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Monthly Archives: July 2012

California: The Road Warrior Is Here

July 29th, 2012 - 10:56 pm

Where’s Mel Gibson When You Need Him?

George Miller’s 1981 post-apocalyptic film The Road Warrior envisioned an impoverished world of the future. Tribal groups fought over what remained of a destroyed Western world of law, technology, and mass production. Survival went to the fittest — or at least those who could best scrounge together the artifacts of a long gone society somewhat resembling the present West.

In the case of the Australian film, the culprit for the detribalization of the Outback was some sort of global war or perhaps nuclear holocaust that had destroyed the social fabric. Survivors were left with a memory of modern appetites but without the ability to reproduce the means to satisfy them:  in short, a sort of Procopius’s description of Gothic Italy circa AD 540.

Our Version

Sometimes, and in some places, in California I think we have nearly descended into Miller’s dark vision — especially the juxtaposition of occasional high technology with premodern notions of law and security. The state deficit is at $16 billion. Stockton went bankrupt; Fresno is rumored to be next. Unemployment stays over 10% and in the Central Valley is more like 15%. Seven out of the last eleven new Californians went on Medicaid, which is about broke. A third of the nation’s welfare recipients are in California. In many areas, 40% of Central Valley high school students do not graduate — and do not work, if the latest crisis in finding $10 an hour agricultural workers is any indication. And so on.

Our culprit out here was not the Bomb (and remember, Hiroshima looks a lot better today than does Detroit, despite the inverse in 1945). The condition is instead brought on by a perfect storm of events that have shred the veneer of sophisticated civilization. Add up the causes. One was the destruction of the California rural middle class. Manufacturing jobs, small family farms, and new businesses disappeared due to globalization, high taxes, and new regulations. A pyramidal society followed of a few absentee land barons and corporate grandees, and a mass of those on entitlements or working for government or employed at low-skilled service jobs. The guy with a viable 60 acres of almonds ceased to exist.

Illegal immigration did its share. No society can successfully absorb some 6-7 million illegal aliens, in less than two decades, the vast majority without English, legality, or education from the poorer provinces of Mexico, the arrivals subsidized by state entitlements while sending billions in remittances back to Mexico — all in a politicized climate where dissent is demonized as racism. This state of affairs is especially true when the host has given up on assimilation, integration, the melting pot, and basic requirements of lawful citizenship.

Terrible governance was also a culprit, in the sense that the state worked like a lottery: those lucky enough by hook or by crook to get a state job thereby landed a bonanza of high wages, good benefits, no accountability, and rich pensions that eventually almost broke the larger and less well-compensated general society. When I see hordes of Highway Patrolmen writing tickets in a way they did not before 2008, I assume that these are revenue-based, not safety-based, protocols — a little added fiscal insurance that pensions and benefits will not be cut.

A coarsening of popular culture — a nationwide phenomenon — was intensified, as it always is, in California. The internet, video games, and modern pop culture translated into a generation of youth that did not know the value of hard work or a weekend hike in the Sierra. They didn’t learn  how to open a good history book or poem, much less acquire even basic skills such as mowing the lawn or hammering a nail. But California’s Generation X did know that they were “somebody” whom teachers and officials dared not reprimand, punish, prosecute, or otherwise pass judgment on for their anti-social behavior. Add all that up with a whiny, pampered, influential elite on the coast that was more worried about wind power, gay marriage, ending plastic bags in the grocery stores — and, well, you get the present-day Road Warrior culture of California.

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The Demons of the Modern Rampage Killer

July 22nd, 2012 - 11:49 pm

As of now we know little about what conditions drove, or proved useful to, the Aurora suspect to murder and maim. But given the worldwide incidences of so-called “rampage killings,” the culprit was not the particular gun laws of Colorado. His dark counterparts exist in contemporary Norway, Uganda, Russia, and Latin America. I am sure there is a typology of the multifarious conditions that might prompt such demonic killers—workplace anger, spousal revenge, school-related grudges, religious fanaticism, race or ethnic hatred, political extremism, and abject insanity that offers no exegesis at all.

