Archive for March, 2015

The Hillary Clinton Juggernaut

March 31, 2015

Image: File of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivering remarks at the State Department  in Washington

Recently I’ve noticed a disturbing trend on social media. Whenever somebody makes a legitimate criticism of Hillary Clinton, there is always someone who responds by effectively saying, “So, you want the Republicans to win?” The assumption here seems to either be that Clinton has already won the Democratic nomination or that she is the only Democrat who can beat a Republican. The first is obviously false, the second is probably wrong.

Let’s discuss the first assumption. We’re a year away from the Democratic primaries, and yet many people seem to assume that Clinton has it all wrapped up. Many people made that same assumption back in 2008, when she lost to a brash young upstart named Barack Obama. The election is still a year away. A lot can happen between now and then.

As for Clinton being the only Democrat who can beat a Republican, that’s a weird assumption to make considering how much baggage Clinton is carrying. Has anyone carrying so much baggage ever been elected to the presidency before? Richard Nixon comes to mind, but he had been out of the public spotlight for a few years, so people had begun to forget what a turd the guy was. (He packaged himself as the “New Nixon”.) Clinton has been in the public eye almost continuously since 2008. During that time, she presided over the fiasco of the intervention in Libya. You can be sure the Republicans are going to talk about that.

As for the e-mail controversy, it’s not as trivial as some people claim. Clinton deleted over 30,000 e-mails. She says that they were strictly private in nature. Maybe, but we only have her word for it. Common sense dictates the government business should be conducted through government e-mail accounts. At the very least, Clinton showed poor judgment. And Clinton has a history of showing poor judgment, from Whitewater to the invasion of Iraq.

Back in 2003, it was clear to me that invading Iraq was a bad idea, but Clinton thought the plan was just swell. I’m supposed to trust the foreign policy judgment of someone like this? You’ve got to be kidding.

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Conspiracy Theories

March 21, 2015

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I have often been critical of conspiracy theories on this blog, so I think I should make it clear that I think conspiracies do happen. (There is, for example, good reason to believe that the “October Surprise” conspiracy was real.) The problem is that it’s all too easy for people to imagine a conspiracy behind every single thing that happens in the world. One can spin a conspiracy about almost anything. (Is Vladimir Putin really the president of Russia, or is he really the tool of a CIA-Mossad false flag operation?) The “Everything You Know is Wrong” spiel has a strong attraction for some people.

It is worth remembering that anti-Semitism is based on a conspiracy theory: the idea that Jews are trying to take over the world or are in some way plotting against the rest of us. (The Nazis really believed this. They accepted it as an article of faith.) And when you look at some of the more extreme conspiracy websites, you begin to find anti-Semitic ideas. (Veterans Today is a good example of this.) This is something that people who are inclined toward conspiracy theories should ponder.

One of the more curious theories is the idea that the moon landing was faked. The idea that the landing was filmed in a Hollywood sound studio is naive to anyone who knows anything about film and video. I’m waiting for the day when someone claims that World War II was faked. (Of course, it was filmed on a Hollywood back lot!) There is no idea so stupid that someone won’t believe it.

The Diminishing of Christopher Hitchens

March 14, 2015

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A foundation has recently announced that it will be handing out an annual journalism award named after Christopher Hitchens. One of the judges for this award will be Christopher “Thanks, Dad!” Buckley, so you know beforehand that this will be yet another meaningless award that we can all safely ignore.

I stopped paying attention to Hitchens back in 2001, when he wrote that the 9/11 attacks gave him a feeling of “exhilaration”. (Katha Pollitt rightly called this “childishness”.) At the time, I made the naive, but nonetheless reasonable, assumption that everyone else had done the same thing. I gradually became aware that I was sadly mistaken about this. (Personal disclosure: I never met Hitchens, but he once spat a cigarette at a friend of mine.) Hitchens became a noisy advocate for the illegal invasion of Iraq. In spite of this, Hitchens is greatly admired today, but he is admired for the wrong reasons.

Hitchens’s most important work is also his least influential: The Trial of Henry Kissinger, in which he convincingly argued that Kissinger is a war criminal and possibly a traitor as well. Today, Kissinger is widely feted, and he even makes appearances on comedy shows. When an anti-war group recently interrupted Kissinger’s testimony before a Senate Committee, Sen. John McCain called them “low-life scum”. McCain apparently doesn’t mind the fact that he spent six years in a North Vietnamese POW camp because Nixon and Kissinger prolonged the Vietnam War. Such forgiveness is truly touching to see. (This same McCain once said that he wouldn’t mind if US troops were in Iraq for the next 100 years. This is masochism as foreign policy.)

According to Vanity Fair: “… the foundation intends both the prize and the award ceremony to celebrate and draw public attention to the values that marked Christopher Hitchens’s life and career…” What it will actually celebrate is the moral bankruptcy of our society.

