My latest Medium.com piece, “It Ain’t Over Yet,” is on America’s ongoing flaming political circus shit show. It’s got paranoia, dystopianism, conspiracy theories, the whole shebang. Hope you give it a read.
As I write this, Donald Trump’s campaign has filed multiple lawsuits in several key states that have been called for Joe Biden, challenging the legitimacy of their vote counting processes.
I have to wonder if the Trump people really believe that any of those lawsuits will affect the election result. We went down this road 20 years ago, during the great Bush v. Gore fiasco of 2000. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a recount of votes in Florida ordered by the state supreme court was to grind to a halt. That played out in George W. Bush’s favor as it allowed the state’s previous certification of him as their presidential winner to stand.
Granted, I’m no legal expert, of course, and I don’t know any of the ins-and-outs of the various suits, but it instinctively seems doubtful that, if any of those lawsuits were to be admitted for hearing by the SCOTUS, or any Federal court for that matter, that they would rule that any of those states must do a recount, or that they would intervene in state counting processes in any other way. I’m wondering if, in one of those ironic little twists of history, the Bush v. Gore decision would hold precedent and this time favor the Democratic nominee rather than the Republican. But who knows?
In any case, it could be that Trump, as befits his wont, is merely shoving his great big middle finger in the ruling establishment’s face one more time on his way out the door. He’s not going quietly into that good night. It may be that he’s just determined to gum up the works as much as possible by casting as many aspersions and doubts as he can on the legitimacy of Biden’s election before he leaves.
And why shouldn’t he? A similar tactic was used against him four years ago, though how it was done to him was far worse by any conceivable viewpoint. His enemies hurled charges of treason at him; they accused him of being a witting tool of a foreign head of state, Vladimir Putin. Putin, we were supposed to believe, somehow rigged the 2016 election in Trump’s favor, in exchange for Trump doing Putin’s bidding (though it was often difficult to keep track of the specific allegations, they were so fluid). After spending nearly two years and $32 million, the best Robert Mueller could come up with was that there may have been, possibly, just perhaps, maybe, a dozen or so instances in which Trump committed every prosecutor’s favorite catch-all crime, “obstruction of justice.” Did Trump commit a crime or not? Mueller chose not to make either claim, which we can safely assume to be due to a lack of any evidence supporting the former.
Then there was the impeachment circus over The Notorious Phone Call. The more you learned about it, however, the more that was revealed of Joe Biden’s bullying–by means of the carrot-and-stick of U.S. foreign aid–of the Ukrainian government into firing a prosecutor because he was investigating an energy company with which his son Hunter was involved. Biden was even caught on tape bragging about this at a public event. He apparently didn’t care who heard it, likely because he was confident that he would face no consequences.
After major media figures had spent years accusing him of treason on national television–the maximum penalty for which is death–perhaps Trump is just kicking a little sand into the faces of his enemies before he stalks off. Who could blame him?
Still, it must be asked, is it really so far-fetched that the Democrats manufactured votes and/or tossed out others in key states? I don’t think so. There are plenty of reports out there that even the most die-hard partisan Democrat has to admit just look fishy. Furthermore, considering that there are people on the Democrat side who have repeatedly stated for the past four years that Donald Trump is the ultimate manifestation of Pure Evil–the literal reincarnation of Adolf Hitler in his pact-with-Stalin phase–isn’t it totally reasonable to conjecture that such people, if given the opportunity, would resort to any means necessary, no matter how illegal, to prevent President Literally Hitler from winning re-election?
Even if there wasn’t any voter fraud at all–and every intelligent person should find that terribly difficult to believe–then the way they handled the counting of the unprecedented number of mail-in votes, plus the absentee ballots, based on what I’m seeing reported, seemed almost designed to invite suspicion and skepticism of the victor’s legitimacy. I would think that to at least start counting the mail-in and absentee votes at the same time as the in-person votes that were cast on election day–all of it 100% observed by a bipartisan (or even tri- or quadrapartisan) group, of course, from beginning to bitter end–would go a long way toward at least making a sudden turning of the tide during the count look a lot less shady. This dropping off votes at 4 a.m. stuff, even if every vote was completely legit, is just “bad optics,” as the kids say. If election authorities insist on retaining the current counting methods indefinitely, then they should be viewed with suspicion.
In any case, the sudden change in Democrat talking-points analysis as the tide turned in Biden’s favor, as the counting progressed in the days following the election, was quite revealing in and of itself. When it looked early on as though Trump may yet squeak his way to another victory, social media was predictably barraged with the typical, boiler-plate laments of the systemically racist specter haunting America, and that possibly the Russians–this time with the possible assistance of the Iranians and the Chinese (pick your favorite foreign bogeyman)–had struck yet again.
But then, lo and behold, whaddya know?! Biden surged ahead in the key state-by-state tallies, and racism and Russians didn’t seem so much of a factor anymore! (I was in deeply blue Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood this past Saturday just after the corporate media declared Biden the winner. There were so many people waving U.S. flags that I thought I had stumbled into a Trump rally. Biden is making America great again, apparently.)
Should we just accept Biden’s victory as indisputable prima facie evidence that those twin evils have finally been vanquished? I mean, how do we know that the Russians and racists didn’t just switch parties in a particularly sneaky and diabolical maneuver? (Look–here’s Richard Spencer endorsing Joe Biden!) I say we have a new round of congressional and independent counsel investigations just to make sure our elections haven’t been “hacked” yet again.
But of course, it just may very well be–as I think is most likely the case–that there were some Democrat shenanigans, and yet it could also still be said at the same time that Trump lost the election fair and square. The Trumpites have to face the fact that their guy’s worst qualities–the self-obsession; the mammoth ego; the lazy refusal to actually prepare himself, study, and follow through; the thin-skinnedness; and, worst of all, his obvious and pathetic yearning to do whatever he thinks it takes to be adored by the masses, most likely torpedoed his re-election chances.
