Thursday, October 19, 2017

This Is You

This article about the cloying hit show This Is Us is what happens when you raise a generation of middle-class middle-brows on the notion Jane Austen novels were anything more than 19th Century soap operas. The author, and her audience, have just enough education to know this is hokey and culturally regressive, but that's exactly what they crave in their shallow Wal-Mart souls.

They know from the books they read in college that they should be skeptical of the family as an institution and critical of patriarchal structures which mandate all women choose motherhood, especially since it's not always really a choice...

But they're too much a product of contemporary suburban mores and norms to take that truly courageous step out of the Normal and into the sort of rootless bohemianism which the iconoclasts in their Norton anthologies embraced. Their critical articles, their social justice cant, their entire "wokeness" is so much virtue signalling. A mating call from the bland to the bland, so they can go in-hoc on a 4,000 square foot vinyl-sideded fuck-box, as the late Joe Bageant called American middle class housing. And all for the sake of recreating the family holidays and barbecues of their memories, despite how anxious and miserable they really were as children.

The media they consume - I hesitate to call it "art" - reflects this. A few well-timed fart and dick jokes to add a juvenile level of transgression to what is really a stuffy square's morality talking to itself. The Leave It To Beaver ethos, decked out in a few memes so these professional bores can pretend it's something new.

And this deep unconscious craving for the hokey and traditional that they so publicly roll their eyes at is exactly why we have the political climate we do now. Not hot enough to turn Red, but not cold enough to embrace the neo-feudal project of Conservatism, they are as lukewarm as piss in a swimming pool. They can't stand against the madness at this late stage of capitalism because they cannot bring themselves to conceive of a world beyond white picket fences, 2.5 kids, and lifelong consumer debt.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Big Man With A Gun

American Conservatives appear to be engaged in cognitive dissonance when they defend the "right to bear arms" in the wake of yet another mass shooting. This is the one non-negotiable Right for them, all else being easily sacrificed to the Patriot Act should some swarthy foreigner happen to have a shoe-bomb or underwear bomb or no bomb at all, just an expired work visa. None of these people are murdering Americans at the same rate as American Citizens with legally purchased firearms, so earnest Liberals think they can shame the Red Staters and Reactionaries into adopting gun control laws.

"From my cold, sweaty hands!"

But this is a misreading of Conservatism - one which Conservatives encourage. The animus against Muslims and Latinos does not come from any concern for security but rather for preserving the hierarchy of Real Americans over and above Everyone Else. Within this paradigm, frequent flare ups like Las Vegas are acceptable and so is Trump's latest Muslim Ban, as both maintain the primacy of Real Americans over foreign and alien Others, whether from Syria or San Francisco. Further, the untouchable Right To Bear Arms ensures the hierarchy of private, local regimes of power exercised with all the impulsive terror of a medieval manor lord - a "democratic feudalism" in which the boss rules you but you can still rule the wife, who rules the kids, who set fire to the dog because that's how all these little pyramids of "order" play out. Assuming you don't decide to expand your own rule with an Armalite and duffle bag of spare mags, like Stephen Paddock.

So when Conservatives howl about Muslims and immigrants but turn into muddling Constitutionalists at any mention of gun control, they're not being disingenuous. They are being principled, but it's the principles of fascist assholes. And they deserve the same as any fascist.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Great White Nope

The armies of this age are weak.

That was the takeaway from the neo-nazi march in Virginia this weekend, a spectacle of sound and fury signifying nothing but the weakness of the marchers themselves. They came, they saw, they scurried off when the kids talked back. A wave of preppies with tiki torches, bands of right-wing militia carrying their street-legal AR-15s, and they retreated from mouthy, unbowed college students without firing a shot. And even the Republicans are demanding criminal investigation after the one loser out of all the other losers staged a terrorist attack with his car, like a feckless European jihadi.

Keep that in mind as all the polite media types ring their hands over this terrible excuse for political violence: The armed right-wing militia never fired a shot, the worst violence being delivered by some chipmunk-faced shmuck from Ohio driving into a pedestrian mall. As terrible and tragic as that attack on the Downtown Mall was, it netted only a single casualty. Nineteen injured and one dead is a typical Cavaliers victory party.

Comparisons to ISIS are even more accurate than they typically are when talking about these alt-right types. ISIS sympathizers who plow through pedestrians in Paris and Berlin are making a tactical decision, using the best weapon they have available. Contrast this with Virginia, where you can buy guns. Loads and loads of guns. There's a gun show somewhere in the Commonwealth every month, so if you're serious about revolutionary violence you and your buddies can get strapped right quick. That's what many of the alt-reichers did for this march:

Veterans for Bernie like to point out these guys aren't actual soldiers, despite all their tacticool gear. They showed up to menace everyone who isn't a nazi into silence.

