New Medium.com Piece: ‘Reflections on an Era Recently Passed’

I’ve just published a new piece at Medium.com: “Reflections on an Era Recently Passed: The Pandemic Crisis and the 2020 Election.” I discuss two books published last year, on the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2020 election, respectively: A Plague Upon Our House, by Dr. Scott W. Atlas, MD, and Rigged!, by Mollie Hemingway.

This one turned out to be rather lengthy, owing to 1) I’m reviewing two books in the same article, and 2) I am the worst choice to be my editor.

But I think it’s worth your time.

Mitch McConnell Ruins My Fun

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.

Damn it.

Rian Johnson Gets His ‘Knives Out’

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.

Knives Out

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.

Brendan O’Neill Doesn’t Want You to Talk About Conspiracy Theories

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?

Pish. Posh.

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.

A Disappointing ‘Vice’

I finally got around to watching writer-director Adam McKay’s Vice on Amazon Prime. I’d been eagerly anticipating a viewing ever since the first trailer came out but just never had the chance to catch it at the theater. I was overjoyed when my wife and I had a couple of hours to spare for a movie at home and she suggested watching it. And so we watched it.

And what a massive disappointment.

Vice is a rambling, chaotic mess. It can’t seem to decide what kind of story it wants to tell about Dick Cheney. There isn’t anything revealed about him that is particularly surprising or insightful, other than perhaps his wayward youth. (Something he has in common with George W. Bush.) Cheney was apparently something of a ne’er-do-well who lived under constant threat of abandonment by his wife, Lynne. It all changed, at least according to the film, when he went to work as an intern in Washington, D.C., and he happened to hear a welcome speech by a U.S. congressman from Illinois named Donald Rumsfeld. That was when Cheney decided that he was a Republican and wanted to spend the rest of his life in politics.

Some of the episodes of Cheney’s life that the film chooses to delve into seem a bit odd to me. Yes, it goes into the 9/11 attacks and his immediate push to at least partially blame it on Iraq, but it barely touches at all on his time as secretary of Defense under Bush Sr. Cheney was instrumental in pushing the U.S. into war against Iraq the first time as well, and under just as patently false pretenses as those that were offered for the second Iraq war. One of the most egregious humdingers was the claim that classified U.S. intelligence surveillance photos revealed that hundreds of thousands of Saddam’s forces were amassed along the Saudi border. That’s what convinced the Saudis to allow their country to serve as a base for the U.S. and its allies, from which they would launch their “Operation: Desert Storm.” (Osama bin Laden later cited the continued U.S. military presence on Saudi soil after the war’s end as one of his main beefs against America.) No such surveillance imagery has been confirmed to this day. It was simply a lie.

It goes completely unmentioned in McKay’s film, however. Instead, he spends time on Cheney’s efforts, in collaboration with anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, to roll back the estate tax. I don’t know, if I were making a movie about Dick Cheney, I would find Cheney’s manipulating the country into a war far more dramatically compelling than a subplot about tax policy, but maybe that’s just me.

McKay deserves some credit for at least making some attempt to humanize his subject, such as Cheney and his family grappling with his daughter Mary coming out as a lesbian at a time when social acceptance of homosexuals was not nearly as common as it is today, not to mention the political implications for Cheney in light of his conservative constituency. The film depicts him as being rather forward-thinking and unconditionally accepting of Mary as she is, and McKay understandably sees this as one of his subject’s redeeming qualities. But it seems almost tacked onto the film as an afterthought, as though somebody forced McKay to mention at least one thing about Dick Cheney that he found positive.

As far as Christian Bale’s performance is concerned, it looks like he got an Oscar nomination for doing an excellent Dick Cheney impression. 

Any good biographical film should seek to understand its subject, to try to find out what makes him tick, how he sees the world and his place in it. I can’t say that I gleaned anything of the sort from Vice.

“Space Force Are GO!”