In Trump’s focus on defending himself from the albeit relentless personal attacks by his enemies, he soon lost sight of what got him elected in 2016. He simply lacked the discipline to do otherwise. And it certainly didn’t help that he had surrounded himself with typical GOP establishment hacks. The agenda his administration ended up pursuing turned out to be quite different from the agenda that he ran on in 2016. Those who voted for him back then were expecting some drastic curtailment of unfettered, completely out-of-control immigration, and some kind of action to safeguard America’s obviously struggling working class. They didn’t get much of either.
Instead, the Trump administration got a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill passed, a bill that seemed designed to win over liberal support. Whatever the merits (or demerits) of that bill may be, there was certainly nothing that Trump could do to sway Democrats. They persisted in shrieking that he was literally Hitler regardless. And such a bill wasn’t on his base’s agenda in 2016.
On the foreign policy front, Trump does genuinely deserve credit for not launching one single new long-term military intervention overseas during his term, and for turning down the temperature in U.S.-North Korean relations, at least for a little while.
At the same time, however, he insisted on ramping up Barack Obama’s war in Yemen; he slapped new sanctions on Russia and pulled the U.S. out of the Reagan-negotiated intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty; he backed out of the Iran nuclear agreement and increased severe sanctions on that beleaguered country (which have now escalated even further), and had a high-ranking Iranian military officer drone-assassinated in a needlessly provocative move; he insisted on moving the U.S. government’s Israel embassy to Jerusalem; and he facilitated a new treaty between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, formally consummating a relationship that had already been under way for years.
All of those moves seemed intended to appease the dead-enders of the conventional bipartisasan foreign policy establishment, and, once again, none of those goals were on the wish list of his 2016 base. Their desire to roll back immigration and establish some economic security for the working class were overwhelmingly domestic concerns; they rarely seemed much concerned about foreign policy at all. I honestly believe, however, that they would have cheered a major scaling back of U.S. military commitments around the world, including withdrawals from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, due to their domestic policy preferences. They surely would have welcomed it as an opportunity for the redeployment of resources for domestic goals.
As a result, the populist approach Trump had taken the first time around was almost entirely abandoned, and that no doubt cost him some of his base in certain swing states amidst the record voter turn-out.
Trump’s handling of the covid crisis obviously didn’t help him out, either, but not in the way most Democrats assume. If he had come out firmly against the states’ hysterical, overreactive, and totally irrational lockdowns–most of the first of which were led by Democrat governors–he could have dominated the public debate over that approach. He could even have had the Justice Department file suit in Federal court to force the states to stay open or re-open, citing the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. constitution as their legal basis. To instead play along with the initial hysteria, and only later begin to protest that the country needed to get back to normal, was just so much weak tea. It may have given him the opportunity to play the knight in shining armor riding to the rescue with the stimulus payments to newly impoverished working people and small business owners, but I’m willing to bet that most of those people would have rather kept their jobs and businesses.
So what now? Joe Biden will be sworn in as president of the United States, and that will obviously be followed by a new Era of Good Feelings, during which we will all join hands and sing kumbaya–or at least Biden himself has expressed that he’d like to see as much.
“Let’s give each other a chance,” Biden said in his recent victory speech. “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again. And to make progress we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies.”
My guess is that this entreaty rings very hollow to the Trumpites, and I can’t say that I’d blame them.
If Biden really wants people to stop demonizing one another over politics, he would do well to specifically address the problem within his own base, among whom it’s endemic. For nearly every single day for four straight years, the loudest Democrat cheerleaders took to social media to routinely denounce anyone who voted for Donald Trump as hopelessly stupid, hateful, racist bigots. Expressing vicious, boundless hate towards those people has been the top-ranking political fashion among the “progressive” “liberal” set for the past four years.
Trump voters have consistently been the one demographic in America for whom one could safely express public contempt in the most graphically hateful and vitriolic terms imaginable.
It seems like only yesterday that actor Michael Shannon declared, during the 2016 campaign, that every senior citizen who was planning to vote for Trump should just die already. “[I]f you’re voting for Trump, it’s time for the urn,” the renown character actor colorfully declared. I once met Shannon briefly many years ago, and he seemed a nice enough guy; I doubt he’d remember me now. But we have some mutual acquaintances. I keep forgetting to ask them to convey to him that my father, who had voted for Trump in 2016, died last year at the age of 72, in the midst of his fourth bout with cancer. I imagine that would make Mr. Shannon’s day.
For Democrats to now offer an olive branch to those they’ve relentlessly otherized and demonized for four long years, now that they’re about to be safely re-installed in executive power, must certainly strike any Trumpite as the emptiest and most meaningless gesture imaginable. For even as Biden speaks of wanting people to “listen to each other again,” a glance through Twitter shortly after the media’s announcement of Biden’s victory showed that the contempt had not abated.
And not only mere contempt was expressed. These people want vengeance. Having convinced themselves that they’d been subjugated to the rule of a quasi-Nazi regime for nearly four years, but are now newly liberated by Biden’s declared victory, they are now out to exact retribution from their former oppressors–whom they define as any person who has ever expressed any kind of support for Donald Trump.
But perhaps their real problem is that they have come to recognize, in their heart of hearts, that their recent national victory is merely a pyrrhic one. For after all of the non-stop whining and carping about Trump and his base–the Hitler comparisons, the Russiagate allegations, the claims of endemic bigotry–with about 98% of the news media, the entertainment industry, big tech corporations, and academia–and let’s not forget the FBI and the U.S. intelligence apparatus–all of them egging it on and facilitating it–the historic voter turn-out did not deliver the kind of overwhelming, immediately decisive Biden victory that they had claimed would happen.
