Thursday, June 27, 2013

Sympathy for the Devil

It's a special sort of film that can not only make you feel sorry for Adolph Hitler but root for him as well.

Not Chancellor Hitler of course. Only sketch comedy or idiot adolescents would go there. But Corporal Hitler, that nebbishy Austrian with pretensions of being a great artist, that's someone you can work with. Which Max does brilliantly.

Set in Munich not long after the Great War, Max is really about this guy named Max - oddly enough. A wealthy Jewish art promoter who left his arm in Ypres and his marbles somewhere else. Max is one of those types who craves "realness" in art, which gives him all sorts of artsy angst from having to deal with the hollowness of modern art in his gallery and the wealthy patrons with all the aesthetic sensibilities of a bowel of porridge.

"It fills me with ennui... And tobacco."

Enter young Adolph. He approaches Max at one of the latter's many swanky soirees to pester him about displaying his artwork. Max rebuffs the twitchy little man at first but, after catching a glimpse of the proto-fascist doodlings, comes to believe this Hitler boy has some real talent - despite his blatant anti-semitism.

So Max tries to bring Hitler into the art world. A Herculean effort, as the Austrian's every personal quality is antithetical to the vapid, Dadaist nonsense of the High Art scene in the interwar period - demonstrated best when Max puts on a full performance piece about soldiers being fed into a sausage grinder. Most of the audience is confused and put out, but Max's buddy Adolph is furious! He takes the dig at the nation and the military quite personally because, well, he's a frikin' fascist.

"I don't know how you keep forgetting that..."
And that's what Max finds so "authentic" about the angry twerp. He encourages Hitler's visions because he believes it to be the unvarnished inner world of the Common Man which, if we're honest, it kinda is. Parallel to all this, we follow Hitler's falling in with a reactionary movement of soldiers - very authentic and very common but more interested in murdering rich Jews like Max than getting into his artsy circle of friends. By the end, it all comes to quite a brutal head...

But what really makes Max work is Noah Taylor's performance. He does Adolph Hitler as a full human being - vulnerable, indecisive, craving a real human connection - but he never loses sight of how Hitler's entire sense of self was defined by his reactionary politics. When Max confronts him about the speeches he's been making at political rallies, Hitler defends it as another form of performance art. That may be arguable, but he really does come alive when whipping up a crowd - nothing like his awkward stutterings among the well-to-do artists.

Max is a fantastic film. Not just for humanizing history's greatest monster but for it's clear look at Inter-War Germany - how poor and dispossessed Common Men set the world on fire while the rich liberals were all busy contemplating their navels.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Moral Vacuum

People are nodding very meaningfully to each other over the latest vet suicide. Not that Americans actually give a damn about vet suicides now, it's just that this vet left a note hinting at the raw and awful shit JSOC did in Iraq.

"You must not blame yourself. The simple truth is this: During my first deployment, I was made to participate in things, the enormity of which is hard to describe. War crimes, crimes against humanity. Though I did not participate willingly, and made what I thought was my best effort to stop these events, there are some things that a person simply can not come back from. I take some pride in that, actually, as to move on in life after being part of such a thing would be the mark of a sociopath in my mind. These things go far beyond what most are even aware of."

Not to denigrate Daniel Somers' memory, but there are thousands of vets who could tell the same story. Again, I knew a guy back in Charlottesville who saw some shit in plain ol' infantry, not the super-special wet ops. Somers is just in the news because he chose to kill himself after telling his story. Because it was the only way you craven freaks would listen.

Bradley Manning leaked documents saying - in detail - what Somers hinted at.  Friendly fire, walloping civilians, all the dirty shit you would expect from a military occupation. And Manning will likely go the way of Somers soon enough - by firing squad.

If people actually cared about any of this, they'd be out in the streets screaming for Manning's release right now. But that sort of effective protest only happens in this country over video games and besides, you'd all rather keep crushing on Edward Snowden. Rape and torture is a little too icky for you but you can still work up a good outrage over the possibility of the Big Bad Government reading your tepid sex fantasies on Gchat.

Assuming anyone at the NSA ever bothered, once they'd collected everything. Or that they ever got to your boring life, amidst the millions of other boring lives they had to sift through. That's the thing about total information awareness - just being aware doesn't mean you really know what's going on. Or can do anything about it, like Boston. But it's so much more comforting for you losers to imagine yourselves as somehow threatening enough to the most powerful empire in the world that spooks and other security state drones would concentrate on your mundane life.

Which they have every legal right to do now. Remember that Patriot Act thing you all cheered for ten years ago? You thought the feds wouldn't use the sweeping surveillance powers you granted them? At least they asked permission first - unlike your boss, who's been reading your email for years and is a very immediate threat to your personal liberty.