Don Juan Comes to Hollywood

March 8, 2015

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Carlos Castaneda

When I was writing my review of Maps to the Stars, I was intrigued to learn that the screenwriter, Bruce Wagner, was a disciple of Carlos Castaneda. In case you don’t know, Castaneda was the author of a series of books that were hugely popular in the 1970’s. In them, Castaneda claimed that he had had a series of encounters with a Yaqui sorcerer named Don Juan. This shaman introduced Castaneda to a “separate reality”, in which he could talk to animals and fly through the air. These books were eventually exposed as a hoax, yet they continue to be sold as “non-fiction” to this day. I felt a personal connection here, because I read the Don Juan books when I was in high school, and for a time I came under their spell, so to speak. However, I eventually came to the conclusion that they were basically bullshit. Yet I still vividly recall some some episodes and bits of conversation from them. I actually remember them more fondly than The Lord of the Rings, which I read at roughly the same time.

The debunking of the Don Juan books didn’t hurt Castaneda though. He went on to a lucrative career as a self-help guru. (Contrast this with how James Frey got beat up for embroidering some details of his life.) Castaneda went on to found an organization called Cleargreen, which teaches something called “Tensegrity”. And what is Tensegrity? Cleargreen’s website explains:

    Tensegrity® is the modern version of the navigator’s way—practices and principles that support finding and traveling a path with heart—that don Juan Matus taught his four students: Carlos Castaneda, Florinda Donner-Grau, Taisha Abelar and Carol Tiggs. Don Juan was a Yaqui Indian seer and a leader of a group of men and women seers whose lineage begins in Mexico of ancient times.

And I’m sure the men and women seers of ancient Mexico used trademarks whenever they could.

But let’s get back to Bruce Wagner. According to Salon, Wagner once had the following role in Cleargreen:

    A major player in promoting Tensegrity was Wagner, whose fifth novel, “The Chrysanthemum Palace,” was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner prize (his sixth, “Memorial,” was recently released by Simon and Schuster). Wagner hadn’t yet published his first novel when he approached Castaneda in 1988 with the hope of filming the don Juan books. Within a few years, according to Jennings and Wallace, he became part of the inner circle. He was given the sorceric name Lorenzo Drake — Enzo for short. As the group began to emerge from the shadows, holding seminars in high school auditoriums and on college campuses, Wagner, tall, bald and usually dressed in black, would, according to Geuter and Wallace, act as a sort of bouncer, removing those who asked unwanted questions.

From bouncer to novelist. An interesting career path.

In Maps to the Stars, several characters recite a poem by Paul Eluard entitled ‘Liberty’. The poem begins this way:

    On my notebooks from school
    On my desk and the trees
    On the sand on the snow
    I write your name

    On every page read
    On all the white sheets
    Stone blood paper or ash
    I write your name

The name is ‘Liberty’. At the end of the film, two of the characters recite this poem just before they commit suicide. The implication here is that they see death as a release from the prison of their lives. What bothers me about this is that when Castaneda died, several of his female disciples, including the three women mentioned on the Cleargreen website, disappeared. Some people believe they may have committed suicide. (You can read about this in the article I linked to above.)

At the end of Castaneda’s book Tales of Power, Don Juan urges Castaneda to jump off a cliff, in order to show that he has finally become a sorcerer. I’ve noticed that a recurring motif in Hollywood films that I’ve watched in recent years is someone jumping off a building in order to prove a point. The most recent example of this is in Birdman. (This also occurs in The Matrix.) Castaneda reportedly frequented Hollywood parties, and he no doubt discussed some of his ideas with people at these gatherings.

The fact that someone like Castaneda may have had an influence on popular films is a sobering thought.

Maps to the Stars

March 2, 2015

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David Cronenberg has a reputation for making dark and disturbing films. His most recent work, Maps to the Stars, based on a screenplay by Bruce Wagner, will certainly not disappoint in that regard. Set in contemporary Los Angeles, it is the most unflattering depiction of Hollywood that I have seen since Robert Altman’s The Player. It suggests that the culture of Hollywood encourages narcissism and selfishness, as well as reckless and self-destructive behavior.

Maps to the Stars has several plot lines that eventually converge. Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) is a young woman just arrived in Los Angeles. She becomes romantically involved with Jerome (Robert Pattinson), an aspiring actor and writer. Benjie (Evan Bird) is a child actor who starred in a popular movie but then developed a substance abuse problem. He is now making a comeback by appearing in a sequel. His mother, Cristina (Olivia Williams), is a driving force behind his career. Havana (Julianne Moore) is a well-known movie actress. Her mother, Clarice (Sarah Gadon) was also in movies. Havana is trying to get a role in a film that is a remake of a film her mother was in. She begins seeing Clarice’s ghost. She has therapy sessions with a self-help guru, Stafford (John Cusack), who happens to be Benjie’s father. Agatha gets a job working as a personal assistant for Havana. It is eventually revealed that Agatha is actually Benjie’s sister. Seven years earlier, she burned down the family’s house and almost killed Benjie during a psychotic episode. She was put in an asylum, but has now been released. Stafford has never forgiven her, and he is determined to keep her away from the rest of his family.

This film’s critique of Hollywood is intertwined with a grimly fatalistic story about incest, madness, and ghosts. (The supernatural elements may be due to the fact that the screenwriter is a disciple of Carlos Castaneda. I will have something to say about Castaneda in a future post.) These elements somewhat blunt its social criticism. However, the most striking thing about this movie is its lack of sympathy for its characters (although one feels a bit sorry for Agatha at times). Almost all of them come to bad ends. It doesn’t hold out any possibility that people can overcome their illusions or morally improve or escape their past. It ultimately feels suffocating.