Approximately 149 million voters cast presidential ballots in this election, a huge increase in voter turn-out when compared to the 129 million ballots cast four years ago, about a 16% uptick. Biden’s margin of victory in the popular vote was just a little over 3%, and was just a wee bit shy of a solid majority. 66 million ballots were cast for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and 77 million voted for Biden. That 11 million-vote increase is about a 17% improvement for the Democrats.
About 63 million voters cast their ballots for Trump in 2016, and he increased that by about 9 million votes this time around. That’s about a 14% improvement. Not bad for someone who was supposed to be The Most Evil President of Our Lifetime.
Even worse, the Democrats suffered a net loss of 5-6 seats in the U.S. House, and the GOP appears to be holding on to at least a slender majority in the U.S. Senate. The two run-off elections in Georgia may very well flip it in January, but that thin majority would be far more troublesome for the Democrats, as they would still have a very difficult time passing Biden’s agenda. There were almost immediate recriminations among congressional Democrats over the lackluster results in the congressional elections.
(For my Democrat friends: if you should ever be told again to expect a “Blue Wave,” for God’s sake, just ignore it. The disappointment will be just too much for your emotional state.)
Another interesting bit of information: President Hitler actually improved his votes among blacks and hispanics compared to 2016, and he actually lost some white voters.
Those results are just too much for your die-hard Democrat to bear. Trump should have been buried in a landslide, with the Democratic party vastly improving their majority in the House and easily dominating the Senate, considering what truly evil Nazis Trump and the Republicans were supposed to be.
But just as Trumpites have blind spots about their guy, so, too, does our disillusioned Democrat friends have their blind spots as well. They have a hard time even conceiving that Biden’s repeated ominous warnings of a “dark winter” due to covid–i.e., more forced restrictions, lockdowns, and other nanny-state interference with normal civil society, from the Federal level–may have made a lot of people think long and hard before casting their vote, and that they may have concluded that Trump was the better option. Trump, after all, his previous capitulation to the covid hysteria notwithstanding, had made it clear that it’s high time to knock off at least some of this paranoid nonsense about the new virus–which has already wreaked considerable damage in peoples’ lives–and get back to normal.
Further, Biden and the Democrats’ reluctance to condemn the BLM-leftist riots in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis cop earlier this year certainly didn’t help their cause any, either. Who knows how many of Trump’s additional 9 million voters were motivated by a desire to insure that left-liberal rioters and looters would not be rewarded with their choice of presidential candidate?
The end result was that the Trumpites may have lost the election, but 72 million voters is not exactly an insubstantial minority. Though leaderless after January of 2021, they will likely prove to be a massive headache for the Democrats in the 2022 mid-terms, and thereafter.
Now, how does this all wrap up? Here we have the country, sharply divided between two awful, obnoxious political parties whose chances for victory seem to ride almost entirely on whether or not they’re hated a little less than the other side.
Any color-coded electoral map will tell you that “Blue America” is mostly centered in the cities and large towns, the urban centers, with “Red America” encompassing mainly the small town/rural areas. That’s where the focus of one’s attention should be in assessing America’s ongoing political conflict, not just on the White House and the U.S. Congress. For whichever faction controls the urban areas, pretty much controls the states’ electoral votes, with few exceptions. My own adopted hometown of Chicago is one prime example. The city is so overwhelmingly blue that it consistently delivers Illinois into the Democrat column in one presidential election after the other.
Or maybe this country finally needs an amicable divorce, so that all factions can have the freedom to seek out the maximum of their preferred social arrangements. The problem isn’t just the division in the U.S., it’s the ongoing conflict between the divisions, which are caused by fundamental differences in world views–including views of existence itself–that are not likely to be resolved any time soon.
Peaceful co-existence may be the best outcome that we can possibly hope for.
I recently finished watching Marc Smerling’s docuseries A Wilderness of Error on the FX network. This series is based on the book of the same name by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, published in 2012. The book relates the case of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, who was convicted in 1979 of brutally murdering his pregnant wife and two little girls when the family lived on-base at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, one cold and rainy night in February of 1970. MacDonald was a captain in the Green Berets at the time.
It’s an amazing story, in that it’s particularly amazing that anyone has ever believed that MacDonald could possibly be innocent. And yet Federal appeals courts have heard MacDonald’s case in the years since his conviction on several occasions, whenever some supposedly game-changing new evidence came to light. Appeals related to the case have even ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court—-twice. It is in fact the most litigated and longest running criminal case in U.S. history.
But every alleged piece of new evidence that prompted another appeal by MacDonald and his lawyers always related to the same old discredited story that the convicted family annihilator has been peddling from the very beginning: That a band of drugged out hippies forced their way into the townhouse where the MacDonalds were residing and butchered the family as they chanted, “Acid is groovy; kill the pigs.” (That little flourish in MacDonald’s tale would be laughable if not for the immensely tragic circumstances.) Colette MacDonald and little Kristen and Kimberly were all viciously stabbed and beaten multiple times, while the crazed hippies apparently left MacDonald with only a handful of wounds that were mostly superficial, with the sole exception of a neat, sharp puncture in his chest that collapsed one of his lungs.
I have not read the book but from what I understand Morris seemed strongly inclined at the time of its publication to believe that MacDonald is innocent; he seems much more reticent and ambivalent in the new TV series.
One of his best known documentary films is The Thin Blue Line, released in 1988. The film covers the case of Randall Dale Adams, who was convicted of murdering a police officer in Texas and subsequently sentenced to death. In the course of making the film, not only did Morris discover that Adams was innocent, but that the young man who had actually committed the crime testified against Adams at the trial, helping to convict him. The appalling miscarriage of justice makes for a compelling story. Adams was eventually released from prison and spared the electric chair at very near the 11th hour, in large part due to Morris’ film.
