Archive for the ‘United States’ Category

The Founder

January 31, 2017

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The Founder, written by Robert Siegel and directed by John Lee Hancock, tells the story of the creation of the McDonald’s fast food chain and how it was eventually taken over by Ray Kroc.

The film begins in 1954. Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a middle-aged salesman trying to sell five-spindle milkshake mixers to drive-ins, without much luck. One day he receives an order for six mixers from a restaurant in San Bernadino, California. His curiosity piqued by this, Kroc goes to see what this place is like. It turns out to be a burger stand called McDonald’s, owned and operated by the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch). Frustrated with the hassle of running of a conventional drive-in, the McDonalds have developed a factory-like approach to making hamburgers and fries. Kroc senses a potential gold mine here. He tries to persuade the brothers to let him franchise their business. However, the McDonalds are obsessive perfectionists. They don’t want to franchise because they won’t be able to control the quality of the product.

In the film’s best scene, Kroc manages to win the brothers over by making a patriotic speech. Sounding like a preacher, he says he envisions a day when McDonald’s restaurants will be found from coast to coast, and each place will be an “American church” where families can come together to enjoy good food. This is a striking depiction of the peculiar American tendency to combine hucksterism with idealism. As the film progresses, however, it becomes increasingly clear that Kroc’s idealism is shallow. As the McDonald’s chain takes off, Kroc becomes more and more ruthless. “If one of my competitors was drowning, I would put a hose in his mouth,” he says to a shocked Mac McDonald, not long before he manages to wrest ownership of the company away from the brothers.

The Founder tells a tale that is a subtle variation of the Faust story, with Kroc as an evolving Mephistopheles, but which is nonetheless quintessentially American, with its depiction of the conflict between the desire to be principled and the urge to succeed .

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The Democratic Party and the U.S. Left

September 9, 2013

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Salon has an interesting article by David Sirota about the current state of the anti-war movement in the U.S. In it, he writes:

    So what happened to that movement? The shorter answer is: It was a victim of partisanship.

    That’s the conclusion that emerges from a recent study by professors at the University of Michigan and Indiana University. Evaluating surveys of more than 5,300 anti-war protestors from 2007 to 2009, the researchers discovered that the many protestors who self-identified as Democrats “withdrew from anti-war protests when the Democratic Party achieved electoral success” in the 2008 presidential election.

This confirms something I have long suspected. I remember talking to people at anti-war demonstrations during the 2000’s. Many of them seemed to me to be motivated by a visceral hatred for Bush and Cheney rather than by an actual opposition to war and imperialism. During the run-up to the 2004 election, they would tell of their intention to vote for one of the two anti-war Democrats, Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich. When Dean and Kucinich lost in the primaries, these people simply transferred their allegiance to John Kerry, a staunch supporter of the war. It was no surprise to me, then, that these people dropped out of the movement when a Democrat was finally elected to the White House.

Many Americans seem to have an emotional commitment to the two-party system that defies logic and common sense. For them, being a Republican or a Democrat is more than merely a matter of which party one votes for, it is an existential question, something that determines their very sense of identity.

I was at the Oregon Country Fair a couple of years ago, and I saw a man wearing a t-shirt that had pictures of George W. Bush and Hitler on it. It said: DIFFERENT NAMES, SAME SHIT. I was tempted to say to him, “Since Obama has continued many of Bush’s policies, does that mean he is also just like Hitler?” I didn’t ask this, but I suspect that if I had, the question would have made no sense to him. For a certain type of person, the mere fact that Obama is a Democrat means that he cannot be anything at all like Bush.

Our two main political parties originated in the nineteenth century, and both have radically evolved away from their original platforms. Many people simply can’t conceive of a world without them. Karl Marx once said, “The dead weight of the past weighs like a nightmare upon the brains of the living.” The older I get, the more convinced I become of the profound truth of that observation.