So far we have heard that guns did it; or that there were unfortunately not any good gunmen in the theater to stop him; or that the mentally ill are not closely enough watched, medicated, or hospitalized; or that we live in a “sick” culture; and on and on.

One unmentioned fact is that rampage killing is not necessarily a modern phenomenon, although firearms as force multipliers facilitate it and up the horrific body count. Killers in the 19th century often shot down innocent bystanders. Yet I think there are some new developments that already have brought hundreds of millions worldwide into the horrifically demonic mind of the suspect James Holmes.

The first is modern global communications. In 1957, if a disgruntled Ugandan policeman slaughtered 57, to the degree anyone in Selma, my hometown of 5,000 at that time, knew about it, it was at best perhaps a day or two later and in a small column in the Fresno Bee. The same was true when a deranged German shot and killed 14 in 1913. Before the telegraph and telephone, did anyone, more than 100 miles distant from the scene of a crime, know that a Romanian or Japanese or Virginian carved up a dozen in the 17th century?

Today every rampage, everywhere, worldwide hits the Internet and cable news, without wider thoughtful context, and yet with great detail of the crime. The graphic story is without valuable analyses, and so offers us little reminder that there are now 7 billion people on the planet—and in a nanosecond we are going to know the name and circumstances of any single one of us who that day goes on a rampage. The net effect is that the Bolivian worries just not about the mass killer in Lima, but the one in Miami or Ukraine as well.

Popular culture—particularly the visual arts of modern movies and TV, or the imagery on the Internet—is far different from even the immediate past, at least in the sense of blurring reality with fantasy. In the old 1950s Western, the hero shot the villain, who grabbed his chest and fell, as if struck inexplicably by a heart seizure. We were told after Bonnie and Clyde that such stagecraft was “fake”; people should die on screen instead like Clyde Barrow actually did—and we must as adult viewers appreciate the real effects of pulling the trigger.

The opposite ensued! There was far greater chance on Gunsmoke or Bonanza that we had a few seconds to ponder the landscape of the occasional dying victim than amid the dozens who implode on Breaking Bad or Spartacus. How did it happen that by supposedly showing us exactly what a bullet does to flesh, we were thereby exempt from any human accounting— from the sort of explanation of a death that Doc, or Kitty, or Matt Dillon offered, when the latter shot one or two “bad guys” in an hour on Saturday night, or a “good guy” tragically died? Yes, it was phony when the gunslinger slumped over without a drop of blood on his chest; but it would be phonier still to have a smart-ass Marshal Dillon blast away ten in succession, in slow-motion, flesh-exploding detail as if they were mere mannequins all, with no past, no present, no nothing.

Since about 1970, the cinema victim dies in the manner real people die (bloody trauma, the body contorting and in visible pain and shock). But here again is the dilemma—the hyperrealism still blurs reality. In an action-hero movie, a teen-horror film, a shoot-em-up crime show, lots of people perish in the manner in which real people would so die under similarly violent circumstances. But there is less not more shock at the loss of human life.

When Alien, Predator, or Terminator slice up or rip apart dozens, life just goes on. Bodies fly all over the screen and we are onto the next scene. Wondering about who actually was the 11th poor soul who had his heart ripped out by the Terminator is far less interesting than watching the latter utter some banality. The same is true of everything from Die Hard to 300—lots of real-life, graphic killing, but almost no pause and bewilderment over the staggering loss of life or the consequences of Target 12 or Victim G leaving life at 12 or 56. Killing is so easy not just because of robotic arms, RPGs, and computer simulations, but also because there are almost no emotional consequences from the carnage—a fact easily appreciated by the viewer, the more so if young or unhinged or both. The killer usually smiles or at least shows no emotion; the victims are reduced to “them,” anonymous souls who serve as mere numbers in a body count.  Will Kane’s victims, in contrast, were known—evil, but still not anonymous and not mere sets for the sheriff’s gunplay.

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Beware the Ides of October

July 15th, 2012 - 9:58 pm

What should we expect as the campaign heats up in the final four months?

1. Follow the money. Both candidates, in a way unlike the 2008 campaign, are well-funded. Romney will probably match Obama dollar for dollar and, in fact, outraised him last month by several million. The super-PACS may prove for Romney, more than for Obama, a force-multiplier.

