Alienating Centrists

Last week, I took a political profile quiz to determine which camp I belonged in. Somewhat to my surprise, I was labelled a liberal with ideologies not so dissimilar from Gandhi’s. Strange, I thought, I’m far too stubborn and curmudgeonly for that kinda stuff. The quiz, for all its comprehensiveness in the issues addressed (and actual issues at that too, such as health care and education) was flawed though. Firstly, it was based on the rather limiting agree/disagree dichotomy (with the somewhat unnecessary “strongly” accords), which doesn’t pave way for much nuance. Secondly, it failed to grasp the actual tone of liberalism/conservatism so rampant in today’s media and social landscape.

I consider myself a liberal of a vague and tepid persuasion; sometimes a centrist for kicks (though on a couple of occasions, people have charged that that’s what conservatives always say???). I believe in universal health care, a good measure of gun control, tackling climate change with the utmost expense, free speech, and equal rights. In fact, I think most Republican measures in the last thirty or so years have been reprehensible and guided by mostly terrible leaders. With that said, I admire President George H.W. Bush a lot, I think a balanced budget is important, and in certain cases, Democrats do over-legislate (e.g. in 2017, there was a proposed law to fit alarms into cars to prevent children being left in hot conditions; this is really a parent’s responsibility in my opinion). These are to many, minor concessions; an olive branch of a feeble sort to the other side. Increasingly however, these considerations have become all the more necessary, if toxic.

It’d be foolish to fully comply with the notion that you can’t be a Republican who believes in gay marriage or that you can’t be a liberal who wants to protect the 2nd Amendment. For one, it’s inherently stupid and two, you’d always find some smart-ass commentator picking a part your language specifically. But at its essence, I think most people are finding a conversation between both sides increasingly frustrating and pointless. Conservatives think liberals promote a decaying state of morality whereas liberals think conservatives promote every kind of prejudice with every sentence they utter, etc, etc. To a degree, we’ve come to expect this from the GOP with their arsenal of attack ads, in play since the Reagan era. What’s so disappointing is how bad the left has gotten in recent years.

What do I mean by this? I mean the manner in which certain peoples’ opinions are smeared across every edifice of our culture. We can’t watch the new Joker movie without some question mark wavering over whether it’ll inspire alienated white men to grab up arms. We can’t cast a new film or TV show without accounting for a strict diversity quota. We can’t watch old films without a moment of silence for the lack of wokeness at play. We’re told to hold certain opinions over certain matters because they’re politically correct, before examining whether they’re intellectually sound (indeed, reports have shown conservative students reluctant to speak out in their liberal universities). And if you disagree and think, Caitlyn Jenner’s not a hero or that female-reboot of Ghostbusters was lazy pandering, the chances are you’ll be called a trans-phobic or sexist individual by someone in the comments section, no matter what the argument.

This is by no means a rallying call to be politically incorrect for the sake of it or rude or sexist/racist/transphobic, etc. I’m not trying to provoke anyone in saying these things. For the most part, these liberals have admirable intentions. The problem is, in their plea for open-mindedness, they fail to open their own to the possibility of reproach; because racism is so entrenched in society and so historically destructive, they aim to stamp out anything even approaching intolerance. But it’s not that easy and it’s not that clever because when you try and enforce your values on somebody, no matter how sensible or decent they are, you push them away. Calling someone an idiot does not make them change their mind, it only paints you in a negative light. You want to get Trump re-elected in 2020? Start promoting the most pious and patronizing Democrat available.

The Democrats have the right ideas and a good chance of winning in 2020. Let’s not squander that opportunity by alienating centrists or soft right-wingers who don’t agree with us on everything or perhaps liked an off-color joke back in 2004. Let’s get back to focusing on the important issues which should define our political persuasion, as in that quiz, and not the petty minutiae of woke culture. It seems a redundant statement but people aren’t good or bad, left or right, liberal or conservative. They’re a blend of various factors and while I personally thought The Last Jedi was the worst Star Wars made, that does not mean I hate women in power (#warren2020).

On Rotten Tomatoes

On Rotten Tomatoes

There’s something rotten about Rotten Tomatoes. The film review aggregate has dominated the face of recent film criticism with an air of unwarranted legitimacy that needs challenging. Why? Because a) it’s reducing complex opinions down to simple yes’s and no’s and b) it may not even be doing so without some front or agenda on the part of its so-called “top critics”.

First and foremost, let’s be clear because I don’t think a lot of people know this. A movie with a 90% score does not indicate an A-grade consensus on the part of its critics. It means 90% of the certified critics eligible to be granted inclusion gave it a positive review of 60% or more (3 stars plus); therein deeming it “Fresh”. This, in turn, means you can make a pretty decent movie and get close to 100% without making anything particularly phenomenal, especially so, if you touch on the hot issues of the today which critics lap up greedily. Thus, you can market it with its score which so many producers have taken notice of recently.

But wait? Isn’t it just a case that if you make a bad movie, the people will then know about it and if you make a good one, albeit without much budget, you can build a prospective audience? There’s no denying RT has its advantages and for the most part, I’d say even the critics’ scores align with my own (even though the metric, as stated above, is sometimes misunderstood). Art, however, is not so easily digested and that’s where the problem lies; in the simplification and homogenization of such criticism.

For instance, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (2017) was given an F grade on CinemaScore, affecting its box-office performance on release. While it’d eventually climb to 69% on RT, the damage was done because of reports of audience members walking out, perturbed by the uncomfortable imagery of the movie. The director intended it to be a challenge. Anyone, with any sensibility, could tell this was something different and yet, a broad picture was painted before it was given a proper chance. Martin Scorsese, in a 2018 op-ed for the Hollywood Reporter, lamented the rise of this form of criticism, writing that “[they] rate a picture the way you’d rate a horse at the racetrack… They have everything to do with the movie business and absolutely nothing to do with either the creation or the intelligent viewing of the film.” We should always pay heed to Martin Scorsese. He’s a proper director. And he has a good point too. There was a rush to judgment on a movie that needed a bit more time for reflection. Has anyone else’s opinion of a movie they’ve seen changed over the course of a week, a month, or even a year?