And getting back to Snowden - I really can't tell if he's naive or just doing it for the lulz at this point. His recent revelation of cyberwar between China and the US had as much to do with principle and civil liberties as telling John Dillinger that Al Capone cheated him at cards. They're both assholes, so what exactly is the point of helping either of 'em?

I guess that's why I don't feel all that outraged over the NSA stuff. All of you assholes support war crimes and the muddling technocrats carrying them out, then bitch when other technocrats start poking around. Like you have anymore vileness to hide...

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

From the Vault: All About The Benjamins

Originally posted July 24, 2008. Made relevant again last week.

Well would ya look at that? The illegal wiretapping we caught the Bush Junta doing isn't illegal anymore! Oh woe to Freedom and the Constitution and Yadda Yadda Yadda.

I'm starting to enjoy these abominations because it drags all the morons out into the light. "Duh, the Democrats are wieners who won't protect our Civil Liberties!" or "Duh, the Republicans are evil fascists who want to listen to our dirty talk to grandma!" on the Left aisle and mostly just "Duuuhhh!" on the Right. Neither are willing to point out the most disturbing fact of the new FISA: immunity for telecoms. Seems nobody in Congress was interested in that liberty or terrorism bullshit, just making sure Verizon doesn't get smacked with "frivolous" lawsuits.

Our legislature has been privatized for years now but everyone just pretends "politics" still exist, when it's all just corporate favor trading. FISA won't save us from terrorists or turn us into Oceania. Hell, I doubt it will really affect Americans in any way. If there's one thing the government does better than blowing up foreigners it's ignoring Americans. The last real disaster to hit us was Katrina and we saw what good all that Total Information Awareness did. Goddamn Wal-Mart was more on top of things.

And it proves - again - how obsolete the activism born of the 60s has become. No elected official listens to constituents that aren't passing them bags of cash and nobody in this goddamn country wants to talk about the only real, bloody option available to us as free citizens in an armed culture...

No, not even the teabaggers.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Big Nothing

Dave Eggers is a terrible writer.

I've long suspected it - that's why I never read Heartbreaking Circle-Jerk or whatever it was. But the other day in a big-box bookstore, I came across his latest, A Hologram for the King. A bland novel about a bland man in Saudi Arabia and the best thing I can say about it is it validated all my preconceptions.

Let's take style first, as that's clearly what Eggers pins his whole rep on. It's really an indictment of the entirety of modern literature because he ain't got none. The majority of the prose is flatter than the Arabian desert in which it's supposedly set and the closest to stylistic flourish he can get to is that old Joyce gem of replacing quotation marks with just a dash. There's a reason so few writers who actually get read do that - it's fucking annoying. And it doesn't help that Eggers can't be bothered to add real inflection or distinct mannerisms to his characters, so you just get a bunch of automatons gabbing at each other in a vacuum.

Which brings us to the substance of Hollow King. Or the lack thereof. A three hundred page road trip through one of the most important deserts in the world but you'd never know it as Eggers focuses all his energy on protagonist Alan Clay, the saddest sack ever sacked. He's nominally in Saudi to pitch some new hypertech doodad to King Abdullah but wouldn't ya know it, he just can't pin down the old ibn sharmutah! So the novel becomes just a long whine over all his problems.

A failed, middle-aged businessman isn't necessarily a dull character. There's plenty of narrative room to explore layers of bitterness and desperate hope but, like every bad writer, Eggers lacks both the awareness and imagination to think outside his own person. So he writes his protagonist as just another navel-gazing yuppie.

The one character with any character is Yuossof, Clay's driver. Aside from the blatant ignorance of sticking an educated Saudi in a service position, he doesn't even behave like an Arab. Not even an Arab stereotype! Instead he's much more the fast and chatty Mexican, apparently because Eggers assumes all brown people are the same.

Throw 'em together - Saggy Man and Gyro Grande - and you get... nothing. Absolutely nothing happens in this book. It's the literary equivalent of static. White noise in print that you don't absorb and can't remember, which really makes it ideal for its intended audience.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The End of Privacy

I have to talk about the NSA thing, don't I? Everyone else sure is - as hysterically as possible, whether demanding greater congressional oversight or screaming treason.

Which is just two sides of the same bullshit coin. The NSA is a component of the DOD, meaning no actual oversight for it exists. All those Defense Subcommittees you hear about are just for kissing brass. And as for the leaker himself, Edward Snowden may technically be a traitor going by the various espionage laws but the more pressing matter is that he's a Ron Paul fan. And therefore a twat.

"I did it for liberty! And the gold standard!"

