depressing degree in actually getting legislation passed.
  • Speaking of - The great getting along promised by Congressional Republicans will last halfway through Trump's first Sate of the Union. In that time he will manage to insult the neck of Mitch McConnell, the height of Marco Rubio, and the sexual prowess of every potential ally in the Senate. Professional Republicans are a craven lot but there's just so much abuse even they will tolerate.
  • Tax cuts will still happen, though. Yuge tax cuts and a rollback of what tepid regulations have trickled through over eight years, returning the economy to the Bush model but without the housing bubble to make it look good. If you live outside New York or DC you will experience no difference from the past sixteen years. Even if you live in New York or DC you will only notice if you inherited real estate.
  • The promised growth sector will be all the labor and material needed for the big vanity wall on the Mexican border. This will never materialize, the actual construction disappearing into a labyrinth of contractors and subcontractors. Trump will utilize classic New York City building skills to make the most money for his golf buddies without actually building anything.
  • Small business owners across the country will think this is great because every small business owner is a shit-head.
  • Foreign policy will be exactly like it would have been under Clinton. NAFTA, NATO, etc., are the safest bets for the next eight years. Trump will preside over the same drone assassinations and forced sodomy that have characterized the War on Terror over the past two administrations. Libertarians will not care.
  • Finally, insurance companies will rally to the defense of the Affordable Care Act. Democrats will say this is a good thing. Whatever the result, you will still get enormous medical bills.

The ugliest thing about Election 2016 is how even the "upset" victory by Trump will not change business as usual. If you think otherwise, just look at the optimism on Wall Street. They know a toad will never drain its own swamp.