Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Jon Swift Roundup 2019

(The Best Posts of the Year, Chosen by the Bloggers Themselves)

(A Jon Swift picture.)

Welcome to the 2019 edition! It's been an interesting year.

This tradition was started by the late Jon Swift/Al Weisel, who left behind some excellent satire, but was also a nice guy and a strong supporter of small blogs. As usual, I'll quote Lance Mannion, who nicely explains:

Our late and much missed comrade in blogging, journalist and writer Al Weisel, revered and admired across the bandwidth as the "reasonable conservative" blogger Modest Jon Swift, was a champion of the lesser known and little known bloggers working tirelessly in the shadows . . .

One of his projects was a year-end Blogger Round Up. Al/Jon asked bloggers far and wide, famous and in- and not at all, to submit a link to their favorite post of the past twelve months and then he sorted, compiled, blurbed, hyperlinked and posted them on his popular blog. His round-ups presented readers with a huge banquet table of links to work many of has had missed the first time around and brought those bloggers traffic and, more important, new readers they wouldn’t have otherwise enjoyed.

It may not have been the most heroic endeavor, but it was kind and generous and a lot of us owe our continued presence in the blogging biz to Al.

Here's Jon/Al's massive 2007 and 2008 editions (via the Wayback Machine). Meanwhile, our more modest revivals from 2010–2018 can be found here.

If you're not familiar with Al Weisel's work as Jon Swift, his site (via the Wayback Machine) features a "best of" list in the left column.

This year, I have to mention the passing of skippy the bush kangaroo/ Gil Christner, who cofounded Blogroll Amnesty Day with Jon/Al, a blogswarm celebrating smaller blogs. Long-time participant Shaun Mullen of Kiko's House also passed away.

Thanks to all the participants, and apologies to anyone I missed. (As always, my goal is to find the right balance between inclusive and manageable.) You still can join in, by linking your post in the comments. Whether your post appears in the modest list below or not, feel free to tweet your best post with the hatchtag #jonswift2019.

As in Jon/Al's 2008 roundup, submissions are listed roughly in the order they were received. As he wrote in that post:

I'm sure you'll be interested in seeing what your favorite bloggers think were their best posts of the year, but be sure to also visit some blogs you've never read before and leave a nice comment if you like what you see or, if you must, a polite demurral if you do not.

Without further ado:

You Might Notice a Trend
"A Cruel Month for a Cruel Administration"
Paul Wartenberg: "A summary of everything dark and vicious happening under donald trump and Republican rule, and this was BEFORE all the crap about trump extorting Ukraine and things getting worse..."

Just an Earth Bound Misfit, I
"We Never Will Learn"
Comrade Misfit: "A comparison of the War Against Drugs with the War Against Ethanol (Prohibition). It points out that our great-grandparents were a lot smarter than we are."

The Way of Cats
"Cats live in the Now"
Pamela Merritt: "Cats teach me Tao every day."

Mad Kane's Political Madness
"Open 3-Verse Limerick To Donald Trump"
Madeleine Begun Kane: "My 3-verse limerick message to Trump remains unheeded, but hope springs eternal. (I include an audio version along with my written verse.)"

Strangely Blogged
"Unbearably Hostile. And Also Very Contrite"
Vixen Strangely: "A heated discussion in my blog comments lead to me to unpack my hostility towards third party voting and my fears about the upcoming presidential election."

Show Me Progress
"This morning at the Governor’s Mansion in Jefferson City"
Michael Bersin: "Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words. As part of a grassroots organized "Everyone for Reproductive Rights" rally at the capitol in Jefferson City on June 22, 2019 pro-choice activists marched to the Governor's mansion to confront Mike Parson (r), Missouri's rabid anti-choice governor. After the speeches ended and as they left individually and in small groups activists placed wire coat hangers on the spiked cast iron fence in front of the mansion."

The Rude Pundit
"You Idiots Are Causing 'White Genocide' Yourselves"
Lee Papa: "The dumbasses who shout about "white genocide" support politicians whose policies create the circumstances for the immigration that they fear. But, well, they are dumbasses."

The Rectification of Names
"One Loopy Piehole; and Prolegomena to a Discussion of Russia Sanctions"
Yastreblyansky: "I usually submit what I think is the funniest post of the year, or the most satisfying from a literary point of view, but this year I want to focus on something different; this post starts off with a moderately amusing Fats Waller parody but goes on to one of the big things missing from the Mueller Report: the original! quid pro quo, or what Trump has done to repay V.V. Putin for his assistance in the 2016 election. Three-parter, follow the links at the end of the post."

Poor Impulse Control
"All This And No Surprises"
Tata: "Mental illness, not cancer, killed my mother."