But if Morris has been obsessing over the MacDonald case since the early 1990s, as he says he has, then surely it must have dawned on him at some point that Jeffrey MacDonald is no Randall Dale Adams. The only person who has ever ventured to suggest that she could possibly corroborate MacDonald’s story, a very troubled young woman named Helena Stoeckley, proved to be wildly unreliable. Though she had reportedly told several people that she may have been in the MacDonald home that fateful night and witnessed the carnage herself, upon taking the stand during the 1979 trial she denied ever being there, much to the dismay of defense attorney Bernie Segal. (Smerling’s fascinating companion podcast to the series, Morally Indefensible, provides additional background not included in the FX series that casts even more doubt on Stoeckley’s initial claims.)
Since the marauding-band-of-drug-crazed-hippies story consistently falls apart under just a modicum of serious scrutiny, that leaves only one possibility as to who is the guilty party: Dr. MacDonald. It is tragically obvious. That someone as smart and educated as Errol Morris could seriously believe otherwise is a testament to the limits of human intelligence. Intelligence is often compromised by belief, and we are all vulnerable.
My wife and I once attended a talk given by Morris at the Music Box Theater in Chicago about two and a half years ago. He was not promoting a film at the time, but another book, The Ashtray: Or the Man Who Denied Reality. The book is highly critical of the theories of the famous philosopher of science Dr. Thomas Kuhn, under whom Morris had studied for awhile at Princeton University.
At one point in the evening, the discussion turned to politics. Morris informed his audience that he fully expected Donald Trump to launch a nuclear first-strike on North Korea. Granted, this was during the time of Trump’s rabid “fire and fury” tweets aimed at the Hermit Kingdom, but it also happened to play into the absolutely worst assumptions that his blue state audience had regarding Trump. It was a little too simplistic, this mutually reassuring belief Morris and his audience shared that night, and it turned out to be incredibly wrong. Not only was Morris’ morbid and apocalyptic prediction mistaken, but it turned out to be the exact opposite of what Trump actually did, which was to sit down and talk to Kim Jong-Un face-to-face. That approach was a very far cry from slaughtering the people of North Korea with nuclear fire.
But that didn’t matter at all, of course, for the historic summit that occurred, with its signed agreement for more peaceful relations between the two countries, then conveniently served as a yet another example of Trump’s ongoing affection for totalitarian dictators. But at least everyone has reverted back to their typical apathy toward the U.S.-North Korean relationship ever since it slipped back into its usual bellicosity.
However misguided Morris may be in the views that he may (or may no longer) hold regarding the case of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, he at least deserves credit for encouraging his audience to question their assumptions, and to remind them that the truth is usually not so easily gained.
A Wilderness of Error is imminently watchable, suspenseful, and fraught with dramatic tension throughout, and told through the eyes of memorable real-life characters—-some of them tragically so. This kind of soul searching, however, may be put to much better use than speculating on the decades long, overly indulged protestations of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald.
This is quite popular online:
The late American physicist Richard Feynman started his career as a young physicist on the Manhattan Project, the secret U.S. government project to develop the atomic bomb. He would go on to win a Nobel Prize for physics in 1965 for his work in quantum electrodynamics, which he shared with two other physicists. I couldn’t tell you much about quantum electrodynamics, but I know that Feynman also attracted a lot of attention as a member of the U.S. government’s Rogers Commission, which investigated the tragic Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986.
It was Feynman who figured out what went wrong: the rubber “O-rings” that were used to seal the joints of a solid rocket booster failed to expand at or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and the temperature at the time of the shuttle’s launch on Jan. 28th, 1986, was right around 32 degrees F. Due to the O-rings’ failure to expand, gas escaped and turned into flame, heating the fuel tank until it ruptured and released liquid hydrogen into the atmosphere and exploded. Feynman and the commission also found a variety of other problems related to the O-rings.
In his own seperate report appended to the commission’s main report, as well as in media appearances, Feynman criticized NASA officials, who, he said, should have known about the O-rings, but they had ended up fooling themselves. They had not previously suffered any problems with other launches and so, reasoned NASA’s managers, things would continue to be hunky-dory. This blinded them to obvious flaws that had not previously led to disaster thanks only to mere chance.
They really should’ve known better, said Feynman. That nothing had gone wrong before was no excuse for those men of science, whose knowledge should have been their guide.
Those views did not win him many friends in Washington, where the unquestioned expertocracy rules all. No doubt these final words from his addendum to the commission’s report rankled the feathers of a D.C. bureaucrat or two: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
“Nature cannot be fooled,” implying, as emphasized by the bit about public relations, that human beings most certainly can be fooled, including scientists. We are all gullible and naive to some extent, and we all have our blind spots and shortcomings, including those with PhDs in physics who are employed by NASA.
Naturally, when people see the quote at the top of this post, they nod their head in agreement. For they instinctively understand that nobody has all the answers to everything and so there is always room for doubt and skepticism, for some more critical examination of people’s claims and ideas. And doesn’t agreeing with this very sensible insight show everyone just how open-minded you are, how liberal and tolerant you are toward contrasting and dissenting views?
But let’s be honest. A cursory glance across social media on any given day tells you that an overwhelming number of people really believe that it’s only other people’s claims that should be questioned, not their own. There are many, many people who sincerely believe that they really do have it all figured out, and there’s no amount of logic or evidence that could possibly persuade them otherwise.
“It’s all those morons out there who are polluting the world with silly and destructive notions,” goes this mindset, “and fortunately I’m far too intelligent to fall for any of them, and so I’m always prepared to set them right.”