The significance of that money-raising parity transcends just tit-for-tit commercials, ads, and well-staffed campaign headquarters of the sort a McCain campaign simply could not afford. Obama’s forte is the open-air rally. In 2008 the more that the money poured in, the more Obama was freed to crisscross the country, doing his hope-and-change routine and warning hysterical crowds about fainting from ebullition.

But this time because both sides are roughly equally financed, Obama must continue with his record pace of private $40,000-$50,000-a-head fundraisers. This is not healthy for two reasons: one, it takes time away from his natural showmanship in the public arena (and to a lesser extent from being president); and, two, these Upper West Side and Santa Monica meet-and-greeters are at odds with the rhetoric of “fat cat bankers,” “corporate jet owners,” at some point you’ve made “enough money,” “not the time” to profit, and “spread the wealth.”  Obama earns hypocrisy for shaking down capitalists whom he derides, while running the risk of hearing just that complaint from one or two upstart fat cats in his small crowds.

2. The polls. It is very important for Romney to run within 1-2 points in the polls for the next few months. That closeness forces out the real Obama—of the Chicago sort who used to sue to get opponents off the ballot or had his supporters leak rivals’ divorce records. In such a mode, it is not decorous for a president’s campaign to suggest that Romney probably committed a “felony,” or to claim that Bain Capital was a serial outsourcer in the sense that the U.S.-subsidized green industry or the space agency is not. In contrast, if Obama surges by 5 points or so, he will revert back to hope-and-change-II banalities; but, again, in a tight race we will see quite enough of the new-old, inner-Chicago Obama, a persona that he did not need to reveal from 2004-8.

3. Michelle Obama. The first lady’s poll numbers are high because she has been stateswoman-like when diverted from partisan politics since the late summer of 2008. But do we remember why she was marooned in the closing days of the 2008 race? Try “for the first time in my adult lifetime, i’m really proud,” “raise the bar,” “downright mean” country, “deign to” run, “…uniformed, uninvolved lives,” “our souls are broken”… and a host of other angry and usually incoherent denunciations.

Almost instinctively Michelle Obama reverts to the Chicago style when she goes into a partisan campaign mode. This week the frequenter of Costa del Sol, Martha’s Vineyard, and Vail, whose third-of-a-million-dollar job in Chicago was largely a political perk, was at a graduation address once again in monotonous 2008 fashion decrying  “all the traditional markers of success — the fat paycheck, the fancy office, the impressive line on our resumes.”  That class-warfare trope should go over well next week when she is begging still more of those with the fat paychecks and fancy offices to fork over $50,000 to make up for the lack of grassroots $10 and $20 donations. This year Michelle seems to have forgotten that the Obama strategy is not whipping up 10,000 devotees at a rally to send in $5 each to net $50,000, but rather to schmooze one Hollywood producer or Citibank navigator over foie gras to match what a stadium used to deliver.

At a political rally last week, she roared, “Multiply yourselves. … He needs you to keep making those calls, doing that hard work. Knocking on those doors. Treacherous work, right? … You know, that aren’t registered and you gotta get ‘em and shake ‘em. Find them, get them registered.”

What exactly does “treacherous” here mean? Or, for that matter, “multiply yourselves”?

If the first lady is sent out each day, I predict a repeat appearance of her anger of 2008, but in a year where there is now margin of error and she is first lady, not a partisan candidate’s wife. Do we remember her January 2012 Queen Gertrude pushback at a sympathetic biography, when she snapped that she was not “some kind of angry black woman.” The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

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Tuning Out a President

July 8th, 2012 - 10:54 pm

Tuned-out Presidents

Somewhere around early 2006, the nation tuned out George W. Bush for a variety of reasons, some warranted, but many not. Most thought the Katrina aftermath catastrophe was due to state and local officials (do you recall the utterly incompetent loudmouth Mayor [“chocolate city”] Nagan, or the clueless FEMA director Michael [“Brownie”] Brown?), while the president’s culpability was largely political: he flew high over, rather than waded into, the muck on the first day of the recovery.

