The Stench of Corruption

December 13, 2016


I think it’s possible to make too big of a deal about the revelation that Putin tried to meddle in the presidential contest. I think it should be clear that Russian interference was not the decisive factor in the election, rather the fact that Clinton didn’t run a very good campaign. A better candidate would have beaten Trump regardless of any Russian interference. However, I disagree with some of my leftist friends that this is no big deal. Trump has just appointed the CEO of Exxon, who has no political experience and who has business ties to Russia. I don’t think this is a coincidence. There is more than a whiff of corruption about this. The Trump administration is already set to become the most corrupt administration since Harding’s. And it looks as though Russia is going to play a big role in this.

Two Art Films: ‘The Love Witch’ and ‘Nocturnal Animals’

December 4, 2016


The Love Witch, written and directed by Anna Biller, tells the story of Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a woman who practices witchcraft. She entices men to fall in love with her, and they all end up dying in one way or another. This film reproduces the look and feel of a 1960’s low-budget horror film.

The critics have been awfully kind to this film. It received a 95% “fresh” rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website. (It received only a 66% audience score.) I honestly can’t see why. Yes, the film’s evocation of 1960’s kitsch is amusing – at first. And there are some funny moments. However, there are too many scenes that are pointless and uninteresting. The numerous witch coven scenes are banal and add nothing to the story. Furthermore, the deliberately stilted dialogue makes it impossible to care about any of the characters. The man sitting behind me in the theatre got up and left in the middle of it, and I was tempted to join him. To me, there is something incestuous about this idea that merely imitating an earlier style of film is somehow an achievement.


Nocturnal Animals, written and directed by Tom Ford, is based on a novel by Austin Wright. Susan (Amy Adams) is an art gallery director who is emotionally estranged from her husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer). One day she receives in the mail a manuscript of a novel written by her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). It is dedicated to her. The novel tells a story about a family being attacked by a gang of hoodlums. The film alternates between scenes from the novel and scenes from Susan’s life.

Nocturnal Animals basically consists of a violent story about rape and murder embedded within a muted and unresolved story about a woman going through a mid-life crisis. The fact that Edward would dedicate such a violent novel to his ex-wife is apparently meant to be seen as psychologically significant, but this idea is never developed, because Edward never appears except in flashback scenes from twenty years earlier. Indeed, the lurid story-within-a-story doesn’t illuminate the outer story in any way. (Contrast this with a film like The Clouds of Sils Maria, in which the inner story deepens the outer one.) At times, this film seems to be criticizing the contemporary art scene, although this idea is never really developed either.

The total of Nocturnal Animals is less than the sum of its parts.


November 29, 2016


I’ve been trying to find some sort of silver lining in this election, but I can’t. This election has been a disaster on every level. We will be living with the consequences of this election for decades to come.

Last summer I expressed incredulity at the idea that the Clinton campaign would win the election by appealing to “moderate” Republicans – you know, the same moderate Republicans who failed to stop Trump from getting the nomination. Well, it appears that was actually their strategy. Sen. Chuck Schumer explained the idea: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” Clinton lost Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin. What is odd about Schumer’s argument is that he seems to assume that suburban Republicans are socially liberal. That sure as hell wasn’t true of the suburban Republicans that I grew up with. Such people vote Republican precisely because they are not socially liberal. The notion that they would choose Clinton over Trump was simply delusional.

I’m told that during the final weeks of the election, Bill Clinton vainly urged the campaign to reach out to working class voters – you know, the party’s actual voter base.

One can only shake one’s head.

The Principled Vote

October 31, 2016

Eugene Debs

From time to time, I have heard a quote attributed to Eugene Debs: “I would rather vote for what I want and not get it, than vote for what I don’t want and get it.” Now, Debs happens to be one of my favorite historical figures. I think, however, it should be pointed out here that Debs lived in a political environment very different from our own. Let me give an example of what I’m talking about.

During the 1912 presidential election, there were actually four major candidates: William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Eugene Debs. Of these four candidates, three could be considered progressive (at least in terms of economic issues): Wilson, Roosevelt, and Debs. Now, with the progressive vote split three ways, the conservative incumbent, Taft, still ended up losing the election. He came in third. America really was a different place in those days.

