Friday, July 22, 2016

NATO Nonsense

The worst thing about the Republican National Convention this past week is that it was broadcast. America has plenty of ridiculous fringe lifestyles, from trekkies to furries to anime perverts, but you don't see CNN breathlessly reporting on their sad little rituals.

The Internet Outrage Machine has been overclocked every day but if there's one thing that actually deserves special mention it's the Combover Feurher's comments on NATO:
He said the rest of the world would learn to adjust to his approach. “I would prefer to be able to continue” existing agreements, he said, but only if allies stopped taking advantage of what he called an era of American largess that was no longer affordable.

This is an outrage among the coastal yuppie enclaves but I've been hearing the same sentiment from Northern Virginia Republicans since the 1990s. And that's really what I want to say here - that Trump's comments are completely in the mainstream of American conservatism.

Spend enough time at Fairfax summer barbecues and the conversation always turns to how the liberals are destroying America. Not just with all the sex and hippity-hoppity music, but specifically how Democrats are both weak on national defense - leaving Us open to Our Enemies, whoever they are this week - and simultaneously how the Dems are expending American resources on taking care of ungrateful foreigners. Yes, they do have it both ways because Virginia Republicans are fucking morons.

Trump merely echoed the second half of their deluded worldview - the self-flattering assumption that the rest of the world needs to be policed by America. As opposed as the various State and DOD office drones  claimed to be to "nation building" in the Clinton I years, it was always predicated on the assumption that all those other countries full of poorer, browner people needed the patrician hand of the US to raise them out of Third World squalor, to keep their distant streets safe and to tuck them in at night. And these objections were always couched in a finger-wagging "Well they should take care of themselves!" rationalization that never admitted trying to police the world in the first place was a bad idea.

And not due to ignorance. If anyone in America should have a handle on the realities of geopolitics, it would be just these proto-Trumps carpooling around DC and Arlington. They're educated folks, upper middle class at the least, and hold TS security clearances with the military and intelligence agencies of a nuclear superpower. Yet they still blame immigrants for their problems and take Fox News seriously due to bog-standard American chauvinism.

Really, this latest turn against NATO is just the logical extension of the 1990s opposition to all things United Nations. Middle class suburbanites who'd never set foot in Manhattan spent the '90s bitching and moaning about how much space the UN offices took up, how much it strained the resources of poor put upon New York City - which itself was the wretched hive of scum and villainy for other conservative gripes. Because America is always the one taking care of everyone while also being under siege from those same dependents. It's an international variant of the "Water Carriers versus Water Drinkers" meme of the past eight years.

More to the point, this is not a new sentiment nor a strictly Republican one:
We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.

And we know how those same Republicans against nation-building behaved in the Bush years. All those isolationist principles proved as constant as wax - much like how all the current Clintonites who marched against the Iraq War in 2003 have spent the past year celebrating Hillary's own imperial wankery.

Donald Trump's shirking of NATO duties is not some aberration. It's perfectly in line with post-Reagen American culture: an opposition to the empire's wars when the other party is in the White House, mixed with a sanctimonious narcissism that only Our Side can do what is Right for the whole world. And all easily reversed as soon as the reins of power change hands.

Come meet the new boss, same as the old...

Friday, July 15, 2016

Dallas Rising

This was bound to happen.

A week ago, Micah Johnson opened fire on police officers during a #BlackLivesMatter rally, killing five and wounding seven before committing suicide by cop. Every professional TV face in the nation has been weeping over the brave boys in blue since then and not one - pundit or politician - will admit that the only mystery about Johnson's shooting is that it's so far a very isolated incident.

In 2016 alone, leading up to Johnson's shooting, American police murdered over five hundred unarmed civilians. Some might quibble over Philando Castile, a registered gun owner and a repudiation of the all the NRA's claims to defending liberty, but any Virginian will tell you there's a world of difference between armed self-defense and politely informing the trooper you have a concealed carry permit before getting drilled in your own car. And even then - five hundred! We're fast approaching the numbers usually associated with tinpot dictatorships or our own imperial misadventures.

In fact, that latter is a good parallel. Despite the rhetoric of community and service, American police have mutated over time into something like an occupying army. A distrust, even hostility, towards the civilian population, driven by a siege mentality that manifests in everything from these rampant shootings to an Abu Ghraib franchise opening in Chicago.

And to be clear, it ain't just black people:

This is abetted not just by a news media industry reluctant to criticize police but also a popular culture that - wrongly! - prefers Dirty Harry over Columbo. Add in the discomfort the comfortable middle class feels every time race gets mentioned and many abuses by police simply disappear down the memory hole.

...[U]nless there's video, or multiple witnesses, there's usually no consequence at all for police violence, not even on the civil side. The overwhelming majority of incidents simply disappear.