Mock, Paper, Scissors
"Project Purple: Call It By Its Name"
Tengrain: "The "Both Siderists" tried rebranding and we’re having none of it."

[this space intentionally left blank]
"Bringing A Strongly-Worded Letter to a Knife Fight"
Dallas Taylor: "In which I answer the perennial calls for compromise and civility with a reminder that the people we're being asked to compromise with and be civil to are acting in bad faith while they hollow out American democracy in the service of authoritarian oligarchs while the climate we depend on slides further and further into crisis."

Lotus - Surviving a Dark Time
"The Erickson Report, Page 4: A Longer Look at open borders"
LarryE: "On my cable access/YouTube show "The Erickson Report," I have an occasional segment called "A Longer Look," going into some topic in more depth that a 30-minute show normally allows. This time it was on an immigration option that is rarely discussed and which may not be an answer but is surely worth considering: open borders."

Infidel753
"Some further ranting on culture and politics"
Infidel753: "Disengaged, low-information, pop-culture-obsessed voters aren't the ones who got Trump elected, nor are they the ones most likely to tip the scales toward his re-election. The problem lies elsewhere."

Self-Styled Siren
"Olivia (1951)"
The Siren: "It's a superb film (directed by a woman!) that truly deserves a resurrection."

David E's Fablog
"Nancy Finds Her Inner Faye"
David Ehrenstein

Bark Bark Woof Woof
"The Sting"
Mustang Bobby: "Was it enough to just impeach Trump in the House, knowing that the Senate will acquit him? No, it’s not enough. But it’s close."

bjkeefe
"A long but thought-provoking read"
Brendan Keefe: "Some of the reactions I had to Scott Alexander's post, "New Atheism: The Godlessness That Failed." "

The Debate Link
"In Relating to our Black Allies, Jews Need To Stop Being Babies"
David Schraub: "We in the Jewish community has a problem relating to our Black allies: we expect them to be condemn-antisemitism-on-demand toys, and throw a tantrum any time they want to talk about anything else. That's not a mature way to have a relationship among equals."

Perrspectives
POST J"The Most Important Issue for Democrats in 2020? The Courts"
Jon Perr: "Republican control over the Supreme Court isn’t merely putting reproductive rights and marriage equality at risk. The increasingly reactionary federal judiciary at all levels threatens the entire legal basis for post-New Deal government."

M.A.Peel
"History of Two Weeks' Tour Through Switzerland"
Ellen O'Neill: "I went to Switzerland to visit the hometown of my maternal great grandfather. It was an unexpected bonus that I found myself walking in the footsteps of my beloved Romantic Poets, Dumas, Dickens, Twain, et. al. When I got home, I discovered Mary Shelley's own travelogue of her travels with Percy, and the post is an homage to her writing."

First Draft
"The Wind Calls Willard"
Peter Adrastos Athas: "Willard Mittbot Romney: Hero or Weathervane? It's up to him."

alicublog
"The So-Called Network."
Roy Edroso: "I was sufficiently amused by Aaron Sorkin, high on his own supply, trying to talk sense to supervillain Mark Zuckerberg that I wrote my own Sorkin script for their encounter."

Special bonus post:
Roy Edroso Breaks It Down
"The bad dog"
Roy Edroso: "Our dog died last summer. Actually she was my wife's dog, but in the course of her dying I put a claim on her, which is what the post is about."

Ramona's Voices
"I Would Make a Better President Than Donald Trump"
Ramona Grigg: "A light-hearted but semi-serious look at an alternative to our first (and hopefully last) dilettante president. Trump has set the bar so low even I could do a better job. One look at my cabinet choices should cement this whole idea."

World O’ Crap
"Corner Man"
Scott Clevenger: "Scott sits down with Hall of Fame boxing trainer and Fox Sports commentator Joe Goossen to talk about the Ruelas Brothers, two young Mexican boys who wandered into his gym one day while selling candy door to door and refused to leave until he made them world champions. He didn’t want to…but he did."

Thomas Neuburger (at Down With Tyranny)
"Why Everyone in the U.S. Who Counts Wants Julian Assange Dead"
Thomas Neuburger: "By many miles my most-read post of the year, picked up on sites both left and right. The world as currently run not only wants Assange dead, they want him hated. Generating that hate is the process we're watching today. The death will follow shortly."

his vorpal sword
"Law With No Rules"
Hart Williams: "Going through the last year's posts, I was astonished at how prescient this was, predicting very accurately the issues that would lead to impeachment ten months and four days later. It also contains an important warning as to how democracies die that bears repeating."