No matter: either the media or his opponents succeeded in confirming the narrative of an out-of-touch president at best, and at worst one indifferent to the plight of African-American poor in particular. The more the president talked of help and rescue, the more we heard absurdities from a malicious Nagan and inanities from an incompetent Brownie.

The same was true of Iraq by 2007. I felt the surge had a good chance of restoring calm and salvaging Iraq, especially given the skill and determination of David Petraeus and the admirable decision of George W. Bush not to give up. And establishing a consensual government in the heart of the ancient caliphate after removing the genocidal Saddam Hussein was an historic achievement. No matter again — almost every column I wrote in 2007 suggesting that Iraq was not only not lost, but also in the process of a brilliant recovery, earned lots of venom, many of it from some of the original staunchest supporters of the invasion. The people, I guess, had by then tuned the president out.

Perhaps it was the media barrage. Perhaps it was the relief of the incredible three-week Iraq victory followed by the furor over the carnage of a botched occupation. Perhaps it was the visceral hatred on the Left of a Texan evangelical Christian. Perhaps it was the estrangement of the right-wing base, angered over the deficits, big-ticket entitlements like the prescription drug benefit, or No Child Left Behind. Perhaps it was the strategic blunder of hyping weapons of mass destruction rather than sticking to the 23 congressionally passed writs authorizing the use of force to remove Saddam. Perhaps it was weariness from the 24/7 assault on the Bush-Cheney security protocols, a paradox in which the more such measures succeeded in reducing the chance of another 9/11 attack, the more an increasingly complacent public bought the Barack Obama/Michael Moore line that renditions, Guantanamo, wiretaps, intercepts, Predators, and preventative detention were superfluous anti-constitutional excesses all along and the ensuing post-9/11 calm was more a natural development than the result of the new Bush vigilance.

One could not convince the American people, say in 2007, that deficits were heading downward and a balanced budget was scheduled on the horizon, much less that 5.5% unemployment or 3% GDP growth was not that bad. And when the September 2008 meltdown came, no one wished to examine the policies of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae that allowed the utterly unqualified to receive government-guaranteed subprime mortgages. Few cared about the machinations of a Maxine Waters or Barney Frank, or wished to concede that government corruption, hand-in-glove with Wall Street buccaneering, had led to the housing explosion. It all happened on Bush’s watch, the public had concluded, and it was the fiscal bookend to Iraq and Katrina. All the good economic news of the first seven and a half years mattered nothing. Massive help to stop AIDS in Africa was of no consequence. Quiet in Iraq in 2008 was too little, too late. Again, no matter what one wrote to offer context, it mattered nothing. Fairly or not, the public had just tuned the president out — in the manner it had tuned out Jerry (cf. WIN buttons) Ford in 1976, Jimmy (cf. the waterborne rabbit assault) Carter in late 1980, and George (cf. “read my lips”) H.W. Bush in 1992. Some presidents recover from a tuned out public — Reagan did after Iran Contra, Clinton did in a way after Monica — but most don’t, especially if they are conservatives and not adept rhetoricians.


Imagine if Barack Obama said the following: “I promise by the end of my second term that I will close Guantanamo Bay, end renditions and preventative detentions, cut the deficit in half, that my second stimulus program will put the unemployment rate below 6% within three years, that I will create 5 million new green jobs, that my health care plan will lower premiums, that I will ostracize lobbyists, end the revolving door, and earmarks, that I will participate in public financing of the 2012 campaign, and that I won’t raise any tax whatsoever on those earning less than $250,000.”

Would any believe him?

So Barack Obama is likewise being tuned out. “Let me be perfectly clear,” “Make no mistake about it,” “In truth,” “In point of fact,” “I’m not kidding,” and “I’m not making this up” all tip off a weary public that just the opposite is true. We are so confused over Guantanamo, Predators, and renditions — being told everything from them being unconstitutional to vital — that we likewise just shrug at the absurdity of an Obama and Harold Koh embracing all the protocols that they once has so vehemently demonized. Were they then, now, or always just simpletons, naïfs, hypocrites, or abject careerists?

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Good News — What Good News?