The U.S. Space Force concept that has been so embraced and hyped by the Trump administration of late appears to have attracted a strange bedfellow–albeit ambivalently–in celebrity astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse-Tyson:

“Although a segment of the scientific community has been vocally opposed to a Space Force, the sentiment is not universal. Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of Cosmos and an outspoken science advocate, explained to Yahoo Entertainment why the idea of a Space Force shouldn’t immediately be mocked.

………..

“Just because an idea came out of Trump’s mouth does not have to mean it’s crazy,” Tyson cautioned. “A Space Force is an idea that’s been around, actually, for several decades as our space assets have grown. And the assets we, as Americans, have in space is almost incalculable at this point. Not so much the value of the satellites themselves but the value of the commerce that they enable.

“Look at GPS, for example,” he continued. “Hundreds of billions of dollars of industry relies on this now. So as any good military, wisely constructed military would have as its mission, it is to protect your assets. A Space Force is not a crazy idea with regard to that. What would they do? They would protect us from asteroids that might want to render us extinct. I can guarantee you if the dinosaurs had a Space Force, they’d still be here today.”

The whole “U.S. Space Force” concept, which was recently announced by Vice President Mike Pence as possibly being organized by 2020, appears to be far more driven by concerns that Russia and China are advancing more rapidly toward a hypersonic missile than is the United States, than it is by an eagerness to play a real life game of “Asteroids”, even though Russia’s entire economy is but a small fraction of that of the U.S. And for all the breathless media coverage of China’s alleged ambitions for global military conquest, a lot of experts have a far more tempered view that the Chinese are far more interested in simply securing a hegemony over their own immediate region than they are in going head-to-head with the United States, a confrontation that the Chinese would be sure to lose.

But a never-ending parade of hobgoblins must be trotted out, as always, to keep the American public in a perpetual state of paranoia and fear that the United States, the most militarily powerful country on the planet–perhaps even in the entire history of the planet–is in mortal danger of being utterly destroyed in a single blow.

A saving grace of having a president as divisive and widely reviled as Donald Trump is that few fear to mock and heap derision on his administration’s proposal to expand the U.S. war machine into space. However, I have this nagging feeling that all of this mockery and derision is simply #BecauseItsTrump–if it were President Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton pushing the idea, everyone who is now so contemptuous of it would be applauding and cheering it.

I’d like to close by suggesting a slogan with which to adorn the U.S. Space Force logo–as wittily coined by a friend of mine–that I think is far more poetic than Trump’s:

“SPACE FORCE ARE GO!”

Peace May Be Breaking Out in Afghanistan

By way of Justin Raimondo’s latest editorial at Antiwar.com (which I strongly urge you to read, and with an open mind), I’ve come across this latest development in the long and bloody war in Afghanistan, as recently reported by the Washington Post:

A first possible breakthrough in the 17-year Afghan conflict came in June, when a brief cease-fire during a Muslim holiday produced a spontaneous celebration by Afghan troops, civilians and Taliban fighters. The nationwide yearning for peace became palpable.

Now, in a development that could build on that extraordinary moment, a senior American diplomat and Taliban insurgent officials have reportedly held talks for the first time, meeting in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar and agreeing to hold further sessions. According to Taliban officials, they discussed reprising the truce in August.

Officials in Washington have not acknowledged the meeting, but the State Department confirmed that its senior official dealing with the Afghan region, Alice Wells, traveled last week to Doha, the Qatari capital, partly to “commend the government” for its “ongoing support for peace in Afghanistan.” Qatar has long hosted a Taliban political office.