Though to his credit, he says he wants the story to be about what he leaked and not about him personally. Or maybe he just doesn't want to end up like Bradley Manning - who revealed how often the US military lights up civilians, allies, and its own personnel - and is now getting thrashed up and down in the press while his show trial commences. WikiLeaks has been a point of reference throughout this, but what did the National Security Agency do exactly?

It's job. Signals intelligence - meaning data mining communications and other broadcasts. Similar shenanigans went on in the Bush years. The only significant difference this time around is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court handed out a secret warrant. All of its warrants are secret - that's kinda the point of espionage. FISA exists as a legalistic cover for the sort of snooping the NSA exists for.

It's all entirely legal. And invasive. And people have a right to be upset... I guess. It's really hard for me to take the outrage seriously because all you ridiculous cretins let Google and Facebook do the exact same thing to you every day.

Big Brother is watching you! And so are his sponsors!

Every like, every keystroke is recorded and fed through an algorithm for targeted advertising. That's why you see ads for whatever non-porn thing you just searched for. Or whatever you mentioned in a private email. Because all these social networking services aren't really free, but funded through ad revenue.

And that should be a real, regular outrage. At the gut level, it's a thousand Prisms rifling through what you think is private. In the long-view, it's strangling the promise of a true digital economy as Google and Facebook provide shittier and shittier service to users for greater and greater profits - and they have no competition because no one will pay for something they can get for free.

Except it's not free. It costs you your privacy every day. And you're cool with it, as long as it ain't the Big Bad Gub'mint.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Let Syria Bleed

“Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the graveyard.” ~ graffiti all over Eastern Syria

All the Very Serious People are at it again. Something must be done about Syria - meaning Assad. Because he's a dictator and we don't like dictators anymore. If that comes as a surprise to you, you're not alone.

Last week, Assad and his official Syrian army took Qusair. Not that Qusair is really all that important for our discussion today - but what is important is if and how many Hezbollah troops helped out. The Very Serious People, from Fox to HuffPo, are calling for The West - meaning America - to arm the brave rebels as they can't stand up to the combined might of Assad and Hezbollah.

This is stupid.

What none of the Very Serious People care to take seriously is how the Syrian Civil War is a bloody gang fight. There are no good guys here - not that there ever are - and any intervention will just be strengthening one faction of throat-slitters against all the others.

Like the precious rebels, for example. The Sunni majority with loud and proud ties to Al Qaeda, among others. When the Very Serious People hear that little fact, their binary processors short out and they either ignore it or double down - saying we can somehow pick and choose who gets the stinger missiles this time. Like how John McCaine could pick and choose who he was photographed with.

Which one is the scrappy freedom fighter and which one is the Jihad-happy mass-murderer?*
Though none of that matters because, like all "humanitarian" interventions, this is about the principle of the thing. We gotta do the Right Thing in helping the Little Guy - even if the Little Guy in this case is a terrorist-backed cannibal. Context doesn't factor into all this principle shit because it muddies the waters, demonstrates that the people we may be trying to help aren't really worth the trouble. The Albanians NATO came to help in the Kosovo War weren't exactly damsels in distress and the Iraqis were so happy to be free of Saddam Hussein that they murdered over four thousand American troops.

"Well then what should we do?" I hear you ask, because you stupid types are so very loud.

Simple - let them bleed.

Syria is the current hot spot in the cold war between Sunnis and Shi'ites that went red hot once the Bush Administration rolled into Baghdad. This conflict is religious like the Thirty Years War, two factions hashing it out over some point of doctrinal difference from hundreds of years ago. In Syria, you've got Assad the Shi'ite on one side - so he gets help from Hezbollah and Iran - and Sunni rebels on the other. And Sunni rebels get all their help from Al Qaeda, from post-invasion Iraq to Chechnya.

Now Jordan and Saudi Arabia and other despotic regimes in the region are rightly scared that the war in Syria will spill over into their little kingdoms. Fair enough - and to be expected the Syrian war arguably being a side effect of the Iraq War. Only instead of promoting democracy throughout the region like the neocon fantasy said, it's been inspiring separatist jihadis.

That's a problem itself, but it's not gonna be fixed by running around the Middle East pretending to be Superman with crates of Kalashnikovs.

*All of them.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Kneeling Before Zod

In honor of the upcoming Man of Steel (and because I didn't write anything for today), here's a retro-review from 2006!

I saw Superman Returns on a whim about a week ago. I remember liking the earlier Superman movies and the power of flight is just damn cool, so I assumed I'd have a mostly enjoyable movie watching experience. An afternoon spent on moderate acting and flashy special effects.

I was wrong. Hoo boy...

Dark Age or Dork Age?