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Of course, film criticism cannot be wholly objective. Meryl Streep had a good point when noting the disproportionate representation of male opinions clouding viewership of her film Suffragette (directed primarily at a female market). There are other cases too where certain markets are targeted; where broad critical praise is not mandated. That’s where RT audience score comes in and where the gulf between snobbery and entertainment value becomes apparent.

I refer now to Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix special, Sticks and Stones, a title reference completely lost on the 12 critics who gave it 25% on RT. The problem, they saw, was in its “nastiness” and its mean-spirited treatment of the Michael Jackson accusers, “cancel” culture, equality, and the LGBT community. They weren’t happy because it wasn’t “woke” enough and although Dave Chappelle is a comedian, tackling controversial subjects, they couldn’t appreciate the comic value of it. Does that make me narrow-minded like him? Well, the 25,000+ audience reviewers who certified it 99% Fresh on the Audience meter would disagree.

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This led me to reconsider whether the “haters” of years gone by had a point in saying Marvel gets a degree of favoritism from critics that the DCEU crowd do not. Then, I remembered how bad Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad, and Justice League were and I thought, okay… no, the critics were right on those ones. A part of me suspects though that they are afraid to criticize the Marvel movies. Like Captain Marvel, that’s a pretty meh affair all in all and yet 78% of critics gave it a “Fresh” score (against 54% audience). Are they afraid to criticize it, I wonder, because it’s a female-led superhero movie, which is something we feel we should be encouraging as a society? Similarly, there’s a bit of a contrast in the 69% vs. 45% critic-to-audience dichotomy of Ocean’s 8 and 74% vs. 50% of Ghostbusters (2016 female reboot). Maybe the critics are just more progressively-minded than the audience reviewers (who are a majority male).

We can find ourselves in complex and controversial territory here, considering the male-majority influence on criticism in both aisles and to that end, there may be no solid conclusion. In recent years however, I have noticed an increasing trend in reviews focusing on the subject matter rather than the entertainment value of a film however. For example, with Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, most the reviews I read started with an essay on the depiction of Bruce Lee (5 minutes of a nearly 3 hour long movie) or lack of lines given to Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate or the explicit use of violence, as if to dictate what they felt should be the movie. Similarly, this year’s best picture winner, Green Book, was widely evaluated for whether it was culturally appropriate or revised enough for today (despite being set in the 60s).

It’s not a case that these critics are stupid or ignorant of good art. They just seem to be afraid to speak their mind at times, wary of a social media audience that will tackle them on each and every transgression less they commit the crime of not acknowledging how great and inclusive some recent films have been. For all this clambering, the lack of authenticity is becoming crystal clear to audiences though. You can tell someone what they should like all day long but in the end, nobody’s going to stop loving Love Actually because the Prime Minister gets with his PA or The Breakfast Club because Judd Nelson chases Molly Ringwald around or Psycho because its treatment of the mentally-ill is problematic. 

On Talk Shows

On Talk Shows

At the Washington Walrus, we usually focus on politics and the more immediate issues concerning government. Every now and then however, we like to dip our toes in the murky waters of culture and entertainment; in this particular case, one of the more shallow bodies of such water.

It’s not that I dislike talk shows (or chat shows) or their hosts. It’s not that I even bemoan the format, rather what it’s been reduced to in this day and age. You see, there was a time when these shows didn’t desperately grasp for whatever little nugget of attention was left out there, lost in the cracks of YouTube and Prime and Netflix. There was a time when actual proper conversation was involved, unburdened by pre-rehearsed garbage and bit jokes resulting in a pie in the face. There was a time when it wasn’t all so juvenile and pandering, when Americans tuned in for a bit of humor, yes, but also out of genuine interest.

Johnny Carson was of course, the “King of Late Night”. He hosted the Tonight Show from 1962 to 1992 and became an icon in the American world of entertainment. If you wanted a movie plugged, you wanted his show. If you were looking to get your big break as a comedian and possibly bag a sitcom, you hoped to impress Carson himself. Even politicians like Ronald Reagan found their way onto the couch, though Carson, himself, never declared any political allegiance (a far cry from the suitors of today). By the end of his tenure, he garnered north of 10 million viewers a night on average, which is over three times what Colbert did in 2018. He had the business at his command in many respects and he did it with great timing and affability, that never gave way to piousness or crude frivolity. He had the numbers and the respect of the masses.

So what went wrong? Carson may have dominated the late night sphere for the longest time but he was not the only talk show host out there. Day-time hosts like Oprah, of course, made more than a splash in the 1980s and in the decade before, Dick Cavett interviewed some of the world’s biggest stars and directors, including Orson Welles. But just as the news networks began to multiply, so did the demand for content in the talk show format. You didn’t need 10 million viewers every to become a success. You could be a Leno or Letterman fan or after that, someone who watched Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, or a splash of all. Some unique talents came about in the 1990s and 2000s who just wouldn’t have had a shot before like Bill Maher, Conan O’ Brien, and Craig Ferguson. For awhile, it all worked out quite well… before TV began to matter less and less.

Jimmy Fallon may not have been the first to recognize the value of “viral bits” spreading across social media and YouTube but he was the most diligent host in the late 2000s and early 2010s to capitalize on this trend. His show, today, barely resembles a chat show at all because of this, successful though he may be. And like him, Jimmy Kimmel, James Corden, and others have become increasingly reliant on bits like “Carpool Karaoke”, “Mean Tweets”, etc. for gaining viewership/followers/subscribers.