A Reply to Noam Chomsky: America’s Imperial Power Is Not in Decline

August 4, 2013

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Aletnet has posted an article by Noam Chomsky entitled America’s Imperial Power Is Showing Real Signs of Decline. Chomsky cites as proof of his claim the fact that the Organization of American States (O.A.S.) has passed a resolution condemning the countries that refused to allow Evo Morales’s plane to enter their airspace last month. However, I doubt that this resolution will have any concrete results. What is of greater significance is the incident that led to this resolution in the first place. The U.S. apparently pressured four countries – France, Italy, Portugal and Spain – into denying passage through their airspace to the President of Bolivia, in the belief that Edward Snowden might be on his plane. In doing so, these countries not only violated international law, they insulted the leader of a resource-rich nation. So, the U.S. got four governments to act against their own best interests. That’s a pretty impressive display of political power, if you ask me.

Chomsky argues that the U.S. no longer wields as much influence over Latin America as it once did. This is true, but a major reason for this is that since the 9/11 attacks, U.S. foreign policy has shifted its focus to the Middle East and southern Asia. The U.S. now wields greater power in that region of the world than ever before. The U.S. carries out drone attacks in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen with impunity. The U.S. now has military bases set up throughout the region. The Arab Spring was a setback, but the U.S. has since been able to reassert its influence in the countries involved.

Empires don’t always get what they want. When the British empire was at its height, the British suffered a military defeat in Afghanistan. A resolution passed by Latin American countries is no proof that the U.S. empire is in decline. Neither is Putin’s refusal to extradite Snowden.

Chomsky wants to believe the U.S. is in decline when it really isn’t.

It’s Alive!

July 26, 2013

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I recently received an e-mail on Pinterest that said this:

    Trending on Pinterest…
    Is anything related to the newborn British royal baby. Pinners are continuing the baby-fever with party ideas fit for a prince, souvenirs and – our favorites – boards featuring historic baby pictures from years past.

CNN is still covering the birth of the royal baby. MSNBC has devoted enormous coverage to it. (I guess it saves them from having to discuss Snowden and the NSA.) It seems tactless to point out that the US fought a war to separate itself form the British monarchy.

Despite (or perhaps because of?) our theoretically egalitarian society, Americans tend to be suckers for aristocrats, both real and pretend. You may recall that Mark Twain made this point in Huckleberry Finn. When Erich Stroheim, the son of a Viennese hatmaker, arrived at Ellis Island, he gave his name as Count Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim und Nordenwall, which was as shrewd a career move as any man ever made. He had a lucrative film career playing aristocrats (although in an often unflattering manner).

Americans mourned the death of Princess Diana, and they swooned over The King’s Speech, which told us that Britain was saved from the Nazis by Geroge VI and his speech therapist.

We might as well just surrender.

A Few More Thoughts on the Trayvon Martin Case

July 16, 2013

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The other night a woman told me she thought the controversy over the George Zimmerman trial was overblown. Mind you, she wasn’t defending what Zimmerman did. Rather, her argument was that with so many injustices in the world, it simply wasn’t right to devote so much attention to a single case.

This is a fair point. It seems to me, however, that this episode has struck a raw nerve with many people, not all of whom are black. Many of us have had that experience – on at least occasion – of being confronted by a hostile stranger. (The enduring popularity of the film, Deliverance, is due to the fact that it touches upon this common experience.) Many of us have had that sudden and unpleasant realization that one has angered, or perhaps simply attracted the suspicions of, someone for reasons that are not at all clear.

Such experiences are now even more disturbing because of the insane “stand your ground” laws that have been passed in many states. Thirty-one states have such laws. A stranger can shoot you for whatever reasons of his own and then tell the police that you “threatened” him. And chances are that he may get away with it. (Florida’s “stand your ground” law was a factor in Zimmerman’s acquittal.)

I love this country, but it’s increasingly becoming an uncomfortable place in which to live.