It didn't work, as you can clearly see. But no one going to C-Ville knew that, especially not the UVa kids and locals who turned out to counter-protest without any weapons beyond hairspray. And it speaks all the more to their bravery  that they took on these self-styled brownshirts without any hope of protection from the Charlottesville police.

I lived in Charlottesville for three years after college. I can say from personal experience that the ruling institutions of that town are a microcosm of all the mealy-mouthed poshlost that passes for respectable discourse in this country. This is best illustrated by the Downtown Mall where the attack took place, where I once saw a C-Ville police officer ticket a black man for drinking a beer while fifty yards away the wealthy white liberals of UVa swilled wine at an over-priced restaurant. C-Ville cops are not there to protect you, but to protect the image of a college town that loves to talk up it's relationship to Thomas Jefferson without ever mentioning his support of free universities. Or his slaves.

This makes C-Ville an ideal place for the Alt-Right's big debutante ball but they couldn't even do that right. They came in their macho-wannabe uniforms, trying to look united and scary, and turned right around when they met resistance. One ISIS-style hit and run and trying to gang up on a guy in a parking garage, that's what happens when these nazi thugs try to make good on their violent rhetoric.

Like ISIS and other right-wing reactionaries, the Alt-Right is much more a support group for miserable middle class failures than a competent military force. That should be everyone's takeaway from the Battle of Charlottesville, that the nazis of the 21st century are a pale imitation of the Wermacht, that they have no stomach for a real fight and what's more they're real shit at fighting anyway.

Just be sure to arm yourself, because cops won't protect you. That goes double if you're not white.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Gangster in The Mirror

I came to understand the neoliberal hatred of Russia and Trump through observing how socialism will never take root in New York City. This will be upsetting to the Jacobin crew and other optimistic reds, but we need to recognize socialism is as much a culture - an attitude - as a set of policy goals. And NYC is just not a socialist-friendly culture because it likes the hustle.

It's a word middle-class white folks learned from their, or rather their children's love of hip-hop. Because hip-hop culture celebrates the hustler mentality, as exemplified by Jay-Z's many business ventures and the swaggering confidence of hip-hop specializing academics. It's grassroots entrepreneurship, the sort of thing Clinton Democrats - and even some Republicans - claim to champion but the attendant egomania and blue collar crassness just doesn't sit well with their patrician sensibilities. Which is how you got the precursor of the current climate of russophobia in the bipartisan crusade against Gangsta Rap.

Remember that? Well, a lot of you Berners won't but it's an instructive moment of history. Everyone from Dan Quayle to Al Gore's joyless wife declared the works of Ice-T and Ice Cube and others to be the worst affront to civilized society since Hitler. Because that histrionic Austrian is always the gold standard of evil for mindless middlebrows, not the entrenched culture of racism at the LAPD, or the corrupt vampirism of Wall Street... Or the vicious looting of post-Soviet Russia in the Yeltsin years.

Americans, at least in the pundit class, recall the 1990s as the golden years of Russian democracy before Putin came in and ruined everything. Actual Russians remember a time of desperation, vaporized savings, and children falling into rusted steam pipes where they died with their skin melting off. This is why "democratsiya" is a dirty word in Moscow, even among the opposition - which is huge and doesn't give a damn about US interests. Putin initially rose to power with a few symbolic jailings of Yeltsin era oligarchs but he's since brought in just as many of his own oligarchs. Russia has been a gangster state since the Berlin Wall came down, but only under Putin does it really rankle with the masters of the universe huddled inside the Beltway.

And that's where we get to the muddled truth of all this. So far, the neoliberal love of Yeltsin and loathing of Putin would just be typical hypocrisy but remember the hip-hop precedent: gangsterism does not offend the powerful because of its wickedness but because it is an honest expression of the capitalist spirit both Democrats and Republicans claim to adore. The Moscow oligarch - just as the Flatbush hustler or the Reality TV CEO - is a living breathing rebuke to the ruling class and its pretensions to civility, while stripping rural proles of their healthcare and dropping bombs on mud huts.

The Gangster is the purest expression of the free market so often celebrated by Pelosi, McConnell, Ryan, and especially the Clintons. It is their own blackened heart and they would all sooner start World War III than admit their own ugliness.

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 housing 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.