It’s a different market in many ways and not one without its plaudits. Some of these bits are funny. I enjoy watching the Matt Damon-Jimmy Kimmel feud. I like the odd “Wheel of Musical Impressions”. I may even have chuckled at one or two Corden sketches (the Shape of Water one, though I felt pretty guilty afterwards… cause it’s Corden.) The problem (okay, not a real problem) however is that most these bits are desperate and stupid and bringing what could be an interesting format right down to the bottom of the barrel. When actual conversation is conducted too, it’s painfully rehearsed, concerned with the most trivial schlep (did you actually eat a pizza at the Oscars???) and disingenuous/cringe-worthy ass-kissing to the point that I contort and fold in on myself, much like the Witch King of Angmar’s death in Return of the King. Especially with Fallon and Corden. Especially with Corden to further that bracket.

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Why do I dislike Corden the most of these hosts? To surmise briefly, he’s everywhere. He hosts the Late Late Show four nights a week, does A League of Their Own in the UK, and still manages to dress up as creepy cat for the upcoming movie Cats. His laugh is also annoyingly fake.

I also agree with the mega-chinned Jay Leno who believes too many hosts are “one-sided” nowadays. In 1993, when Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher aired, the host opining their political persuasion was pretty different and bold. Today however, every dumb comedian with a desk goes for the low-hanging fruit that is Donald Trump with the result being sheer weariness among viewers and a decrease in general intellect. Undoubtedly, we inhabit a far more outrageous political climate than any in recent memory but is there anything to be gained in the preaching-to-the-choir mantra of Stephen Colbert or Seth Meyers? It all seems so trite and easy for such clever comedians. If that wasn’t enough too, even the likes of Fallon, Kimmel, and Corden are going after the president despite their complete lack of political “wokeness” five years ago. It’s not challenging and it’s not funny anymore. Part of me even suspects it tilts those on the fence in a rightward direction, just as that “Fight Song” (for Hillary) did in 2016… sigh…

Today, people are looking elsewhere for a decent interview, on the radio with Howard Stern or on podcasts with the likes of Joe Rogan (though everything leads back to MMA with him). The decline of the chat show is hardly a crisis, given all the other actual crises we face today, but it is something which sheds a rather depressing light on our cultural mindset today. Our attentiveness is shorter than ever. We need jokes and we need them now. Celebrities are awesome. You were hoping to hear about Tom Cruise’s filmography? Well, too bad cause his dog did something crazy! I know you’re running for president but what is your favorite flavor of ice cream? Is it strawberry? How did Trump’s latest foreign visit affect the premise of the new Pitch Perfect movie… etc.

We can do better than this. We can plug a movie or album and have an actual conversation with a celebrity without forcing them to play hop-scotch. Call me a crazy optimist but if general broadcasting’s going to die in the face of streaming services like Netflix, at least do it with some dignity and not on all fours in a ball pit with James Corden.

 

 

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Can Democrats Win On Gun Control?

“Thoughts and prayers” has become synonymous with inaction and insensitivity in America today. With the advent of yet another cycle of half-clout wills and hollow debate in the wake of the El Paso and Dayton shootings, people skipped ahead to the numb realization that no, nothing would be done and what was worse, their president couldn’t even pretend to consider this issue seriously, much less get the names of the places right.

At least one president had some constructive advice to lend however. Bill Clinton called for the reinstatement of the 1994 “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act”, which lasted for a decade before its failure to be renewed. This bill has been reassessed a great deal lately, since Sandy Hook in 2012, as at least a partial means to assailing the sales and production of assault weapons which do the bulk of damage in these massacres. Citing a 2015 study by Everytown for Gun Safety, Clinton pointed out that 155% more people were shot and 47% more killed in shootings that involved assault weapons. The Dayton killer, himself, fired 41 bullets in 30 seconds. It would seem common sense to most that time is of essence in these attacks and that police response measured against the type of weapons being used calls for some restrictions.

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Bill Clinton signing the act which came into effect before the midterms of 1994 and was said to have cost some supporting Democrats their seats.

Even that matter can’t be closed so easily however because the 1994 bill wasn’t perfect enough: only 18 types of assault weapons were listed under it; Columbine occurred in this era; there were loopholes; people couldn’t quite figure out what defined an “assault” weapon, etc. So was it prone to a system bent on ignoring it; a nation not willing to give up its guns under the banner of that richly invested 2nd amendment? Or was it possibly too mild to inspire anything effective to begin with?

The solution’s not easy and Democrats are fighting for the soul of their country in many avenues. If they felt too meek in 2004, another election year in which the act expired (even though 2/3 Americans supported it), do they really have the guts to stand up to the gun lobbyists in 2020 when so much else is at stake? Like it or not, politics will undoubtedly be at play on this issue.

The funny thing is (in the least funny way imaginable) that the people are on the side of the Democrats. In A Quinnipiac poll in 2018, it was found that 67% of Americans (including 53% of gun owners) favored at least some partial ban of assault weaponry sales. Time and time again, Gallup has also shown a majority backing stricter laws too. There are naturally fluctuations to the specified questions but what’s more interesting and crucial and ultimately sad is that the peaks of support follow crises like Parkland (67% for stricter laws- Gallup) before dropping a few months later (to 61%). People forget too quickly. Why? It’s difficult to determine but political lobbying undoubtedly plays a key role.

The NRA, founded in 1871, has a history of questionable spending. In 2008, they spent $10 million against Obama alone. In 2016, they spent over $400 million on various political activities. They hold a lot of sway and they pick their targets well. In 2012, for example, 88% of Republicans and 11% of Democrats in Congress were found to have received an NRA PAC contribution at some point in their career. Taking that into account, it’s hard to imagine the Republican controlled Senate wanting to do anything. They’re bought out.

Of course, some Democrats have become emboldened in an increasingly liberal party. Joe Biden has proposed a national buy-back program, which echoes Australia’s 1996 plan (although they had 600,000 guns bought up, whereas in America, there’s over 200 million on the market). Cory Booker has a plan for federal licensing. Elizabeth Warren has a more comprehensive plan, which would aim through executive action and legislation, to reduce gun deaths by 80%. This seems optimistic but with incentives like raising taxes from 10% to 30% on guns and 11% to 50% on ammunition and a $100m research into gun violence, she has at least conveyed some specificity.