This is quite significant, and hopefully bodes well for an eventual end to the endless war in Afghanistan, which dates back to at least 1978, when the Afghan army, sympathetic to the country’s Marxist party, overthrew the government of Mohammed Daoud Khan and executed his family. Daoud himself had seized power by means of a military coup several years earlier and ended the Afghan monarchy. After a subsequent series of Marxist-Leninist reforms that were despised by much of the country’s traditionally Islamic population, an Islamist uprising ensued, followed by a complicated power struggle. Soviet Russia then eventually moved in to support the country’s struggling government in late 1979, and the country has suffered a long, torturous, tragic series of wars ever since, of which the U.S. intervention that began in October of 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, is but the latest bloody chapter. Now going on 17 years, it’s been the single longest war that the U.S. government has ever prosecuted.

Even though Afhgan President Ashraf Ghani successfully mediated a cease-fire in June at the close of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, outright peace talks have always been elusive. The Taliban has insisted that they will negotiate only with the U.S., contrary to the U.S. government’s prior insistence that any peace talks consist exclusively of the warring Afghan parties. The Taliban makes no bones about who is the real sheriff in that country.  And even the hawkish Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has indicated a willingness to enter into serious talks with the Taliban.

There are no guarantees, of course, but this latest development seems a promising sign. It seems unlikely that the U.S. would accept any peace agreement that didn’t include at least some American military presence in the country, and whether that would ever be acceptable to the Taliban remains to be seen.

But let’s hope that we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The Universe According to Thanos

If you’re a fan of the superhero comic book genre of cinema, then you should run as fast as you can, not merely walk, to the latest installment of the Marvel Comics franchise, The Avengers: Infinity War. If these loud, action-packed movies are not your cup of tea, then you should probably take a pass. But if you don’t care what the film snobs think and you enjoy them immensely, then go for it. You’ll be glad you did. The directing brothers Anthony and Joseph Russo have pulled off no small feat here. While the movie is not without its flaws, they successfully juggled a long parade of characters and intertwining plot lines to pull off one highly entertaining thrill ride of a flick.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

At the center of this movie–it is in fact, his story, told mostly from his perspective–is its formidable villain, Thanos. Thanos is a “titan,” or he’s from Titan–I forget which. He is a mighty big badass, but he fancies himself a thinking badass. He has reached the conclusion that the universe is out of balance, which is to say it’s becoming much too populous. He’s certain that he sees the future, and that future consists of many worlds becoming so crowded that their inhabitants are on the verge of overconsuming precious scarce resources, causing much famine, suffering, and misery. He seeks out the complete set of magical “infinity stones” that, once collected in full by his big fisted metal gauntlet, will grant him immense power to do whatever the hell he wants–so he wants to  wipe out half the population of the universe in order to avoid all that suffering and death and misery. It’s kind of funny, though–in the peculiar sense, anyways–that he doesn’t think to use those magic rocks to create a superabundance of resources on all the worlds whose populations he seeks to halve, so that the halving wouldn’t be so necessary. Thanos seems a bit too eager to employ genocide as a solution.

Thanos’ zero-sum theory of humanity isn’t just a comic book trope, however. It is widely shared by people who actually have some influence on public policy, as frightening as that sounds.

Thanos’ rather stark and brutal perspective is somewhat reminiscent of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, the 18th century English economist. While the majority of middle-class Europeans rejoiced at the terrific gains being made at the time by the proliferation of new technology that brought on the Industrial Revolution, Malthus preferred to rain all over their prosperity parade with a lot of gloom-and-doom predictions. He claimed that all that newly created wealth was merely subsidizing the increased reproduction of the poor, who would eventually become so numerous that they would be confronted with famine and disease, what has since become known in the popular usage as a “Malthusian trap.” Such crises would inevitably kill off a great many people, thus regressing society back to the preceding economic state.

“It is an evident truth that, whatever may be the rate of increase in the means of subsistence, the increase of population must be limited by it, at least after the food has once been divided into the smallest shares that will support life,” wrote the rather grim and pessimistic Malthus in his Essay on the Principle of Population. “All the children born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to this level, must necessarily perish, unless room be made for them by the deaths of grown persons.”