Such people are a little too damn sure of themselves, in my opinion, and unfortunately they seem more numerous than ever. Even worse, they’re a little too intoxicated with their own moral righteousness. There’s no telling how much havoc such people can wreak on the world–indeed, how much havoc such people have already wreaked on the world throughout human history. It’s damn scary.
You can’t convince me otherwise.
So the U.S. senate has voted against calling witnesses and examining evidence in its trial of Donald Trump. It was a bare majority vote, 51-49, as two Republicans, Susan Collins and bland-flavored-cream-of-wheat king Mitt Romney, joined the Democrats. This effectively brings the senate’s trial to a swift conclusion, of course. The senate is scheduled to vote on Trump’s removal from office on Wednesday, Feb. 5th, which will most likely be of a roughly similar result. Since the constitution calls for two-thirds of the senate to vote to convict in order to remove him, even if those figures are hypothetically reversed (and they won’t be), it’s still not enough to kick Trump out of the White House and replace him with every Democrat’s dream choice, Mike Pence.
Damn. I was so hoping for an all-out trial with the witnesses, the cross-examinations, and the evidence provided by both sides. My God, what a glorious shit-show circus it would have been. All the dirty laundry would very possibly have been aired right out in the nation’s collective front yard. Because if Democrats would have been able to call witnesses and cite evidence, they would have had to allow the Republicans to do the same. And the whole scenario is just the type of conflict-rich arena that Trump thrives in. It would have been a brawl. There was even talk of the Democrats and the GOP negotiating to call in Joe and Hunter Biden for testimony in exchange for disgruntled warmonger and ex-Trump employee John Bolton taking the stand.
Oh, what a glorious battle it would have been.
But, of course, it was never going to happen, as everyone with a fully functioning prefrontal cortex had been saying from the very beginning. (As for myself, I’m just a hopeless romantic.) There was no way Mitch McConnell was going to allow such a circus to take place in the senate during a presidential election year.
And so, my friends, the entire two-party establishment has been saved from yet another spectacle of embarrassment.
I have a new piece up at Medium.com wherein I offer my thoughts on the drone-strike assassination of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani and U.S. foreign policy more generally.
I took the fam out to see the new Star Wars flick, The Rise of Skywalker, on New Year’s Eve. I’d been intending to sit down since and write up my own thoughts on this final cinematic chapter of the Skywalker saga, but just never seemed to have the time or motivation. It would basically have been a long rant on what a jumbled, incoherent, pointless mess of a movie it is. And who really wants to spend time writing or reading about that?
I had given this new trilogy the benefit of the doubt for the first two installments, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, for all of their flaws. But Skywalker wraps it all up with just a bunch of laughable MacGuffins that lead to other MacGuffins, unresolved relationships, and nostalgia-cheese that shamelessly exploits, for cheap feelies, the original characters and ideas of the franchise’s creator, whom Disney ironically shut out of their process. Skywalker even inexplicably resurrects the villain that George Lucas definitively killed off in Return of the Jedi.
(Nod to author John C. Wright.)
Spoilers galore are ahead from the recently released ‘Knives Out.’
I recently took the family out to the movies to see Knives Out, the new film directed by Rian Johnson that’s being marketed to audiences as a “whodunnit” mystery-suspense caper. The trailers definitely give you the impression that the story is in the style of Agatha Christie or Clue, sort of cutting it down the middle between the two stylistically in that the comedy is much less broad than it is in Clue.
Come to find out, a whodunnit is not exactly what it is. It starts out that way, to be sure, but even before the story is half way through, the audience is supplied with a major piece of the puzzle, and at that point it becomes much more of a Hitchcockian suspense thriller than a mystery–though there’s still some mystery remaining to be solved, to be sure, as anti-climactic as it is.
Johnson’s first two indy features, the high school noir Brick and the time-travel potboiler Looper, while not flawless, are highly enjoyable and entertaining films worth watching. Disney took notice and tapped him to direct Star Wars: The Last Jedi. A lot of critics have referred to Johnson “subverting expectations” with Knives Out, and putting a new twist on a genre that’s been a bit of a chestnut over the years should be welcomed. And if there’s anyone who should succeed in doing that, it should be the director of Brick and Looper.
However, and call me old fashioned if you like, I’m of the opinion that the plot should make some sense. It should at least be somewhat believable in order for what the director intends to be the “twist”–the intended subversion of the expected, if you will–to be truly satisfying for an audience, rather than, say, an act of cinematic masturbation for the director’s own personal pleasure. The latter is much more the case with Knives Out than the former. And the reason is simply politics.
That’s right: Politics.
Politics is the reason that Knives Out‘s plot stretches credulity to the point where you feel as though Rian Johnson is literally urinating all over your brain. I had a similar sensation when I saw Carrie Fischer flying through space in Last Jedi. Only with Knives Out, it felt as though the urine stream hit my brain even harder, and it never stopped for the entire two hours.
This is where the spoilers come in, so if you’re thinking that you still might want to head over to your nearest cineplex and make up your own mind, now would be the time for you to check out of my little critique. I don’t think I’d be spoiling much for you, however, if you stuck around. Most of what I’m about to divulge you’d probably see coming from a mile away anyways.
But if you leave now determined to go pay full ticket price at your local cineplex, you should know that it’s the film’s star-studded cast that makes it as enjoyable as it is. In my opinion, it’s definitely a streaming-on-a-rainy-Sunday-afternoon kind of flick. Your life wouldn’t exactly suffer for the lack of enrichment in the meantime.
The catalyzing incident of our story is the sudden death of the very successful, very rich, and very old best-selling mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey, played by Christopher Plummer. It appears to be a suicide, and by a very grisly method at that. The morning after a lavish party at his house celebrating his 85th birthday, he’s found in an out-of-the-way room in his massive, labyrinthine gothic mansion, with his throat cut, the bloodied dagger he allegedly used on himself lying nearby.