Big Brother

June 7, 2013

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The recent revelations about massive government spying on the American people should come as no surprise. Indeed, they merely confirm what many of us have suspected for quite some time now. It’s worth noting here that all this obsessive information gathering did not prevent the Boston Marathon bombings from happening. The reason for this should be obvious: no terrorist with half a brain is going to discuss his plans over a cell phone or over the Internet. Even the Tsarnaev brothers, who weren’t exactly the brightest bulbs, knew better than that.

So, how concerned should we be about this? As long as you aren’t doing anything illegal, you shouldn’t be too concerned. The government, however, keeps expanding the boundaries of what is illegal. (In New York state, for example, it is now a felony to annoy a police officer. During the time I lived in New York, I got the impression that the cops there were a bit touchy. I imagine it can’t be that hard to annoy them.)

The Internet is a useful organizing tool, but it clearly has its limits and it should be used with caution. Those who have argued that the Internet is the solution to all the Left’s problems should reconsider their position. It’s clear that the Left can’t rely solely upon the Internet.

It’s Worse Than You Think

May 28, 2013

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The U.S. is a poorer country than most people realize. According to Alternet:

    The IRS reports that the highest wage in the bottom half of earners is about $34,000. To be eligible for food assistance, a family can earn up to 130% of the federal poverty line, or about $30,000 for a family of four.

There is also this:

    The median debt level rose to $75,600 in 2009, while the median family net worth, according to the Federal Reserve, dropped from $126,400 in 2007 to $77,300 in 2010.

There’s not a lot of talk about this in the mainstream media. They don’t like to talk about depressing topics such as poverty and unemployment. They prefer to talk about crime, terrorism, political scandals (both real and imaginary), and, of course, celebrity gossip. What also makes talking about poverty difficult, however, is the fact that Americans tend to believe that they are better off than people in other countries. They are taught this in public schools and by the media. When you tell some people that the U.S. lags behind some other countries in some respects, they simply don’t believe you. Part of the problem here is cultural. With the exception of Native Americans, native Hawaiians, and perhaps some Mexican-Americans, Americans are all descended from immigrants. These immigrants came here thinking they would be better off here than in their native countries, and in some cases this was actually true. However, this belief has been handed down through the generations, with the result that many Americans believe they have somehow lucked out, when they actually haven’t. There sometimes seems to me that there is a collective state of denial about the fact that wages have been declining for the past thirty years. (It doesn’t help that the decline in labor unions has led to a decline in class consciousness.) The interesting question here is: how long can people deny reality?

Homeland Security and the Politics of Helplessness

May 22, 2013

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A new report from the Center for Media and Democracy documents how this nation’s anti-terrorism police collaborated with businesses to attack the Occupy movement of 2011 to 2012. Alternet reports:

    The report specifically looks at the activities of “fusion centers,” or law enforcement entities created after 9/11 that transform local police forces into counter-terror units in partnership with federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security. The fusion centers devoted a lot of time–to the point of “obsession,” the report notes–to monitoring the Occupy movement, particularly for any “threats” to public safety or health and to whether there were “extremists” involved in the movement.

Those of us who worried that the Department of Homeland Security created after the 9/11 attacks would be used to suppress political dissent have seen our worst fears realized. The government and corporations did everything they could to crush a non-violent movement that spoke people’s anger at the greed of the banks and of Wall Street. The result has the near stifling of any resistance to the corporate agenda.

In such an atmosphere, it is no surprise that people turn to conspiracy theories to explain their problems. Conspiracy theories are the opiate of the politically defeated. Greg Palast’s good buddy Alex Jones – who last month claimed that the Boston Marathon bombings were a “false flag operation” – has suggested that the recent tornado in Oklahoma was the work of a government-owned weather machine. According to Media Matters:

    Following a long tangent, Jones returned to the caller’s subject. While he explained that “natural tornadoes” do exist and that he’s not sure if a government “weather weapon” was involved in the Oklahoma disaster, Jones warned nonetheless that the government “can create and steer groups of tornadoes.”

    According to Jones, this possibility hinges on whether people spotted helicopters and small aircraft “in and around the clouds, spraying and doing things.” He added, “if you saw that, you better bet your bottom dollar they did this, but who knows if they did. You know, that’s the thing, we don’t know.”