Bluestem Prairie
"MN01: the hostile world of Hagedorn town halls, updated with videos of Mankato area meetings"
Sally Jo Sorensen: "Freshman Republican Representative Jim Hagedorn faces hostile crowds across his Southern Minnesota district. He doesn't help himself with hostile answers about suicide, climate action, and other topics."

Spocko's Brain
"What To Do If A Trump Supporter Threatens You"
Spocko: "I'm very proud of this piece because it describes how to successfully deal with an online bully."

Brilliant at Breakfast Rebooted
"18 Years On – When Is It Time To Stop?"
Jill: "Musings on whether it's time to let the 9/11 dead finally rest."

This Is So Gay
"Caress, Fondle, Nuzzle the Hair of Your Feelings"
Duncan Mitchel: "The First Amendment guarantees your right to be marginalized, offended, and to feel like an outcast. Celebrate it!"

Doctor Cleveland
"Shakespeare Wasn't Perfect"
Doctor Cleveland: "Why do people keep coming up with ever less plausible candidates as the “real” Shakespeare? Because we can’t accept his flaws."

driftglass
"The Bonfire of the Sanities"
driftglass: "Meet Mr. Michael Gerson: former George W. Bush chief speechwriter, senior Republican policy adviser and reliable Beltway Republican stalactite who now exists in a perpetual state of shock that his Republican Party is full of Republicans."

Blue Gal/The Professional Left Podcast
"Ep 524: Impeachment Articles At Last, and a Convo with Jay Rosen"
Blue Gal: "A brief discussion of our reaction to impeachment. . . . and a long discussion with Jay Rosen of Pressthink.org."

Special bonus post:
Crooks and Liars
"Rachel Maddow And Meghan McCain: A Study In Contrasts"
Frances Langum: "This post is one of my favorites from this year, a takedown of Meghan McCain."

Vagabond Scholar
"Bred for Circuses"
Batocchio: "Conservatives and Republicans can't win many arguments on the merits, so they try to reduce everything to an us-versus-them battle. Authoritarianism, a propaganda network, and outsized media personas are a big help for this."

Thanks again, folks. Happy blogging and everything else in 2020, which promises to be an eventual year.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Bred for Circuses

Conservatives and Republicans can win few arguments honestly on the merits; most of their policies are awful for the vast majority of Americans and benefit only a select few, typically the rich and powerful. Conservative positions tend to be unpopular, too. Rather than change their policies, conservatives choose to lie constantly and shamelessly, and to stoke the worst impulses of their base. Key to these dynamics is ignoring matters of truth and fact, as well as any serious discussion of greater principles about how our country should work. Instead, they try to reduce everything to my team against your team, us against them. The Republican Party is aided in this by a large block of rabid, authoritarian conservatives and a propaganda network eager to feed the faithful the latest two minutes hate, 24/7. Outsized media personas play a critical role in this strategy. ("Conservative" and "Republican" are pretty interchangeable in this post, but for more on that, see the first link above.)

Conservatives and Republicans are also aided, however, by shallow political coverage by mainstream media outlets that far too often withhold essential context from their audiences by refusing to fact check or call out lies, by pretending policy doesn't matter, by pretending both major American political parties are basically the same and both sides are equally to blame for our political problems, and that any deeper look is pointless and/or partisan. Shallow coverage is cheaper to produce and avoids offending some viewers (while aggravating others), and is also seen as neutral and savvy by some reporters. Unfortunately, it's lousy for informing citizens and thus bad for democracy. Propaganda typically demonizes the perceived opposition unfairly, whereas shallow political coverage is loath to call out even clear wrongdoing or hypocrisy by one party. Thus both lying and gutlessness reduce the national political discourse to superficial, bad sports coverage of two competing political teams and to treating important matters as mere entertainment, a sitcom, a circus.

We've seen all these dynamics play out in the impeachment hearings on Donald Trump, related press conferences and media coverage of all of it. During the impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives, several observers noted that Republicans seemed less interested in making coherent arguments or convincing the general populace of their cause than creating video clips for Fox News to run for the conservative base. After the hearings moved from the intelligence committee chaired by Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) to the judiciary committee, Republicans pulled the stunt of putting Schiff on a milk carton poster, saying he was missing because he rejected their call to appear as a witness. (Republicans also asked to call the anonymous whistleblower yet again.) Schiff rejected the request, instead pointing to the intelligence committee's 300-page report and the evidence it covered, and added:

There is nothing to testify about. I think if the President or his allies in the Senate persist it means they are not serious about what they are doing. What would I offer in terms of testimony, that I heard Dr. [Fiona] Hill in open hearing say such and such? That is not pertinent. The only reason for them to go through with this is to mollify the President and that is not a good reason to try to call a member of Congress as a witness.