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Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren

With the increased polarity of the Democratic party itself between the new “woke” liberals and moderate dinosaurs like Joe Biden, I think it should be remembered that compromise isn’t always a dirty word. Yes, it would be a moral failing of the umpteenth degree to not get as progressive a ban passed as possible but what’s more important is that something needs to be passed to get the ball rolling. The 1994 Act could be a great stepping stone; one which could be built on by eliminating the old loopholes, expanding on the number of weapons banned, and incorporating some level of taxes, even if not as much as Warren’s.

The issue of gun violence will not be resolved so simply of course. It’s embedded into the fabric of America across many lines, including the normalization of White Supremacy and racial hatred under the Trump administration. A modest proposal of sorts could lessen the impact of these attacks, as Bill Clinton noted, even if it doesn’t decrease the number of them. Naturally too, you might consider the obvious solution of reaping the rewards of a possible Democratic majority in 2020 by going as far as possible with gun control but then there would also be the possibility of a major pushback if the Republicans gained back control. Compromise, of a kind, is best built on both party’s shoulders. It’s a more stable, if less desirable, foundation.

The Awkward Joe Biden

The Awkward Joe Biden

There are nearly 20 declared Democratic candidates for next year’s election and yet one key figure remains aloof and undecided. Yes, hanging out there, somewhere in the horizon with a winning smile but a shadow cast in a question mark is none other than Joe Biden. You know him best as Obama’s other half but he’s also served in the past as a Senator for 36 years with a host of positions including Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He’s got the best experience of any of these Democratic hopefuls, charisma, and something most politicians lack; a genuine personality. So why not declare? Well, let’s get straight to the first and most pertinent stumbling block and fair warning, it’s a touchy subject…. okay, sorry.

Joe Biden’s been caught in a whirlwind of controversy this last week over a number of women claiming his “personal touch” to be a little invasive and inappropriate. This is by no means an explosive or recent discovery. In the past, many commentators and comedians like Jon Stewart have squirmed at Biden’s holding of shoulders, heads, and hugs for prolonged periods. It’s never been described as sexual harassment as such but rather just uncomfortable and strange. In the context of the #metoo era, perceptions have of course shifted however and Biden is now being asked to account for these instances.

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In a statement last Wednesday, he explained that any handshakes or hugs were always given as marks of “affection, support, and comfort”. He said he was not sorry for his “intentions” but acknowledged that “social norms are changing” while promising to be “more mindful” in the future. On Friday however, at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Construction Conference, after hugging the IBEW president, he joked that “he had permission” and then later made the same joke when others joined him on stage. (A bit sloppy, yes.) Well naturally, some people took this in jest and others with more affront, such as Tarana Burke (founder of #metoo movement) who said the jokes were “disrespectful and inexcusable” and that it was not enough for him to be “mindful,” he needed to make an effort to apologize properly.

Is this an overreaction? Part of me wants to say yes and defend Biden outright. After all, sensationalism in today’s media is driven by headlines rather than analysis. Most people who catch a whiff of these headlines, I hope, would delve deeper and read a bit into it. But words like “allegations,” “accusations”, and so forth have such a weight to them now that I fear Biden will be dragged into the company of far worse offenders. He certainly did himself no favors with his jokes but he did, at least, respond and yes, I do think “intentions” matter. I don’t think most people honestly consider this man to be a true creep like say, the President of the United States.

Biden’s of a different generation and age; a fact some commentators don’t think matters given the gravitas of this cultural change we’re experiencing but context is always crucial. Our backgrounds shape us, for better or worse. Biden, has suffered the loss of a wife, a daughter, and son in his tragic past and often made a connection with people in hard times through words or hugs. Most politicians do this, albeit to lesser extents. He’s 76 as well so his customs and mannerisms may be off tilt with younger generations.

That’s all just pause for thought, more than anything though. Before we #cancel Biden, we need to examine what value is to be attained in judging people’s morals and conduct retrospectively. If it’s for the cause of attaining a better 2020 candidate for the Democrats, then maybe there is something there. After all, the party has become more liberal and with so many alternatives on board, why should we accept the obvious choice like so many did with Hillary in 2016? There’s a few reasons:

  1. Some of these candidates suck, are disingenuous, and do nothing but pander to the liberal waves like Kirsten Gillibrand
  2. The aforementioned level of experience
  3. He has the highest polling
  4. He can appeal to moderates who might otherwise side with Trump
  5. He’s charismatic and likable; marketable too
  6. Association with Obama

There’s definitely reasonable debate on whether or not he should run. I would agree with Ross Douhat (New York Times) that, if he does, he should run on his record rather than against it. Any sharp left-wing moves will be preyed upon by the media, his fellow candidates, and online trolls and then mocked by Trump. There is a section of Trump’s base to be swayed too who actually do care about labor unions, health care, and other important issues, which Biden can speak to with precision as others might vaguely address. Plus, if nothing else, it’ll at least give Democratic voters some alternative to the growing liberalism represented by candidates like Booker, Sanders, Warren, and O’Rourke. Then, they can’t whine come November 2020.

Biden has always been “awkward”, prone to gaffes, and toneless remarks (e.g. wishing he “could” have done something about the Anita Hill sexual harassment trial in the early 90s, despite then being chair of the Judiciary Committee.) His record is not squeaky clean. He’s even run twice before and failed. In the Democratic Party’s quest for greater wokeness however, it can’t be worthwhile to decry and discard every ally who’s ever done wrong. When the bar is set this high, the likelihood for success becomes increasingly narrow and the bigger picture gets lost. The Republicans understand this much, if anything. I also don’t want to see Trump re-elected because his opponents couldn’t find their Messiah.

What If There Was A Mount Rushmore For The Shit Presidents?

What If There Was A Mount Rushmore For The Shit Presidents?