Malthus supplied absolutely no evidence for his stark thesis; he simply stated it as a given fact. But his theory was spectacularly wrong. Contrary to what it implied, the food supply at any given time isn’t fixed. The more people come into existence, the more people do continue, thank goodness, to develop methods for increasing the available sustenance as the population grows. The entire population of Europe was approximately 127 million in 1700. It steadily increased to 224 million by 1820 when Malthus was in his mid-fifties, and then eventually reached 498 million by 1913. And yet the massive crises of starvation and want that Malthus predicted never came to pass. Europe’s biggest disasters occurred during the first half of the 20th century, and they were caused not by overpopulation, but by blundering statesmen who condemned the continent to two horrific wars that slaughtered millions.

Indeed, paleoanthropologists estimate that there was all of 10,000-30,000 homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago, and everything we know about human life in that period indicates that it was pretty nasty, brutish, and short. The “Toba catastrophe,” a massive volcanic eruption that occurred in Indonesia about 70,000 years ago, is believed to have caused a “population bottleneck,” that is, a sudden and sharp reduction in the human population to as few as 1,000 -10,000 people. Today, there are billions of people walking the planet. By Malthus’ logic, we should never have become so numerous and prosperous at the same time. Living standards and quality of life today are not worse than they were during the paleolithic era, but far, far better. Malthus had it exactly backwards.

His skewed theory that a growing population inevitably meant greater scarcity of food and resources led him and those who believed in his expertise on the matter to some deeply flawed preferences in public policy. He was intensely supportive of England’s Corn Laws, for example, which imposed steep tariffs on imported grain. His reasoning was that this would incentivize greater self-sufficiency for food in England at a time when other countries taxed their own grain exports whenever they experienced economic hardship. But the increased food prices caused by the Corn Laws simply ended up increasing the wealth of England’s landowners at the expense of everyone else. The higher food prices imposed on the general population reduced their ability to purchase manufactured goods, thus hampering the country’s industry. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in economics to understand how much the increased prices of food and other goods, along with the reduction in employment opportunities, arrested the living standards of anyone who wasn’t an aristocrat.

But the Malthusian delusion persists–among highly learned scholars, no less–no matter how many times it’s discredited by both logic and experience.

The American biologist Paul Ehrlich provides one example of the stubborn persistence of this thesis. In his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, Ehrlich predicted that due to the growing population, the 1970s would be a decade of mass starvation, misery, and death…hundreds of millions would perish as the result of food shortages, stated Ehrlich.

Obviously, this had not come to pass. (At one point in 1980, Ehrlich even predicted that England would cease to exist by the year 2000.) Some famines had occurred subsequent to Ehrlich’s predictions, such as Ethiopia’s catastrophic famine of the early 1980s, but they were the result of deeply misguided government policies that prevented the populations of those countries from accessing food supplies when they needed them most, not global overpopulation.

Of course, that’s not to say that there’s an eternally guaranteed progression of advancing technology and growing prosperity. If one were to chart the evolution of man’s quality of life throughout the ages on a graph, the line would look like more like a zig-zag, sometimes inclining upwards, at other times declining downwards, and then back up again, down yet again, and so forth.

It’s knowledge and what man does with it that is the real determining factor of progress or regression, not population growth. It’s certainly true that it’s not necessarily a given that human knowledge will always advance to the overall improvement of living conditions indefinitely, but it’s been pretty much on a roll for quite awhile now.

Incredibly, Ehrlich’s erroneous prophecies of mass starvation hasn’t kept academia and policy makers from falling into the Malthusian trap any more than Malthus’ own errors have. The British journalist Brendan O’Neill has been tracking this trend among the world’s intelligentsia for some years now. In this 2012 piece he reports that at that year’s UN Rio+20 Earth summit, over a hundred venerable institutions, including England’s own Royal Society, chillingly urged those in power throughout the world to look past “ethical sensitivities” and “confront rising global population.”

I’m not quite sure what they meant by that, but something tells me that the rest of us should make sure they don’t get their hands on any infinity stones.