Tuesday, September 13, 2016

World War Trump

I've been trying to avoid the election. Because it's a stupid thing for stupid people. But sometimes the noise gets too loud, like it did over the weekend with everyone arguing over whether or not it's proper etiquette to call brain-dead racists "deplorable." A very Beltway sort of issue - trying to find some way to square the total objective grotesquery of a typical Trump voter with the wonk's instinct to not insult anyone who might see your LinkedIn profile.

And while every right-thinking human knew Trump supporters were deplorable from day one, what to think of the Clinton supporters?

I've mentioned before how Clinton's oh so liberal supporters seem to be kinda bloodthirsty. It's the biggest criticism of her record despite what Peter Daou and other well-paid apologists might tell you and it's always been rooted in the historical fact that Hillary Clinton has killed more Muslims than Donald Trump.

This often leads people to think Trump is a protest vote. Not necessarily a good one but at least a contrary point to the eternal grind of this technocratic empire. They cite a few things he's blurted about getting the US out of NATO and his criticisms of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Of coure, Trump is an American businessman and therefore a lying sack of shit.

James Woolsey, who served as CIA director in President Bill Clinton’s administration, will serve Donald Trump as a senior adviser on national security, defense and intelligence, the campaign announced today. 
Woolsey appeared on CNN shortly after the announcement, saying he joined the Trump campaign because he favors the Republican candidate’s defense budget proposal. Trump has proposed to lift the caps on defense spending.

CNN makes a big to-do about Woolsey having worked under the last Clinton and his time in the CIA, as opposed to his more recent work for anti-Russian NGOs. Probably because of that same wonk instinct to ignore the warts, like a good Victorian, and because distracting y'all from he's an even bigger neocon nutter than Hillary.

Woolsey’s resume of evil is impressive. He helped found the notorious Iraqi National Congress, which provided “proof” about Iraqi WMDs. And he also serves on the Center for Security Policy, headed by fellow goon Frank Gaffney, who in 2004 publicly advised President Bush to level Fallujah (which Bush did), invade Iran and North Korea (which Bush can’t but yet may try), and adopt “”appropriate strategies for contending with China’s increasingly fascistic trade and military policies, Vladimir Putin’s accelerating authoritarianism at home and aggressiveness toward the former Soviet republics, the worldwide spread of Islamofascism.” Note how Gaffney, like Woolsey, equates “Islamofascism” with Putin’s Russia, making Russia a mortal enemy bent on destroying the US.

With the revolving door that is the Trump campaign, it's possible Woolsey will have quit in disgust by the time you read this. And if he does, another neocon will slither in to fill the post. American politics won't let any bad idea fail, whether it's bombing democracy into the swarthy hordes or celebrating business executives as innovators and job creators.

Screw this election. It's all deplorable.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Leprous Bathos

There is a long and storied history among "serious" writers of using some more interesting moment in history to add flavor to their muddling bourgeois tales of self-discovery. Jonathan Safran Foer did it most famously, reducing Soviet pogroms and Nazi extermination of Ukrainian Jews into so much tear-porn for his self-insertion character in Everything is Illuminated. Good business model but makes for lousy storytelling. And lousy storytellers.

Victoria Hislop doesn't have anything as sexy as the Holocaust to pad out her own sentimental novel, The Island, but still found a pretty interesting piece of Greek history: a leper colony! The titular island, it serves as the fulcrum for a family drama stretching back to the Inter-War years, through joys and tragedies that valiantly manage to remain a steady "meh" across more than four hundred pages.

Just off the shore of the tiny Cretan village of Plaka sits a dry and hardscrabble island named Spinalonga. It's a leper colony, one of the last in Greece so it receives "patients" - really internees - from as far away as Athens and Thessaloniki. These Cosmopolitan Hellenes are quite a contrast to the local Cretan villagers, Hislop tells us. And only tells. There's maybe ten pages out of a hundred devoted to telling about the difference - and how it gets all wrapped up neatly with bi-weekly film showings - before this very interesting clash of cultures is left by the wayside, the better to make room for the soap opera drama of three generations of Petrakis women. Noble women of course, as enduring and determined as their provincial island home. Except for Anna, who's a big ol' slut.

I'm inferring quite a bit about the setting as Hislop is less interested the external world of Cretan islands - full of exotic history going back to the Minoans trading and fighting wars with the Pharoahs to the south and the Hittites to the east - than she is in the internal world of her characters. Which is very bad because there's so little there there. The most compelling of them is the aforementioned Anna, a headstrong drama queen determined to escape the doldrums of village life. She marries into a rich family, the only means of social mobility in a society as stratified and chauvinistic as Greece, but quickly finds married life to be just as punishingly boring as kicking around her father's fishing village. This leads to affairs and murders that everyone blames on Anna's perfidy - including the author - though it all comes across with the dull familiarity of predestination. Or a pudding of narrative cliches.