July 2nd, 2012 - 12:04 am

I have a confession to make: I don’t quite understand the jubilation among the conservative-Republican forces during the last two months of the Obama crack-up, and here, unfortunately, is why:

1. The so-called Obama crash. I believe that Obamism — 41 months over 8% plus unemployment, anemic GDP growth, serial $1 trillion deficits, unsustainable rates of new aggregate debt, the takeover of health care, record numbers on unemployment insurance and food stamps — is not only strangling the country, but in the long run will be seen as such by most Americans. Obama is incoherent — castigating the Supreme Court’s right to overturn a law, then himself suing to overturn state laws, while simply ignoring federal laws. Abroad, even his supporters cannot claim the Russian reset was a success. What was so hard about supporting the Iranian dissidents in the spring 2009 demonstrations, or expressing support for secular democratic movements in the Middle East rather than praising the Muslim Brotherhood? Why treat Israel or Canada worse than Turkey? And was it worth the administration chest thump to risk the security of the United States by leaking classified information about Predators, the cyber war against Iran, the Yemeni agent, and the bin Laden raid?

But all that mess is not to say that in the here and now Obama cannot cobble together a 51% majority to win the election. He figures that he can by appeals to gays (gay marriage), those on entitlements (nearly fifty million are now on food stamps; 50% are paying no income tax or are on some sort of entitlement — or both), the greens (Keystone), the Latinos (de facto amnesty), feminists (“war on women”), the (fill in the blanks), etc.

Review Obama’s bad news of the last 90 days: the Scott Walker victory, the Obama gaffes (the private sector is doing “fine”), the Democratic defections (whether senators and representatives bailing from the convention or smackdowns on Bain Capital from Cory Booker, Bill Clinton, etc.), the Holder mess, the circumvention of Congress by de facto amnesty, the non-ending scandals (Solyndra, Fast and Furious, GSA, Secret Service, etc.), the Putin/Merkel put-down, our new Muslim Brotherhood friend and ally running Egypt, the supposed shortfall in campaign donations, etc. Yet this weekend Obama remains up in the polls and ahead in key swing states. If these “bad” weeks have led to his rise in the polls, what might good weeks do?

Sometimes when I watch Fox News, listen to talk radio, or read the blogs, I fear too many are in a strange bubble: the Obama embarrassments are tallied, his crashing defeat predicted — but no one seems to say, “But hey, he is still after all that ahead in the polls!” And to the extent someone might point to polling, he is met with “But the polls are biased!” Perhaps they are by 3-4 points.  But right now, given the power of incumbency, the changing nature of the U.S., and the no-holds-barred methods of Barack Obama, the advantage is still all Obama’s — and almost all the polls show that. And we should remember that fact rather than be told simply how bad Obama is.

2. The Supreme Court. I have read all the exegeses of why Justice Roberts voted to tip the court in favor of upholding Obamacare. I do not here care to comment on the case other than to note that the most radical piece of social legislation since the Great Society is now the law of the land. It may prove a boomerang in November; there may be some clever means to detect in Roberts’ decision a path for upholding judicial conservatism. In fact, there may be all sorts of hidden good news. But for now, the decision is a huge victory for Barack Obama — how can it be any other?

Other depressing notes: the Court is now 4 liberals, 2 swings, and 3 conservatives. Is this really the age of a conservative Supreme Court? But more importantly, the elite culture in the New York-Washington corridor is a force multiplier. It defines liberal blinkered orthodoxy on the Court as “open-minded” and “moderately liberal” in contrast to conservative orthodoxy that is “reactionary” and “closed-minded.”  In other words, there is always more pressure on a conservative than a liberal to be thought sober and judicious by joining the other side. A liberal justice joining the conservative side almost never happens. Because of the great decision of our age, Justice Roberts will be revered by the media-academia-arts-government nexus as the new Earl Warren, even as conservatives rightly respect his right of independent judicial review. And, as Roberts knew, had he voted otherwise to reject Obamacare, he would now be reviled by the Left in the manner of Robert Bork, while, without fanfare, being simply acknowledged as a fair and circumspect judge by conservatives.

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