Now we have an election in which one of the major candidates is clearly mentally ill. I can’t be sure what Debs would do in this situation, but I think he would know better than to commit suicide.

In Defense of Cold

September 26, 2016


The following is from a talk I gave on September 8, 2016 at the Write Club in the Bootleg Theatre in Los Angeles, CA.

Cold is not well appreciated. Cold is usually defined as the absence of heat. But can’t we say that the opposite is true? That heat is the absence of cold?

Cold gives us wonderful things. Cold gives us ice cream. Cold gives us popsicles. Cold gives us slurpees. And what does hot give us? Hot gives us sweaty arm pits. Hot gives us rashes. Hot gives us melting polar ice caps. What good is that?

When you travel, go some place cold. Go to Iceland, Greenland, Siberia, Alaska, the Yukon. Some place where you can’t work up a sweat. You won’t need ice cold drinks. You won’t need ice cubes. You won’t need air conditioning. You won’t have to pack sun screen. You won’t have to worry about having a bikini body. My Viking ancestors never had to worry about getting too hot. For them, every day was chill. The Inuit are the most mellow people in the world. And they have to eat whale blubber.

I hate hot. Many years ago, I had a job selling vacuum cleaners door to door. I only lasted two days on this job. The first day, it was hot. I was in Ventura County, which usually doesn’t get that hot, because it’s right next to the ocean, but they were having freakishly hot weather. It was around one hundred degrees. I walked around all day in the hot sun. I didn’t sell any vacuum cleaners. The next day, it was around one hundred degrees. I walked around in the hot sun. But then, we got a lead. You see, I was working as part of a team. Someone had found someone who was willing to watch a free demo of how the vacuum cleaner worked. So the team leader sent me to this house to do the demo. I knocked on the door, and this tall, bald man with a beard answer answered the door. He looked like an old hippy. He led me into the living room. I set up the display stand showing all the parts of the vacuum cleaner, and then I began assembling the cleaner I would use in the demo. As I was doing this, I noticed that there were people going in and out of the house who didn’t seem to be related to one another in any way. This seemed strange to me. Then I noticed that there was this huge pile of books in the living room. It was AA literature. Then it dawned on me: this was a halfway house. They had sent me to sell a really expensive vacuum cleaner in a halfway house. I had to think about what I should do. I didn’t want to make a scene. If I simply left without doing the demo, they might complain to the company, and I didn’t want to get into any trouble. So I decided I would do the demo really quick, and then leave without doing a sales pitch. Cut my losses. So I asked the old hippy guy where he wanted me to do the demo. He led me to a stairwell. It was in an enclosed space, and it led to the second floor. There was carpeting on the stairs, and the carpeting was filthy. Absolutely filthy. It looked as though it hadn’t been cleaned in years, maybe even decades. So I started cleaning this thing. There was no air conditioning in the house. There was no ventilation in the stairwell, no windows in the stairwell. By the time I was halfway done, my clothes were drenched in sweat. I mean, they were sopping wet. And I was wearing a necktie, which my job required. Nobody was paying any attention to me, except for this one guy who gave me a large bottle of warm gatorade. Which was nice. So it turned out that this hippy guy wasn’t interested in the vacuum cleaner at all. He just wanted someone to clean his stairwell for free. So I packed up my stuff and left. Walked around in the hot sun some more. Did not sell any vacuum cleaners that day.

I got home late that night. I took a shower and went to bed. I set my alarm to wake me up the next morning. My body felt hot, even though the night had cooled off. I didn’t sleep. I tossed and turned. I kept thinking the alarm was about to go off. Thoughts were rushing through my head. Crazy, half-formed thoughts. Finally, the alarm really did go off. I turned it off and went back to bed. I didn’t call in sick. Nobody from the company called me to ask what was going on. I spent most of the next two days flat on m back. I had no energy at all. I just felt exhausted. I lay on the floor, because I found it was cooler there. I was staying with my sister at the time. She was out of town. I was glad of that, because I didn’t want her to see me in the condition I was in. When I felt a little stronger, I took a cold bath. I drank cold water. The cold healed my body. The cold made well again.