Why pose such a question? Well, it’s Presidents’ Day and while in the past we have taken to ranking the modern presidents on their historical achievements, this year; we thought we’d put a negative spin on things. So if there was a Mount Rushmore to commemorate the lowest of the low, the ones that just plainly didn’t know what they were doing or acted against the interests of the nation, who would they be? There are worthy cases to be made for the likes of Franklin Pierce and Hebert Hoover. Many believe that George W. Bush’s two terms were damaging beyond repair. Some radicals might even posit that Nixon took a misstep or two. Dig down deep enough into the barrel however and you’ll find that there is a loose chip of wood which barely contains the cess pit beneath that is these four individuals. (And guess what “woke” millennials, they’re all white males!)

Donald J. Trump (2017- )

Donald Trump

 

The incumbent recently declared a National Emergency so that he could get his border wall built. The emergency, many retorted, was his presidency. And the wall is (let’s face it) one of the stupidest ideas ever proposed by anyone on the face of the Earth… but there are just too many other reasons why Trump will go down as one of the worst leaders of anything ever to ignore, so here’s a few more:

  • his lack of respect for democracy and a free press
  • his indifference to injustices committed against Black Americans
  • his rhetoric and how it’s inflamed tribalism/division
  • his narcissism and inability to criticism
  • his respect for authoritarians
  • the whole Putin thing / basically betraying the US

But hey! It’s only been two years! There’s still time to get your engorged face off of this mountain. (One could imagine Trump actually demanding his face be bigger than the others, even in such a scenario.)

Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)

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Lincoln’s successor was one of only two presidents to ever be impeached (pending). He was acquitted on the basis that everyone supposed he would lose election (having not won one before; Lincoln died but a month into his second term). His legacy rests mainly (and quite strangely) on fighting against the kind of advances made by the president he served, opposing the 14th Amendment (which addressed citizenship rights for former slaves) while fighting fellow Republicans (who sought to oppose seceded states from instating old, pro-slavery leaders). Like Trump, he also had a penchant for firing cabinet members which led to the Tenure of Office Act. He even got drunk at Lincoln’s second inauguration!

In a time of national mourning for such an inspiring leader as Lincoln, it is quite perplexing that Johnson sough to appease Confederates with the ball in his court. He also just looks like a bit of grump, in general.

James Buchanan (1857-1861)

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Lincoln’s presidency (the most highly appraised by historians) is nestled between two of the worst. Buchanan came before and basically did nothing to address the shifting tides of the national consciousness and the growing unrest that led to the secession of the Confederate States in 1861. He managed to alienate Northern Democrats and Republicans in an attempt to administer Kansas as a Slave State and provoked one of the greatest moral failings of any president in supporting the outcome of the Dred Scott case (which determined that Scott, a slave, could not sue for his freedom in a Free State). Although he supported the North in the Civil War, his partiality to the South in the preceding years did more damage than he ever could admit.

It is said that he declared the day before his death that “history [would] vindicate my memory”. He was… well, you get where I’m going with this.

Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)

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Like Trump, this guy didn’t really know what he was doing. To be fair though, he did at least acknowledge how incompetent he was in saying “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here”. So, there’s that.

Although strongly mourned upon his death just two years into office, a series of scandals emerged which shaped historical revisionism in the immediate years following. These basically amounted to Harding’s cronies looting the treasury with dodgy deals such as the Teapot Dome Scandal. Elsewhere, he was also seen as an ineffective and uninspiring leader, one whose popularity drove him to prominence rather than any intellectual stances posited for helping the nation.

 

 

2020 Looms Already… Tips For the Democrats

2020 Looms Already… Tips For the Democrats

Alas, the 2020 election’s already rearing its ugly head even though there’s still 19 months till it actually happens. With candidates like Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren emerging and with the stakes higher than ever, I thought this would be a good opportunity to provide some necessary nuggets of advice because… well, let’s face it- the Democrats kind of… suck. That is, not to say, that their candidates are bad or that their ideas lack gravitas or sense; they just don’t know how to sell themselves or stay the course. So, please take heed because nothing’s guaranteed.

  1. Don’t turn on one another: Bernie Sanders isn’t the enemy, nor is any other candidate who takes the steam away from the party’s star darling. In 1980, the Democrats’ chances were greatly skewered by Senator Ted Kennedy’s challenge against incumbent Jimmy Carter. In 2016, Hillary and Bernie supporters clawed and gnawed at each other to the point that many of Bernie’s ranks became Trump voters while many of Hillary’s bemoaned the sheer gall of a challenge .
  2. Stand by your liberal values: The latest stream of Democrats in the House suggests the Democratic party is moving to the left. Agreeing on a final platform in the summer of 2020 will undoubtedly be a messy affair but at this juncture, there’s no sense in compromising to meet the Republican base’s standards. Trump’s damaging the party in spectacular ways and if the Democrats present a centrist vision, they may lose the value of contrast.
  3. At the same time, don’t be the wrong kind of liberal: The issues are what matters, not the identity politics gripping today’s culture. Yes, they shouldn’t compromise on their values but there’s no need to alienate moderates or even potential conservative turn-abouts with condescending notions of political correctness. Don’t abide racism, sexism, or any other form of prejudice. Yes, these things matter. With that said, sometimes a joke is a joke. Don’t be the kind of candidate who polices language and how “woke” people are with the thin-moustachiod zeal of the PC Principal.pc principal
  4. Attempt a 50-state strategy: Yes, we all know the electoral college system’s stupid but it’s not likely to go away anytime soon, is it? So, do the right thing and engage as many Americans as possible, even if it means a trip to a blood red state. A personal touch really makes a difference. Trump had a horrible platform in 2016 but he didn’t just bring it to Iowa.583c8f6bba6eb67d058b66d9-1136-568
  5. Keep an eye on Social Media: With or without Russian hackers, people flick by a large number of sensationalist headlines every day on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. The more and more you see a story or a theme repeated, the more likely you are to believe it or at least, give it some pause for thought. In today’s culture, it’s become very difficult to separate the truth from the bullshit, so if the Republicans are going to play dirty, the Democrats either a) need to as well or b) find an effective way to convey just how wrong these articles/the Republicans’ assertions are. As I write this, I understand that this is of course, a lot easier said than done.
  6. Engage your opponents: This is to further point 3 above; be prepared and willing to engage with those who don’t hold your opinion on say, abortion, or gun control. Even if you strongly disagree with someone, you can still have a conversation with them. You might feel their’s is perhaps a dangerous opinion and that they should not be given a platform (as has happened on university campuses), considering the scores of others who have never had their voice heard. I grant that that is a fair and even practical approach at first glance. When you try to impede someone’s free speech however, you often just strengthen their resolve and help marshal others to their cause. You even appear weak and afraid that perhaps their bluster pertains more nuance and scope than you first imagined. The Republicans, I believe, are fundamentally wrong on a number of issues but that does not make them villains who we must banish to the darkness.
  7. Don’t make age an issue: Chances are rife that a lot of these candidates are going to be in their 60s and 70s. They could easily just keel over and die at any moment, right? Do they really represent the youth? Sure, not every issue affects every age group equally and yes, people die more so later on in age but a) these candidates do preach, by and large, to concerns affecting most Americans (income inequality, climate change, etc.) and b) some of the best Democratic senators and representatives have served well on in life (take Jerry Brown’s work as Governor of California for example or two of the most popular prospective candidates, Sanders and Biden).