The local police detectives have made up their minds that it’s an open-and-shut suicide, end of story. But a mysterious private investigator, Benoit Blanc–played by Daniel Craig with a southern drawl that’s not quite as jarring as you’d think it would be–shows up to question the suspects. He eventually reveals that someone has anonymously hired him to look into the case, having left him an envelope stuffed with a thick wad of cash. Thus, it seems, someone suspects foul play.
The suspects consist of Harlan Thrombey’s thoroughly cruddy family: his widowed daughter-in-law (Toni Collette), who Harlan has discovered pilfering money from him under the guise of paying for his granddaughter’s college tuition; his son-in-law (Don Johnson), whose extramarital affair is found out by Harlan, and which Harlan threatens to expose to his daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis); Harlan’s son, Walt (Michael Shannon), who, much to Walt’s dismay, Harlan cuts out of his independent publishing house due to Walt’s incessant badgering that Harlan allow film and TV adaptations of Harlan’s work; and Harlan’s wayward grandson, Ransom (yes, he’s actually named Ransom, played by Chris Evans), who storms out of Harlan’s study in a huff during the party, following a loud and heated verbal altercation.
So–whodunnit? If it really was a homicide, that is, rather than the suicide it appears to be.
As I’ve mentioned above, Johnson tips off the audience fairly early as to what actually happened to Thrombey–or at least most of it: by way of a flashback, we are informed that his nurse, Marta (a dull, thankless role expertly brought to life by Ana de Armas), accidentally overdosed Harlan with morphine when she mistook a vial of the stuff for the regular medication that she usually follows up with a low-dose morphine chaser. She realizes her deadly error when she examines the labels on the vials after administering both medications. And the antidote for the morphine is missing from her nurse’s kit.
And what’s Harlan’s initial reaction? Is it, “What the f**k did you just do to me?” Why no. The film has established that Harlan and Marta have a close, grandfatherly/granddaughterly kind of relationship, so naturally, even Marta’s fatal error doesn’t stir up any anger towards her. Once he realizes that he’ll be dead from the OD by the time paramedics reach his secluded big house out in the country, Harlan decides to spend his last several minutes on this Earth–as his life is supposedly ebbing from his body with each passing moment–concocting an alibi for Marta so that nobody discovers that she accidentally caused his death. Because if anyone discovers that Marta was responsible for Harlan Thrombey’s death, her mother, an undocumented immigrant, would most certainly end up deported, as would Marta and the rest of her family, most likely.
Once Harlan concocts a scheme for Marta to secretly flee the scene of the crime undetected and he sends her on her way with his careful instructions, the old man then proceeds to slice his own throat with the dagger.
“Subverting expectations?” Sure. The immigration politics of the film, integrated into the script in such a clumsy and hamfisted fashion, completely subvert the audience’s expectation of a plot that fits into some sort of logic recognized by other human beings who are not so politically obsessed as Rian Johnson.
But wait, it gets better.
It turns out that Marta didn’t actually kill Harlan after all! Not even on accident. The real culprit, the grandson–the improbably named Ransom (Evans)–in an effort to kill his grandfather and frame Marta for it, swapped the vials of morphine and the other medication with the hope that Marta would end up overdosing Harlan with the morphine. Harlan, you see, has stipulated in his will that his entire estate be left to Marta, leaving nothing at all for his cruddy family. But Marta is such an expert nurse that she reflexively gave Harlan the correct medication after all, and the usual low, safe dosage of morphine, just based on the look of the medicine that was stored in each vial.
I wonder if the following scene will be included in the extended director’s cut:
HARLAN (after having just explained his plan to Marta that will help her sneak out of the house and evade detection, looking a little puzzled): By the way, are you sure you just accidentally gave me a 100mg overdose of morphine?
MARTA (teary and upset): I just happened to look at the labels after I injected you…so yes, I’m quite sure. Again, I’m so sorry!
HARLAN: And you said I have only 8-10 minutes to live?
MARTA: That’s right.
HARLAN: You told me that about, what, 3 or 4 minutes ago, would you say?
MARTA: Yes, I think that’s about right.
HARLAN: So I only have about, what, 5-6 minutes left to live…?
MARTA: Yes! Oh, I’m so sorry!
HARLAN: You know, it’s funny, but…I don’t feel anything yet. No dopiness or wooziness. Nothing at all. Shouldn’t I be feeling some symptoms of the overdose by now…?
(But Marta, overcome with emotion and desperation, has already fled. Harlan shrugs his shoulders, picks up a dagger, lies down on the divan, and slices his own throat.)
The actual murder that occurs in our story, as it turns out, is that of Fran, Harlan’s housekeeper (Edi Patterson). Fran knew of Ransom’s deception with the medication–or rather, attempted deception–and she was trying to give Marta a toxicology report from the medical examiner that showed there was no morphine overdose after all. By this point in the film, Ransom has been befriending Marta and misleading her into thinking that he’s an ally ever since the reading of Harlan’s will. Ransom, it turned out, killed Fran by overdosing her with morphine (or some other such drug).
And it’s Marta who coaxes a confession from Ransom by telling him, following a phone call she takes in Ransom’s presence, from a doctor where Fran is hospitalized, that Fran has actually survived. As soon as Ransom admits to having attacked Fran, Marta lets rip a stream of vomit. I forgot to mention–it’s established early in the film that Marta literally cannot tell a lie without becoming physically ill to the point of throwing up. The lie in this instance was that the phone call she took from the hospital was to inform her that Fran had actually died rather than survived.