The price that we pay for having let Bush and Obama create a police state is a long descent into national infantilism.

Mapping Hate

May 17, 2013

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Students at Humboldt State University have put together a map of racist and homophobic tweets that were made between June 2012 and April 2013. They looked at 150,000 tweets in all. You can find the map here. The map indicates tweets that expresses prejudice against blacks, East Asians, and Latinos, as well as prejudice against gays and disabled people.

Some of the results are not surprising. Most of the hateful tweets come from rural areas, and, yeah, more of them come from the southeastern U.S. than the rest of the country. Yet there are also some things that seem odd. For example, there appears to be hotspots of homophobia in southeastern New Mexico, on the Oregon-Washington border, at the southern end of Lake Tahoe, and in a couple of places in eastern Wasington. On the other hand, there are few homophobic tweets from Mormon Utah, except for a place just outside of Salt Lake City. There are hotspots of anti-black racism just north of Sacramento, California and in Twin Falls, Idaho. And there are hotspots of anti-Chinese sentiment in central Virginia and in a couple of places in Minnesota. It’s possible that these anomalies may be due to a few people obsessively tweeting over and over again. I would like to know more about the methodology that was used in making this map.

One thing we learn is that “queer” appears to be a more popular epithet than “fag”. And “wetback” is popular in a couple of parts of Texas, but almost nowhere else. The map also gives the impression that anti-black racism is much more of a problem than anti-Latino racism.

However, the most striking thing about this map is how there are far more hate tweets from the eastern U.S. than from the western U.S. (with the exception of the anomalies I just mentioned). The rate of hate tweeting drops off sharply from central Kansas westwards. I know for a fact that there are a lot of racists and homophobes here in the West, so why this huge difference? Without knowing more about how this map was made, I can only put forward the following theory. There is a common stereotype that people from the East Coast are ruder and more verbally aggressive than people from the West Coast. I know from personal experience that there is some truth to this stereotype. (I have lived in Boston and in New York, two cities where rudeness is almost a way of life. People in L.A. can be rude sometimes, but it’s nothing at all like New York.) Could the corollary of this be that people in western states are less likely to vent their racism on Twitter than people in eastern states? I wonder.

I have some criticisms of the way this map was made. The students sought to measure prejudice against people with disabilities by counting the number of times people used the work “cripple”. This word is tactless and insensitive, but it is not hate speech. And it might have illuminating if these students had looked for derogatory words about Native Americans, Arabs, Jews, South Asians, and Muslims. As it is, this map only gives a partial portrait of the current state of racism in the U.S.

Immigration

January 30, 2013

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A bipartisan group of Senators has called for legislation that would grant legal status to most of this country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. President Obama has also put forward a proposal for immigration reform. I hope that I’m not being too optimistic in hoping that this signal the beginning of the end to all the fear-mongering on the topic of immigration that has been going on.

Unfortunately, both the Senators’plan and the President’s plan call for “securing” the border. There needs to be a national recognition that the U.S.-Mexican border is a purely artificial construct. It is the result of a war that was regarded even by some people who carred it out as illegal and immoral. This arbitrary boundary has acquired a supra-historical – even mystical – significance in the eyes of many people. Ambitious proposals for building an enormous fence all along the border – tall enough to prevent people from climbing over it, while extending deep into the ground to prevent people from digging under it – have periodically been touted by various people. The border has often been portrayed as the source of all our ills. Stories of people with infectious diseases streaming over the border have been often been spouted by the Right. The Democrats have not always been better in this regard. One of the many low points in John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign came when he suggested that members of Al Quaida were coming across the Mexican border.

The economies of the U.S. and Mexico are deeply intertwined. California’s agribusiness largely depends on undocumented workers from Mexico and from Central America. The drug cartels that have been terrorizing Mexico buy most of their arms from U.S. gun dealers. Yet there are people who talk about Mexico as if it were another planet. This has to change.