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    Jerry Brown, old as time, but a sound Governor (left office earlier this month).
  8. Don’t be passive, inspire: Above, I wrote about how sensationalist articles can cloud people’s better judgment on Social Media. Sometimes, sensationalism is needed to convey a point effectively though. Whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee will need  to take Trump to task with strong, vitriolic language. There is just cause because this is a ridiculous man and a lame-duck, politician type will not be successful in his arena. Why not even take a stab at being a great orator? One who can inspire the way Obama or JFK did?
  9. And lastly, be yourself: There’s probably a good point to be made here, concerning Hillary’s robotic approach but I’m just going to take this opportunity to wish all the candidates good luck. You may not run for president again, after all. So reach for the stars, show ’em what you got, and all that!

Undoubtedly, there’s a lot more these candidates will need to be mindful of but as I’ve already said, it’s a long way away yet. Anything at this point is mere speculation. What we do know for sure if that Elizabeth Warren is seeking to run, Kamala Harris is running, and a number of others are considering it. Like in 1976, it’s a fairly open field and anyone’s guesses are as good (if not better) than mine. I expect we will have at least ten noteworthy candidates by June (perhaps Beto O’ Rourke and Cory Booker) and at least five options. We mustn’t, of course, make the mistake of 2016 and assume anything’s for sure however. Biden’s not 100% definite. Nor is Sanders. Or anyone else. And there’s still a lot of work to be done by the House to keep Trump at bay.

George H.W. Bush: A Legacy

George H.W. Bush: A Legacy

George H.W. Bush one said in an interview that the “L” word was banned from his household in regards to defining his legacy and part played in history. His humility, today, seems all the more gratifying and admirable for the Sasquatch who now occupies the White House and the incessant stranglehold of political tribalism gripping America. Bush was, in many respects, a classic conservative but like McCain (who passed earlier this year), he tempered the extremists of his party. (He could also take a joke- inviting Dana Carvey, who impersonated him on SNL, to perform at the White House upon re-election defeat in 1992.) He raised taxes at great political cost. He formed a lasting friendship with the man who beat him in his re-election bid. He even voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. This man, to many, seems like the last of a dying kind.

In 1989, the world transformed with the fall of the Berlin Wall. What seemed an unlikely reality mere years ago quickly materialized and a steady hand was needed to oversee the end of the Cold War. Bush was the perfect man for this. His mother had instilled in him from an early age the idea to never brag and take any successes as a team’s, not his own. To be fair, Bush wasn’t responsible for what transpired across Eastern Europe or in Russia, credit or fault (depending on who you ask) belongs to a great many but for a US president to not drag this out as a triumphal moment took remarkable tact and restraint. “I’m just not an emotional kind of guy” he remarked, almost disinterested, when pressured by the press. Gorbachev certainly appreciated this. Relations between the US and Russia had never before (or since) been so cordial. This respectful line of diplomacy would prove instrumental in German reunification in the succeeding couple of years.

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While he may have averted the world’s gaze from his own mantle however, he wasn’t ready to let America slip by the wayside in its foreign policy. The New World Order, as defined by the end of the Cold War, would see America stand up for sovereign nations being aggrieved across the world. To the World War 2 Generation, this may have seemed admirable, especially with despots like Noriega (in Panama) and Saddam Hussein pushing their luck. To many others however, this marked the beginning of a sinister role for their nation; world police.

The Gulf War of 1991 however was no Vietnam. It was a quick and altogether successful operation, as set out by the Bush administration, which resulted in the liberation of Kuwait. Critics on the left may have questioned the legitimacy of this war (albeit to a lesser extent than his son’s) and pointed to instances of civilian casualties as war crimes. Critics on the right may have argued that the US should have gone into Iraq and overthrown Saddam. Both voices of dissent were largely drowned though by the majority when Bush’s approval ratings shot to an unprecedented 91%.

So how, just over a year later, did such a popular president lose re-election? There were a wide variety of reasons, chief among them; a recession caused by Reaganomics, the entry of a third-party candidate into the race- Ross Perot, and the perceived image of Bush as a man out of touch. Particularly in the case of the latter factor, the Bush Administration’s take on the AIDS crisis and the War on Drugs are remembered unfavorably but he was also seen as a president far more interested in foreign policy than domestic. This is understandable given the Gulf War, Panama, and Somalian interventions, as well as all the changes occurring across Eastern Europe but Bush deserves a little more credit here, in my opinion. There was for one instance, a Clean Air Act, which seems out of place in a Republican’s administration. There was the tax compromise, aforementioned, which eschewed politics in favor of national interest (earning him years later, a Profile in Courage award from the Kennedy Center.) Then there was also the American with Disabilities Act of 1990 which gave legal protections to people with disabilities, previously unaccounted for. This doesn’t often get mentioned but is a key piece of Civil Rights legislation.