It turns out that it was Ransom who secretly hired Blanc to look into the case, apparently with the hope that Blanc would conclude that Marta was responsible for Harlan’s death. There’s no indication that any of the other characters in the film ever suspect Marta, much less Blanc. And it’s clear throughout that the audience isn’t ever expected to, either.
If a director wants to present a political angle in his film, there’s nothing wrong with that. But at least strive for some artistic finesse, please. A second generation daughter of illegal immigrants who cannot tell a lie without becoming violently ill does not make for very believable storytelling, not because we’re supposed to assume that such a person must be dishonest, but because the character approaches a saintliness that matches no real live human being.
And Marta is a dull and boring character. The camera loves Ana de Armas, and her eyes convey multitudes. She is interesting to watch, with absolutely no thanks from Rian Johnson’s lifeless writing, and she rescues her role from terminal lameness.
There are some clever nods to the current political zeitgeist throughout the film. Walt’s teenaged son, who gives the impression of being constantly on Twitter harassing liberals and minorities from his smartphone, is referred to by another character as an “alt-right troll.” “What are you doing on Twitter today, swatting Syrian refugees?” Toni Colette asks him in one scene. And a scene during Harlan’s birthday party in which members of the family square off against each other over Trump and immigration is probably the most believable scene in the entire film.
But the sledgehammer dialogue at the end–good grief. Ransom’s “how-dare-you?” speech in which he rails at Marta for invading his family’s “ancestral home”–did Johnson lift that right off of an alt-right web site?
Don’t piss on my brain and tell me I’m being enlightened.
I have a new piece up at Medium.com offering my own theoretically conspiratorial take on the recent death of multi-millionaire financial guru and alleged teen sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. I speculate in the piece as to what people should really be focusing on in regards to Epstein’s mysterious life, never mind his death.
While poking around the internets during the writing, I came across this piece on the Epstein conspiracy theory mill by the British political commentator Brendan O’Neill of Spiked-Online. In it, O’Neill derides the open discussion of conspiracy theories.
I’ve always liked O’Neill. He is, as I like to say with my tongue in my cheek, one of my favorite commies. He’s one of the small handful of pundits who can actually scribble genuinely critical and logically coherent opinion pieces in this age of emotion-driven, brain-clouded hyperbole. And he’s always been a fearless advocate of completely free and unfettered speech. But I’ll have to respectfully take some issue with him on this one.
He starts off deriding the popular meme circulating through the right-wing web that the Clintons had Epstein murdered. Fair enough. It is indeed a theory entirely lacking in evidence. I make no such claim in my own piece. For what it’s worth, I think Occam’s Razor dictates that the creep did indeed hang himself. He wasn’t murdered by the Clintons or anyone else.
But O’Neill then goes on a rant against the discussion of conspiracy theories in general. My criticism is that he treats all of them equally.
Yes, many, if not most, of the conspiracy theories out there are batshit-crazy. Where did the whole “Clinton body count” meme even come from? So far as I can tell, it originated with the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Clinton Chronicles videos that he peddled on late night TV in the early to mid-1990s. Falwell tosses around all sorts of dark rumors about the Clintons, including accusations that they had various enemies murdered in Arkansas during Bill’s 12-year reign as that state’s governor.
So far as I’ve ever been able to tell, the foundation of Falwell’s rumor mill was laid by the infamous case of the double-murder of the two teenaged “boys on the tracks” in Arkansas during the 1980s. Journalist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard documents a solid circumstantial case in his book The Secret Life of Bill Clinton (terrible title, fascinating read) that the county prosecutor at the time, Dan Harmon, was involved in the boys’ murder and subsequent cover-up. The two murdered boys, Kevin Ives and Don Henry, may have stumbled upon a nighttime drug deal that involved Arkansas state or local law enforcement officers. This occurred during the same time that the infamous CIA operative Barry Seal was trafficking cocaine into the Mena, Arkansas airport as part of the “Iran-Contra” operation. Harmon was eventually arrested for dealing drugs some years later.
Though there’s no evidence to implicate the Clintons in the boys’ murder, Harmon was definitely a connected political player at the time who was jacked into the Clintons’ Arkansas machine. Thus, I suspect, the “Clinton body count” meme was born.
Anyway, everybody knows that the only person the Clintons actually had murdered was Vince Foster.
But I digress. What was I talking about? Oh, right. Conspiracy theories, and how Brendan O’Neill thinks discussing them is bad. They’re bad, says O’Neill, because the people who buy into them deprive themselves and others of agency. They become convinced that everyone is secretly manipulated by dark, sinister forces. They’re anti-democratic because they ultimately pacify people. Why bother organizing for any kind of change if the dark conspiratorial forces always prevail?
Such people as O’Neill singles out for eating up the most absurd nonsense are the most easily duped who will believe almost any hysterical nonsense that Alex Jones shouts into his camera. (Ironically, such people now include, as O’Neill points out, members of the establishment liberal “intelligentsia”, who continue to insist that Vladimir Putin used voodoo social media ads to elect Donald Trump president.)
That doesn’t mean that mature adults can’t entertain the possibility that there really are people–in government, high finance, or otherwise endowed with enormous political privilege–who really do get up to some genuinely shady shit from time to time. Do they “control the world”? Nobody controls the world. But do these aforementioned privileged fucks occasionally get away with fucking over people less politically endowed than themselves? Absolutely.
The killer, though, is that the most sinister conspiracies are carried out right before our eyes: The false pretext for the Iraq War; the false pretext for intervening in Libya; hell, the false pretext for the first Iraq War; the Big Bank bailouts of 2008–the biggest heist carried out in U.S. history–and in broad fucking daylight right on our television sets–are just a few examples of the plots that have been carried out right in front of us in recent years. Most of us are just too duped by the daily propaganda of the usual news outlets to recognize them for what they really are.