Because for the longest time, this was all normal. That might be the worst aspect for the cloistered TV culture of America - the absolute normalcy of abuse and intimidation by armed agents of the state. The sort of thing seen in movies about Eastern Bloc underdogs, dodging Stasi and KGB on their way over the wall and into the American Dream of an office job and blue jeans.

This sort of oppression in a modern western democracy is abysmally normal though, and there's a very pertinent historical parallel: Ireland under British rule at the start of the 20th Century. White Americans love to brag about the one great aunt or great great grandmother who came from Erin, but they sure are ignorant of why...

The police state of modern America was very much the norm of British controlled Ireland, from subtle hiring prejudices all the way to casual brutality by the security services. And all normal - I cannot stress that enough, normal - leading to the bold and doomed Easter Rising of 1916.

Like #BlackLivesMatter, the Irish nationalists and republicans who barricaded Dublin were much more of a minority of Irish political life than one might assume from their volume. They were also similarly outraged by isolated if common instances of insult and oppression, the sort that can be easily ignored by the Anglo impulse towards authority and obedience. And the bloody crackdown that followed served only to spread nationalism and republicanism better than any pamphlet or Yeats poem.

While poorly organized and over in less than a week, the Easter Rising met with the sort of ruthless British response usually employed in the tropics against browner folks. The leaders were executed after brief, perfunctory trials, the Irish Volunteers and other militia were accompanied into exile and prison by those rounded up in sweeping raids that gave very little thought to evidence or due process, and even pacifists and Unionists - as in Irish Protestants who didn't want to be a damned republic - found themselves targeted by British authorities who didn't understand and didn't care to understand Irish grievances.

The singular case of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington best illustrates this clumsy, bully's response to the rebellion. A devout pacifist and a radical feminist when such a term actually had meaning - he campaigned tirelessly for women's suffrage and took his wife's surname - he was summarily executed by a British officer named Clothurst while trying to prevent looting. That is, Sheehy-Skeffington was trying to prevent the looting. Clothurst also shot an unarmed man who wandered out into the street to see what all the commotion was about, after issuing a command to get back inside which the man then couldn't obey because Clothurst murdered him.

The quintessential "bad apple" that American pundits try to blame the systemic problem of police brutality on, Clothurst was punished mildly by his superiors in a manner seemingly designed to rile up Irish sentiments. Much like even the most blatant cases of murder and abuse are either dismissed, buried, or declared a justifiable use of force in modern America. Taken along with the severe punishments meted out to rebels, this presented the very stark picture of the British government not giving a damn about Irish well-being, treating them as just another colonial property to be exploited and brutalized. So too does the constant stream of police shootings in America capped off by friendly grand juries and cable news rationalizations present the unambiguous statement on behalf of the System that black lives do not matter.

...But there's a snag in my comparison here. The Easter Rising, while rooted in resentment against an oppressive regime, was also an explicitly separatist act. The Fenians and Irish Volunteers and everyone else wanted not a redress of grievances but a complete break with what they saw as an alien power imposing itself on their own political and personal lives.

Further, the Irish nationalists organizations were really very organized. Not in a military sense, as demonstrated by the Rising, but as fully developed political parties with clearly stated goals. When previously apolitical Irish men and women felt outraged at the executions by the British, there were actual opposition movements ready to take them in. Sinn Féin, one of the smaller parties at the time, saw their membership boom after 1916.

There is no parallel in modern America. #BlackLivesMatter, while involving many different activist groups, is still just a hashtag without any coherent political purpose beyond "Stop murdering us." Further, neither of the major parties are willing to accommodate such a wacky and radical demand and the only party of any significance that can will likely lose out again to fussy white liberals voting for the Lesser Evil.

Most importantly, despite their behavior, American police are not an occupying army. They are the same citizens and subject to the same laws - theoretically - as the people they brutalize. This greatly complicates the problem: British troops in Ireland could always go home and the IRA pioneered the guerrilla strategy of outlasting the occupier. American police are already home, even if the schizophrenia of zoning and local economics makes their homes comparatively better and wealthier than the homes across town they raid. Insurgency serves no purpose other than to exacerbate the existing fear and spite of a police culture that already thinks everyone hates them. And if everyone hates you anyway, why not taser that mouthy old lady?

Micah Johnson had legitimate grievances but he is not James Connolly. And #BlackLivesMatter are not the Irish Volunteers, just as the many fragmented police departments are not the Royal Irish Constabulary. The Irish and the English could leave each other alone, American civilians and police are stuck with each other.

Monday, July 11, 2016


While comics and nostalgia continue to rule the multiplex, there's no better time to hide out with some streaming services and their wide selections of indie horror films!