So, I salute you, Boreas, god of the cold north wind. Bring your snowstorms, your blizzards, your glaciers. I am your obedient servant.


August 19, 2016


Indignation, written and directed by James Schamus, based on a novel by Philip Roth, is the finest film I’ve seen so far this year.

The film takes place during the Korean War. Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), the son of a Jewish butcher in New Jersey, escapes the draft by being accepted into a Christian liberal arts college in Ohio. There he meets Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), who comes from an upper class family in Ohio. The two become romantically involved, but it becomes increasingly clear that Olivia is suffering from psychological problems. (She admits to Marcus that she once tried to kill herself.) At the same time, Marcus has to deal with the college dean, Hawes Caudwell (Tracy Letts), who exhibits a patronizing moralism, while at the same time expressing a creepy curiosity about Marcus’s personal life.

Indignation is an indictment of moral hypocrisy and religious narrow-mindedness. It is an emotionally powerful film with a shattering ending. It was particularly affecting to me, because I was once in a relationship that was similar in some ways to the relationship between Marcus and Olivia. I’m told that the Philip Roth novel on which this film is based is semi-autobiographical. One of the purposes of art is to remind people that we are not alone. Experiences that we may think are odd or inexplicable may well have happened to other people.

Indignation is a great film.

Some Thoughts about the Election

July 31, 2016


Donald Trump now claims that his comment about getting Russia to look for Hillary’s missing e-mails was meant to be sarcastic. I don’t know about that. It didn’t sound like sarcasm at the time. Besides, Trump doesn’t do sarcasm. He does dismissive put-downs and childish insults, but not sarcasm. He deliberately pitches his rhetoric to people who can’t understand sarcasm (let alone irony).

I love these conservatives who are now recoiling in horror at Donald Trump. These people helped create the political base that enabled Trump’s rise to power. We should let them stew in their misery. The Democrats should not reach out to them. It was a mistake having Leon Panetta and Michael Bloomberg speak at the convention.

Contrary to Jeffrey St Clair’s claims in Counterpunch, Sanders did not betray his supporters. He said all along that he would support the party nominee. It’s not his fault if some of his supporters weren’t listening.

The Democrats set a neat little trap for Trump when they had that Muslim couple whose son was killed in Iraq speak at the convention. They expected Trump to say something stupid about this, and the Orange One obliged. Can you say “Pavlov’s dog”?


June 30, 2016


The whole Donald Trump phenomenon has me baffled. I’ve been following Trump’s career since I was young, and he has always struck me as an obvious fraud. One would think that after his first bankruptcy, investors would have been leery of him. Yet he’s never had trouble finding people willing to throw money into his half-baked schemes. P.T. Barnum famously said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Trump seems to have dedicated his life to proving this statement.

There are some on the left who argue that Trump would be a better president than Clinton. They make this argument by quoting Trump selectively. At times, he sounds like an isolationist, and they contrast this to Clinton’s hawkishness. Yet Trump also sounds hawkish at times. (He says he is going to destroy ISIS. Gosh, how do you think he’s going to do that?) He has also expressed a creepy enthusiasm for torture. (“I like waterboarding”, he said.)

Trump embodies everything that is wrong with our culture: the emphasis on style over substance, the inclination towards macho bluster, the worship of hype, the mindless jingoism, and, of course, the racism. He must be defeated.

The Nation Magazine Goes Soft on Trump

May 26, 2016


The Nation recently published an article titled  When Donald Trump Says His Foreign Policy Is ‘America First’—What Exactly Does He Mean?. The article consists of contributions from four different people: Sherle R. Schwenninger, Heather Hurlburt, Stephen Kinzer and Juan Cole. They take turns imagining what Trump’s foreign policy might be like. This is a tall order, considering that Trump’s statements on foreign policy have been vague and contradictory.

However, there is one point on which Trump has always been clear and consistent: he is going to build a wall along the border with Mexico (which is our ally), and he is going to make Mexico pay for it. Gosh, how do you think he is going to do that? This is an important question, yet none of the four contributors to this article even mentions it. (Although Hurlburt indirectly alludes to it.)