Despite all this,  Slick Willy Clinton really was able to capture the spirit of the country at the time with his “I feel your pain” moments, saxophone solos, and direct intern management. The 1992 election got fierce and Bush felt the blow personally for years after but he always refrained from criticizing his successor, wishing him the best of luck from day one with a now viral letter (below).  He spent the rest of his life, mostly out of the spotlight, save a couple humanitarian relief efforts with Bill and parachute jumps on his birthdays (the last one on his 90th in 2014).

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Historians, he once noted, “will point out what we did wrong” and “perhaps, some of the things we got right.” Has a former president ever put it so simply yet brilliantly? One can certainly argue the proportions of these wrongs and rights and yes, one certainly should not do it, merely by comparison to Trump (a benchmark set so low it goes without bothering with) or his son (their approach to Iraq was fundamentally different). It’s definitely a mixed bag, as is the case with most presidents. The impression, I always got of this man however, was that he truly wasn’t obsessed with his legacy or bragging rights. He served 58 air missions in World War 2 (when with his rich connections, he probably could’ve avoided service), took some thankless tasks (chairing the RNC under Nixon, fathering “weak-sauce” Jeb), and acted as a public servant, rather than a typical calculative politician. Even putting aside today’s dark climate, this is the kind of leader we’re unlikely to ever see again.

 

 

 

Identity Politics: Resentments & Realities

In the last few years, American politics have become increasingly preoccupied with style over substance, in the avenue of political correctness, the culture wars, and identity politics. The latter issue hasn’t been discussed much yet on this website because hey! who needs to hear from another white male about race and gender issues? This may seem like a cheap joke or key point, depending on your point of view, but it cuts right down to why this has become incontrovertibly linked with political discourse today.

Identity politics (and how it’s stirred in conversation) breeds off a culture of resentment among alienated groups (privileged and disenfranchised, generally) while at the same time remaining all the more relevant, in times when a US president can’t even be bothered to condemn the KKK. Its genesis lies in the history of oppression of minority groups (Blacks, LGBT+, etc.) and the effective silencing of their voices resulting in what many believe to be a necessary template for defense. Its faults, as some would argue, lie in the abuse of where it’s applied and the mentality of “victimhood” it encourages; giving a victim the leverage of identity over an opponent in debate. Naturally, it’s a sensitive topic to discuss because discrimination isn’t some abstract idea for many people but to make some steady progress, let’s examine the criticisms and defense channeling this conversation.

Criticism of Identity Politics

Let’s divide the critics into two types: a) rhetorical and b) practical.

The former have problems with the rhetoric identity politics inspires. They charge that it inspires groupthink, which in turn compromises individual thought on complex issues and furthers the gulf between left and right. In common discourse, we expect minorities to side with liberals all the time, even though many of the matters dividing the Republican and Democratic parties have little to do with identity, e.g. gun control, climate change. We assume race and sexuality plays a major role in a Black or Gay person’s life which may be statistically sound but at times, possibly comes across as condescending and untrue. As the popular political commentator Dave Rubin has noted, “you as an individual are much more than your immutable characteristics.”

Plus, experience does not necessarily establish authority in an argument. We may not be able to fully appreciate another person’s struggles and yes, it may at times appear insensitive to even engage but debates should be run on good ideas, regardless of one’s “immutable characteristics”. This notion blossomed considerably when echoed by Obama in a speech commemorating the 100th anniversary of Mandela’s birth in July (when he said opinions should not be dismissed just because they are white or male).

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Practical critics think along these lines too but with goals in mind- i.e. beating Trump in 2020. As Sheri Berman opined in a Guardian piece (“Why Identity Politics Benefits The Right More Than The Left”): “Is our ultimate goal ensuring the compatibility of diversity and democracy? Then promoting the overlapping interests and identification that enable citizens to become more comfortable with differences and thus more tolerant and trusting, is absolutely necessary.” Left and right have been painted as stark opponents in the culture wars. A tough point, some liberals seem unwilling to accept, is that not all Trump’s supporters are racist white males. Okay, there are definitely some racists. And yes, a lot of his support was from white males. Their support did not rest solely on identity politics however. It derived from other places; chiefly, economic misfortune- a shared characteristic for people of all identities in many situations. In short, as Bernie Sanders would hound, the media needs to pay more attention to the issues!

In Defense of Identity Politics

Okay, so that’s all very good but racism, homophobia, and sexism are everyday issues affecting millions of lives. There are oppressive methods in place preventing Blacks from voting (by conservatives gerrymanders and legislators). There is a double standard for women and inequality of opportunities in many job sectors. LGBT groups are routinely subjected to the nastiest treatment and commentary for merely being who they are. So, in many respects, identity politics is something that has been thrust upon these groups rather than something they’ve sought out and just as the right are known to parry off cries of offense with deflections like “oh you’re just being PC”, is it not possible that identity politics helps their cause a little when it comes to such enduring prejudice?

In his article, “In Defense of Identity Politics”, Paul Von Blume writes that American society has been mechanized to the umpteenth degree to reinforce the status quo of white male privilege. When expressions like “just plain American” or “melting pot” are bandied about, he argues that while they may be “well meaning,” they really just brush over the historical “exclusion” of millions of its people. Direct, aggressive racism or prejudice in general does not necessarily tie this altogether. White privilege is maintained out of fear that the promotion of less enfranchised persons may lead to a decline in their quality of life (a concern that pervaded the “turbulence” of the 1960s). Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of Sociology at Georgetown University and Peterson opponent), has noted this much, writing for the New York Times in December 2016 that “the interests of the white working class have often been used by white political elites to stave off challenges to inequality and discrimination by black folk and other minority groups”. (It should be noted however that he’s been criticized for pushing identity politics to the extreme, referring to Jordan Peterson as a “mean mad white man” during a debate on political correctness).