And never mind about Jeffrey Epstein’s death–how the hell did he get that secret non-prosecution deal with the feds back in 2008? It’s not unreasonable to speculate that if he had lacked all of his high-flying social and political connections, they would have been more than happy to throw the book at him and make him into the poster boy of the evil denizens from whom they protect us and our daughters on a daily basis–oh what we would do without the ever-vigilant federal agents of law enforcement?!
So, sorry, Brendan, but the rest of us do intend to continue speculating, and to openly discuss our speculation, about what socially and politically powerful people do when nobody’s watching them, or caring enough to hold them accountable. It is sheer speculation, of course. But the difference between speculation about conspiracy theories and the kind of speculation that political commentators such as yourself frequently indulge in is only a difference of degree, not of character.
And it is, in fact, quite democratic in its own way. It’s the way we ordinary folk remind ourselves and one another that as the ruled, we need to watch out for what the rulers are up to. That they may only be interested in serving the public good rather than their own personal gain sounds a little too much like a, well,–wild conspiracy theory.
Scott Horton recently posted an interesting interview with Mark Perry discussing Perry’s recent article at The American Conservative, “1984: The Year America Didn’t Go to War”, and the near-wars with Iran that were narrowly averted. The U.S. and Iran have been tangling for at least 40 years, or rather, 60-plus years if you go all the way back to the CIA-engineered coup against Iranian President Mohammed Mossadegh to have him replaced by the restored Shah, as Horton reminds us. The interview should be listened to and the article should be read.
Perry’s article specifically focuses on the internal debate within the Reagan administration as to how to respond to the bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in October of 1983, which killed 241 Marines. They were deployed as part of a multi-national peacekeeping mission in the midst of Lebanon’s long and bloody civil war. The U.S. concluded that Hezbollah (“the Party of God”)–which was then, as now, an Iranian proxy force–was behind the attack. Then Secretary of State George Schultz demanded retaliation but Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger–who was a veteran of the horrific Battle of Buna during World War II–opposed any U.S. military escalation in the region. Weinberger even went so far as to ignore a direct order from Reagan to launch military strikes on what were believed to be Iranian-connected assets, though he later claimed that he never received any such order. Weinberger, apparently, had been completely opposed to the Marine deployment to Lebanon in the first place, as was his senior military advisor at that time, Colin Powell, a veteran of Vietnam. Weinberger eventually got his way after months of apparently deliberate bureaucratic foot-dragging, with the Marines ultimately restricted to U.S. ships in the Mediterranean.
It’s a surprising and enlightening story that I wasn’t aware of. As Horton and Perry point out, the military leadership in the Pentagon is often far more cautious than the civilian leadership in the State Department when it comes to getting the U.S. into new wars. That has frequently been the case throughout this country’s history.
And that was apparently the case recently when it came time for Trump to decide whether or not to pull the trigger on Iran. The conventional wisdom has it that Trump caught a broadcast by conservative commentator Tucker Carlson denigrating the idea of attacking that country and possibly instigating a whole new war, which supposedly dissuaded Trump from launching any strikes. But Perry reports that it’s far more likely that it was Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff–and who was a commanding officer in the 2003 invasion of Iraq–who convinced Trump not to do it.
In a meeting Gen. Dunford and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had with Trump when he was mulling over possible strikes on Iran, Dunford did what is called “flooding the zone”–“providing volumes of facts and figures that are as likely to delay as inform.” Dunford apparently does that whenever a policy option that he disagrees with has been put on the table, reminiscent of Weinberger’s delay tactics to resist launching attacks in retaliation for the 1983 Marines barracks bombing. And the facts and figures Dunford cited at Trump and Pompeo were apparently not very pretty. Just as Reagan had eventually pulled back the Marines from Beirut, Trump ultimately called off the attack on Iran.
Perry quotes Weinberger as having said, “It is easy to kill people, and that might make some people feel good, but military force must have a purpose, to achieve some end…We never had the fidelity on who perpetrated that horrendous act.”
In one interview some years ago, Perry argued to Weinberger that Reagan’s increasing military budgets would make it far more likely that the U.S. would find itself in the midst of a foreign conflict once again. “You don’t get it,” answered Weinberger. “We’re not buying more guns because we intend to use them, we’re buying more guns so we don’t have to.”
Weinberger should be commended for resisting the pressure to drag America into what would surely have been yet another quagmire of a war, this time in the Middle East, barely a decade after the last Marines and U.S. embassy staff were evacuated from Saigon. His overall attitude toward U.S. military intervention abroad appeared to be that it should be kept to a minimum. If only his successors shared that view, then this country would have been spared a lot of conflict, bloodshed, and expense over the past few decades.
But if Weinberger honestly thought that subsequent U.S. presidents would use the massively built-up military forces that Reagan had bequeathed to them on only very limited small-scale operations, and only when the U.S. was eminently and directly threatened, he was very much in error, as history taught him by the time he passed away in 2006. Reagan’s successors would, in fact, use America’s military might quite liberally and recklessly. Two of them were of Weinberger’s and Reagan’s own party: the George Bushes, Sr. and Jr. George, Sr. would march into Panama based on highly questionable premises within his first year in office, and he would then proceed to contract out the U.S. armed forces on behalf of the sheikhs and emirs of Kuwait and wage war on Iraq.
Bush, Jr., of course, would use the 9/11/01 attacks as not only a pretext to invade and occupy Afghanistan, which continues to drag on eighteen years later, but to continue his father’s war on Iraq as well, overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime, which was followed by a long and bloody occupation. And since then, there have been the interventions in Libya, Syria, and now Yemen, in aid of Saudi Arabia’s chosen side in that poor and beleaguered country’s civil war.
“What’s the the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once famously asked Gen. Colin Powell during the 1990s, as the Clinton administration pondered intervening in the Balkans.