So, what do these people talk about? Sherle R. Schwenninger starts off on an optimistic note, by arguing that Trump can simply reverse long-standing US policies towards Russia and Europe and on foreign trade. It apparently doesn’t occur to her that this would put him in opposition to most of the executive branch and both houses of Congress, as well as much of the military. The idea that the president can simply change pre-existing policies with the flick of a switch is the sort of naivete I might expect to hear from a freshman college student, not someone who is director of the World Economic Roundtable at the New America Foundation (which, I’m told, is a non-partisan thinktank).

It is left to Heather Hurlburt to point out the obvious: “The belief that large swaths of humanity are sub-human would inform Trump’s policy decisions.” She points out that in Trump’s view:

    … large swathes of humanity are essentially sub-human. Trump’s many comments reveal disdain for Muslims, Hispanics, poor and middle-class people, women, and the disabled. These are not merely personal prejudices. They would inform his policy decisions.

Ah, but then Stephen Kinzer takes us down the rabbit-hole. He predicts that Trump will form a grand alliance with Russia, Bashar al-Assad (who is pretty much a one-man band at this point), Hezbollah, Iran, and the Kurds, which will “turn the tide” against ISIS. Most of these forces are already fighting ISIS in already fighting ISIS in one way or another (although Russia seems more interested in bombing hospitals in Aleppo), so I don’t see how this would change much. Where Trump would break new ground, though, would be in his approach to Iran:

    It is not difficult to imagine Trump reopening the US embassy in Tehran.
    Buoyed by turning the tide against ISIS, Trump might then look again at Iran. Throughout this campaign, he has denounced the nuclear deal repeatedly, but he has not denigrated Iran itself. Many Iranians would welcome his victory, since they call Hillary Clinton “sanctions lady” and blame her for making their daily lives worse. Unbound by the anti-Iran fanaticism that reverberates in Washington, Trump could recognize Iran as a potential partner in the Middle East, even beyond the fight with ISIS. It is a young, modern society, fully committed to destroying the Sunni terror embodied in ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban. Trump would see that Iran shares our Middle East security interests more fully than some of our so-called friends in the region. It is not difficult to imagine him reopening the US embassy in Tehran, and saying, “We should have done this long ago.”

There is so much confusion and wishful thinking here, it’s hard to know where to start. Kinzer thinks that once in office, Trump, who has displayed nothing but contempt for Muslims, will suddenly decide that the Islamic theocracy in Iran is actually pretty peachy and the Iranian people are just swell and we should be their friends. Yeah, right. I don’t know what Kinzer has been smoking, but I’d like some of it myself, because it seems pretty powerful. I’m told that Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

Juan Cole brings us back to reality, pointing out that most of Trump’s policies would be counter-productive. Yet out of the four people The Nation asked to contribute to this article, two actually take a benign view of Trump. The idea that a racist demagogue would make the world a safer place is so absurd, I don’t see how anyone could take it seriously. The Nation’s readers deserve better than such swill.

What Moderate Republicans?

May 7, 2016


According to Yahoo News, the Clinton campaign is considering ways to woo moderate Republican voters. My question is: what moderate Republican voters? Trump steamrolled the other Republican candidates. The “moderate” Kasich went nowhere. The only candidate who managed to put up any kind of fight against Trump was Ted Cruz, who is on the far right. So, where were all these moderate Republicans? Were they too busy watching Duck Dynasty to go vote? So, Clinton expects these moderate Republicans who didn’t stop Trump to help her stop Trump. Could it be that, outside of a few policy thinktanks, there aren’t many moderate Republicans left? I am old enough to remember a time when there were such things as liberal Republicans. They have gone the way of the dodo bird. Ever since Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”, the Republican Party has been moving ever rightwards. (And this has been true of the Democratic Party since the 1980’s.) There probably aren’t many moderate Republicans left. Most of them have likely become either Indpendents or Libertarians or conservative Democrats.

Earlier this week, the Clinton campaign released a “brutal” ad attacking Trump. It’s all clips of Republicans, most of them the ones that Trump defeated in the primaries, criticizing. Who, exactly, is this ad supposed to appeal to? The Republicans who didn’t vote for these candidates? Democrats and Independents who despise these same politicians?

It doesn’t appear to me that the people in the Clinton camp know what they are doing.