You're spoiled for choices - have been for quite a while - but I'd like to discuss one flick in particular: Howl. A claustrophobically tight little Brit project about werewolves on a train, it hits all the right notes without dragging or getting lost in genre cliches. Admittedly, there aren't many cliches in werewolf film as a genre which brings me to a brief digression.

Werewolves have never been very compelling as a monster archetype. They're two-dimensional and too culturally specific to get under the skin the same way as ghosts and vampires. Further, they lack the moral ambiguity of the restless or hungry dead, being straightforward marauders. When presented heroically, they either play as a mix of Twilight knock-off and Furry erotica - or become little more than New Age superheroes in need of a shave. And yes, I've played Werewolf: The Apocalypse so I know just how silly it can get...

This is not horror.

As straight and unambiguous antagonists, werewolves serve much better. See the iconic Dog Soldiers, which you've already heard quoted up and down the internet. This may not offer as much narrative depth as Herzog's Nosferatu but that's not the point. You don't watch a werewolf movie for gothic high seriousness but for the same reason you watch The Revenant or that movie where Liam Neeson boxes with wolves: the stark, visceral horror of Man Against Nature.

And Howl does that very very well.

This is horror!

Set on a late-night commuter train out of London, the story focuses on beleaguered railway worker Joe and his few colleagues, alongside half a dozen or so passengers. Beyond Joe, the personalities are really developed from the start - with the exception of a prissy girl who never gets off her phone - but this isn't an oversight or incompetence on the part of the filmmakers. We get to know the rest of these meals on wheels gradually as things go from bad to worse. Rather than burden the audience with a Dickensian backstory for people who will mostly be compost by the morning, we get to infer the characters' individual stories from how they react to certain death. It keeps things moving while keeping the audience invested.

Adrian deserves special mention. First presenting as a pragmatic, can-do type who takes charge while Joe is fumbling over how to handle the stopped train, he quickly reveals himself to be a ruthless and deeply selfish character once he grasps the mortal danger they are all in. The same qualities that make him sharp-dressed and successful in the white collar world of London make him a danger to everyone else in their struggle for survival. There's a lesson in that.

And it bears repeating that the werewolves in Howl are bloody fantastic. Look at that picture again - it's just so wonderfully grotesque! They've got some lupine features but not the long doggy snout that, no matter how much it's smeared in blood and gristle, still retains the familiar quality of the family dog. The things in Howl in contrast look like walking barracudas.

You can catch it now on Hulu or through other perfectly legal means. Hulu also has the entire Subspecies series of films, which are hilariously terrible.


Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Dog Ate My Bazooka

And now, a belated July 4th bummer...

Historically, American military victories have been largely "conventional" as opposed to "special." Inchon and Desert Storm are the biggest, relying on logistics and armor and infantry craft - and a steady pounding from the air in the second case -  rather than daring commando operations.

In sharp contrast, the Vietnam conflict drew heavily on CIA black ops and the then new Special Forces and was a colossal failure. That failure has been repeated in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars prosecuted by the super secret and special Joint Special Operations Command. The fact that American troops still occupy Afghanistan five years after Osama Bin Laden was assassinated in a different country is proof enough of strategic failure and whatever successes insane Beltway insiders may have claimed from Iraq are looking pretty flimsy this week.

While there are plenty of political - if not simply careerist - reasons for the politicians and pundits to ignore this nasty lesson of history, a particular facet of American culture also encourages everyone to look away: the national cult of individualism.

Understand individualism in itself is not a problem. The Dutch certainly make it work. But the way it manifests in American culture is much different, much more fetishized, and much more toxic in its denial of harsh reality. Sixteen years of being the Keystone Kops of military powers, and you can still find fictionalized paeans to the "warrior elite" all over the US of A. Like Kill Bin Laden or movies celebrating the actual killing of bin Laden. That the real life inspirations for many of these films - like Lone Survivor and Black hawk Down - where horrible failures, "goat fucks" in the parlance of the men involved, is simply not spoken of in polite society.

In the fantastic Full Spectrum Disorder, Stan Goff lists off special operations from Iran to Somalia - most of which he was involved with, either in Delta or the Rangers - and he soundly declares them failures. And nobody wants to hear him, preferring instead the myths of individual heroism American culture encourages. The Benghazi debacle is already available on DVD, yet another frenetic action film soaking in its own bathos, where the murky politics of the mission is ignored so the narrative can focus on the steely-eyed white boys and their valiant fight for... well, for each other seems to be the only motivation in any of these movies.

It does serve to get impressionable kids into recruiting offices but it's not some conspiracy. Not intentionally. Rather, it's just the natural outcome of a culture that shuns collective action and sacrifice in favor of some romantic Rambo fantasy. And it will keep the imperial misadventures going, same as President Hillary's determination that she can warmonger just as much as the boys.