Anna is of course presented in contrast to her dutiful sister Maria and their martyr of a mother Eleni. The eldest Petrakis catches the dropsey from a little boy at her job as a schoolteacher and the both of them are shipped across to the leper colony. Maria follows on the eve of her wedding to the same wealthy family her sister joined, freeing her groom-to-be to plow Anna like a wheat field. What could be a grim and naturalistic look at family history gets a Hallmark makeover however, as a fancy doctor soon arrives to treat Maria and all the lepers with a cure that frees them from exile. Maria doesn't even carry any scars from her five or six years on a leper colony, much like her mother died with quiet nobility offscreen, as it were, with no description of her final horrendous hours.

In fact, aside from a few comments on gnarled hands or feet and one old lady with walnut-sized boils on her face, the leprosy at the center of this turgid tale gets very little attention. From the first introduction to Spinalonga, the focus is much more on the day to day doldrums of any village - just with the added caveat of "Oh BTW, they all lepers." The colony even vanishes from the narrative for long stretches, particularly when Anna and Maria are doing their little girl dream wedding stuff. Even World War II happening in the first third of the book doesn't generate more drama than a few boys running out into the mountains to play soldier, returning after peace is declared in the newspapers without so much as a lost toe and goddamn did Olivia Manning do the banality of war better! All the talk of leprosy is really there to distract the reader from how this book has fewer sharp edges than a rubber nipple.

Really, you can't expect much from a middle of the road Anglo writer like Hislop. She even has a name like one of PG Wodehouse's third tier antagonists, Honoria Glossop the lady sergeant major who forces philosophy books she doesn't understand herself on those who've already mastered the Buddha's path to the good life. Hislop doesn't share that same bludgeoning personality - near as I can tell - but certainly agrees with the Glossops of the world that thick books of ponderous seriousness are what is most needed.

I haven't even gotten to the framing device yet! The bourgeois self-discovery that necessitated all this tiresome historical lecturing, the young Alexis and her misgivings about her fussy boyfriend. I don't remember his name but we'll call him Chad because he is very much that sort of stock character. Actually, we won't call him anything because the frame narrative is even duller than the village girls trying on wedding dresses. In fact, let's forget this whole fucking novel!

But let's not forget Hislop. Proving that history repeats itself as tragedy and farce, Victoria Hislop has managed to craft a literary career for herself out of being the same sort of high-serious dunderhead the almighty Wodehouse skewered so brilliantly with a hundred better stories.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Gazing into the Abyss

I'd like to talk about the nature of evil. "Evil" as a vaguely defined concept is awfully popular in American culture, especially since 2001, but it's never come in for sharp critique.

This is due to two powerful factors: 1) Americans as a general rule do not like to critique anything ever, hence why shit-awful movies like The Avengers and Transformers always make more money than anything worthy. And 2) A serious analysis of evil as a concept leads to discomforting revelations.

Let's start slow - Who do you hate? Just of the top of your head, someone you wouldn't mind seeing creamed by a bus? If you answered at all you've demonstrated evil, naturally, but that brings us to our next question: Why do you hate this person?

Have they done something to you? They probably have, since people are so invariably shitty to one another. Or, to go into murkier waters, has this person actually not done much of anything to you directly but something about their existence just offends you? Maybe they're more successful, maybe they're less successful but not bothered by it.

Maybe they're just different from you...

All of these reasons are evil, there's no denying. At least not by anyone who matters. But why would you have these reasons in the first place? Why should the material fortunes - or lack thereof - of another person concern you in such a way?

Because society told you to. Whether your parents or television or the other kids in your neighborhood, you were conditioned to hold these wicked views by others. Racism is often explained this way and while it doesn't touch on the depth of human atavism it at least gets the gist of things. Whatever malice you hold for others, if not founded in a direct personal experience, was fostered by the world around you as culturally normative behavior.

Here we move out of the comforting Neoplatonist definitions of evil and into the more grimly rationalist view. The idea that this is not in fact the best of all possible worlds, that the harmony we think we see in Nature is just an anthropocentric delusion, and that Evil is not an aberration in the grand scheme of things but rather the banal starting point.
[T]here’s only one evil, it suffuses everything we see, and while one might do less harm than the other, each of its warring parts is still fundamentally the same thing. Donald Trump’s frenzied populism couldn’t exist without the suffocating liberal condescension of a Hillary Clinton; nobody would ever vote for Clinton if it weren’t for the looming threat of a Trump.
That which is good, or at least not-evil, is not the baseline but rather the achievement. The long and ugly march of human history bears this out, though it is too often taken as a given. The old feudal hierarchies of Europe did not so much progress to liberal democracy as they were dragged kicking and screaming. As a labor activist once said, "It's never been easy," because every little improvement came from a confrontation with entrenched power that always sees its own self-perpetuation as the most important task at hand. Whether the power is claimed by divine right or meritocratic ladder climbing, it always seeks to preserve "order" at the expense of those outside its hallowed halls.

Evil, then, is both the natural state of existence and the resistance to changing for the better.