To Conclude

White men like me will never fully appreciate the Black, Women, or Muslim experience, as diversified or as shared as it can be. In many respects, our culture and systemic prejudice has necessitated such labels as identity be used in the mainstream. It catches people’s attention when a meme or hashtag or article goes viral, encapsulating all the frustrations of “mansplaining”, whitewashed history, or privilege. It’s all very understandable but at times, overtly sensitive to the point debate gets shut down; e.g. with the above case between Peterson and Dyson, the former debater was immediately cast under suspicion (or an attempt was made) just because he was a white male arguing against political correctness. At times, this isn’t fair but there will always be exceptions in every case that define how we must study it. For example, a panel of all male commentators discussing abortion would seem ridiculous to most but of all females, rather reasonable. Also, “All Lives Matter”?

It’s a trying discussion which transmogrifies the collective into the personal experience. For all practicalities’ sake though, in light of recent political developments, it has become a “serious nuisance” underlying almost every political debate. In order for the Democrats to make some ground on those stubborn Trump supporters, there needs to be some attempt at reconciling the majority with the minority, whose interests don’t necessarily deviate from one another’s. The 2018 midterms and the 2020 election should return to the boring stuff that makes up most sane countries’ elections; economic opportunity- and that means to help all citizens advance, be it on an individual or group level.

 

Jordan Peterson & Open Dialogue

Jordan Peterson & Open Dialogue

Much has been made of Jordan Peterson, the Clinical Psychologist, and his foray into the world of public intellectualism and politics. At times, his rhetoric seems deigned for ingratiating proponents of free speech and those sickened by the debasement of open dialogue into base proclivities and at others, for widening the gulf between liberals and conservatives. Does Peterson’s loyalties lie with the latter? I think that’s reductive but certainly there’s a case to be made that his words could do a whole lot more for that camp than any other figure stealing headlines.

Peterson became something of a fixture following his challenge of the Canadian government’s Bill C-16, which proposed to add “gender identity or expression” as a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. His objection lay on the grounds, not of transphobia, but this being an assault on free speech (by inference of “compelled speech”). Naturally, some saw this as transgressive and petty. Peterson managed to ride a wave of popularity thereafter though, with a series of videos riling against political correctness. This led eventually on to a bestseller 12 Rules for Life, a self-help guide, whose insistence on personal responsibility (and not victimhood) became inextricably linked with the numerous issues he was being questioned on. These included feminism, a crisis in masculinity, and support from some members of the alt-right.

The thing is a lot of Peterson’s support is comprised of anti-PC white males. In the arena of identity politics, he’s been attacked by many because he doesn’t seem to disavow the more extremist parts of his base. Is this necessarily his responsibility? Maybe not but it becomes a worrying clause because conservatives really could do with an intellectual figure or at least his ideas. It gives them something the likes of Trump can’t- legitimacy. Dorian Lynskey illustrated this cohesively in a February piece for the Guardian on the “dangerous” side of this professor and his perceived image as “the cooly rational man of science facing down the hysteria of P.C”. He writes, “[His] YouTube gospel resonates with young white men who feel alienated by the jargon of social justice discourse and crave an empowering theory of the world in which they are not the designated oppressors.” A little ambitious on their part, yes.

Many have brought Peterson up on his defense of patriarchies as natural outcomes of history by asserting that that doesn’t necessarily make them desirable.  I wonder if perhaps both sides are being too hasty in this increasingly complicated dialogue. Yes, one could muster that the many elements constituting the history of mankind have resulted in the kind of society we now have but even with this viewpoint, that doesn’t mean all Peterson’s views are calculated to an anti-leftist agenda. In many respects, he’s a breath of fresh air because he dares to question the background behind things like the gender pay gap and the ideology surrounding humanities in universities. It’s also kind of nice to just hear an articulate figure coming from somewhere outside the left.

Even if he’s a troll benefiting from all this controversy, the liberals will take the bait however. In one notable instance, he clashed with Cathy Newman in a Channel 4 interview and came out all the more triumphant and heroic to his base by holding his own against an onslaught of accusations as to what his intentions are (e.g. is he against equal pay for equal work?!?) In others, he’s been protested with blaring horns during speaking engagements on campuses (to the effect that his free speech is quite literally being drowned out). His appeal has magnified significantly as a result of these instances and given the impression to many that liberals really are as hysterical and outraged as conservatives believe.

On the other hand, we can then return to his base of support/fans. They’re aggressive and the message that open, calm debate is the best strategy for discourse seems lost on them. Just look at the YouTube searches related to him. The titles are unabashedly biased and intended to only promote what these people already believe; e.g. “Those 7 Times Jordan Peterson Went Beast Mode” and “Jordan Peterson  Destroys Transgender Professor”. These are not the kind of fans you want. As Lynskey has noted, their “intense adoration  can turn nasty. His more extreme supporters have abused, harrassed, and doxxed several of his critics”. (That is to publish their personal details online.)  Again, he’s not wholly responsible but we can’t ignore the fact that his platform lends him major influence. Some have even referred to him as the most popular Western intellectual in the world today.

Academics are credible sources of wisdom. At least, they’re perceived to be. The problem is that Peterson may have become too big for his shoes. Maybe he does have a lot to offer in clinical psychology and helping young men take responsibility for their lives but now, his inferences have shaped new, highly impressionable ideologies that people are grappling with in quite a messy manner. I admit I find it difficult to distinguish between admiration and skepticism in his case. He’s an engaging and forthright speaker but for every seemingly sensible theory/notion he brings up (I always enjoy a bit of PC bashing), there’s a rocky generalization or embarrassing climate skeptic posturing.

Initially, I wanted to write purely on the dangerous aspects and repercussion of his espousing but a) Lynskey’s article does that both eloquently and in great depth and b) I don’t want to contribute to the idea that he’s just good or bad. He’s a complicated figure and his ideas have opened and added to our dialogue on a number of key issues governing the divide between left and right.