Let's start with the obvious: Superman himself is the most boring character ever imagined after Jesus (coincidentally, the teaser that was playing in theaters a few months ago implied he was some sort of modern Jesus-figure). Superman can, and often does, do anything. Anything at all. Fly? Check. Burrow to the center of the planet? Check. Travel lightyears between commercials? Check, check, and check. If some basement-dwelling fantard can dream it up, the Man of Steel can do it. Hell, he probably did it back in the eighties. This might be acceptable if he didn't turn around and be all "Golly gee gosh, let me help that kitten out of the tree. There, now I'll go fight non-lethally for truth and justice and free candy!"

Superman as a character is perfect, so why should we care what he does? He can do whatever he wants and all he wants is to be the world's best boy scout. Once you know the character, any story is just filler. It's why you read the chapter's about Satan and skipped the one's about God when reading Paradise Lost in school. God was perfect, Satan wasn't. Why care what Milton's God had to say when it was bound to be absolutely wise and just anyway. No drama, no interest, get back to the Satan stuff.

That's the character, so what story is he in this time? Rather then do the sensible thing and just make a stand alone Superman flick, the filmmakers decided to make it a continuation of the older films starring Christopher Reeve. There's strike two already, see "Star Wars Prequal Syndrome." You better have a damn compelling plot to keep people awake between the awesome flying-man-in-a-cape sequences. So they give us Lex Luther rehashing his failed evil schemes, Lois Lane banging some pilot, and whats-his-bowtie still a smarmy little douchebag. And strike three.

Seriously, Lex Luther is repeating his "world domination through real-estate" plot that didn't work when he was Gene Hackman thirty years ago. What makes him think it'll work now that he's Kevin Spacey? Sure, Spacey is the film's redeeming quality with his reveling in cartoonish villainy, but that's hardly going to stop the young Chritopher Reeve look-alike and his special effects. Besides, his token floozy always betrays him in the end because she just cares too much. Or something. If you saw the original, you've seen every frame and heard, word for word, every cheesy flying joke of this one.

Oh, but this is Superman Returns - because he's been off visiting dead relatives and just happens to return to Earth in the same manner and same place as the first time he got here. Naturally, not a bloody thing has changed from the Seventies, right down to the bright earth tone fashions. But something's different about Lois! She's now a skeletal waif and a mommy with no acting ability, but that's not important seeing as her whole reason for existing is to get in trouble and be saved by Superman. Oh yeah, her son may in fact be Superman's since he shows an aversion to kryptonite and kills a thug by throwing a grand piano. That last sentence might have contained spoilers.

All in all, the producers and the public would have been better served had they just given the original to George Lucas and told him to go nuts. Then we could have gotten the Imax visuals of today's special effects with the lame story and acting of yesterday, rather then a pale imitation of lame story and acting.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Trillion Dollar Default

Obama's latest attempt to look like a real liberal is student loan reform. And he's really running with it, having a big mock fight with Congress and everything.

Problem is, it only really affects future students. Hypothetical go-getters who will only have to pay 1% interest on their degrees that don't guarantee a happy middle-class life anymore. Those of us still propping up the trillion dollar debt bubble will just have to grin and bear it.

Except we won't. We can't - not with unemployment still up and demand still down. The United States can run on deficits indefinitely but private citizens have to answer on their debt. Or default.

Like the housing market. Remember that? Billions of dollars, the wealth of millions of citizens, and it all went up in smoke overnight. Because it all ran on debt that couldn't be paid back.

Whether that was because banks made predatory loans or because the Big Bad Gub'mint forced banks to loan to lazy black people is a point still debated by idiots. What matters is that the defaults happened and sent Wall Street's debt-financed party van straight off a cliff. And as regulation doesn't exist in this country, they've loaded up a brand new bandwagon of unsustainable debt products.

Including student debt. That trillion dollars millennial college grads owe is being chopped up and passed around same as mortgages were in the Bush years and - same as mortgages - they're an utterly hollow investment. A trillion Dead Souls that only look impressive on paper - as anyone who tries to collect will soon learn.

Default isn't easy with student debt - as I pointed out just two weeks ago. You can even have your wages garnished, assuming you're getting any. But courts already favor banks in foreclosure cases and that hasn't made housing prices return any more than the vast shadow inventory of bank-owned ghost towns. So while default may be bad for you personally, it'll do as much for the debt-party as a collapsed vein will for a vampire.

At it's peak, the housing bubble was sporting 350,000 home sales for about that much each. That's a lot but it ain't a trillion. And with the way this country has absolutely lost its shit since the housing crash, you'd better be plenty scared of what will happen when the student debt bubble bursts in the very near future. People might even start to take those libertarian whackadoos seriously, start wearing gold foil hats or something...