Trump has repeatedly, angrily expressed a desire to prosecute Schiff for paraphrasing him, but has run into the small problems that that's not illegal and Trump is not a dictator. Judiciary chair Jerold Nadler (D-NY) unsurprisingly sided with Schiff about testifying, and in his letter to Republicans, Nadler cited the "independent evidence" for the conclusions of the report and issues initially raised by the whistleblower. Nadler also reiterated for the umpteenth time concerns about witness intimidation and threats of retaliation by Trump and other conservatives against the whistleblower. As for the report itself, Professor Heather Cox Richardson, who's delivered excellent analysis on the impeachment hearings and related stories, offered up a nice summary on 12/3/19:

The big news today was that the House Intelligence Committee released its report on its investigation into the Ukraine scandal that is at the heart of the impeachment case against Trump. Although the report was long, it had two very clear points: the facts against Trump prove that he solicited a bribe—wording designed to show that the scandal meets the Constitution’s threshold for impeachment—and that Trump obstructed justice in his attempts to stonewall Congress and intimidate witnesses. Obstruction of justice is a crime; it is what took Nixon down in 1974.

The report lays out that the Ukraine scandal is at heart an attempt to rig the 2020 election and destroy our democracy with the help of a foreign country. It points out that this is a pattern for Trump, who benefited from Russian aid in 2016 and who has openly called for help from China as well as Ukraine before the upcoming election. The report notes that Trump’s call with Zelensky took place the day after Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified in public, apparently convincing Trump he was no longer in danger of being nabbed for working with Russia in 2016, and was willing to try a similar scheme again.

The report also notes that the Founders worried about precisely this behavior, and that if it is not checked, democracy is over. The House Intelligence Committee report is a remarkably clear, concise, and powerful document.

For their part, the White House ignored all the facts and relied instead on disinformation. . . .


These are grave matters, but Republicans do not want to discuss the facts and principles driving all serious discussions of impeachment. Likewise, Republicans showed little interest that intelligence committee ranking member Devin Nunes (R-CA), who led the Trump defense in the first set of impeachment hearings, allegedly was part of the Ukraine scandal himself to some degree. As of late November, Republicans had offered at least 22 excuses for Trump (or by another count, 64), many of them contradictory. This blunderbuss technique is a reliable sign of bullshitting and bad faith. Similarly, the Republicans' competing impeachment report "is a series of red herrings." (As of this writing, the House has impeached Trump, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has vowed to coordinate with the White House during any trial in the Senate, further suggestion that the fix is in and the Republican-majority Senate will not convict Trump, regardless of the merits of the charges.) Meanwhile, Trump's unhinged letter to Nancy Pelosi frames the entire impeachment process as driven by a personal vendetta against Trump, not the serious matter of upholding core principles of the U.S. Constitution that it is. Trump's conceit is that Schiff, Pelosi, and every single person who's said something critical of him, given factual evidence harmful to him or moved to curtail his power simply dislikes him personally versus, say, being motivated to uphold the rule of law and think of the good of the country and other higher principles. Trump and the Republicans cannot win an honest, substantive discussion. So they need to reduce everything to: Their guy doesn't like our guy. Just because he's our guy. Fight for our guy. Fight for the team. Attack the enemy.

These dynamics are not remotely new, even if they've become more prevalent not just in politician's arguments but in the political coverage itself. Back in 2006, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg discussed the theatricality of political commentary, even comparing the choice of political talk show figures to sitcom casting. This was back when Ann Coulter was arguably at the nadir of her awfulness, selling shock value and viciousness, and getting plenty of coverage from mainstream media outlets in addition to her usual support from Fox News and other conservative entities. What Nunberg describes as political "smut" overlaps with behavior we might now call trolling, and Coulter was one of the most successful practitioners at the time:

Take Ann Coulter's recent description of the 9/11 widows as self-obsessed witches who were enjoying their husbands' deaths. As calumnies go, it doesn't have a patch on the things people were saying in the 1864 election, when the Democrats called Lincoln a leering buffoon, and Horace Greeley accused the Democrats of stealing the votes of dead Union soldiers. But it's only in the current age that remarks like those could turn someone into a media celebrity who's invited to appear on Jay Leno and the Today Show to repeat her choicest remarks for the delectation or outrage of their viewers.

Coulter's celebrity is a good measure of what has become of political discussion. You'd scarcely describe her as a political thinker, no more than you'd describe Simon Cowell as an critic of the arts. But like Cowell, she has an unerring gift for media theatrics. It isn't just her penchant for making snarky or outrageous remarks. Plenty of people do that without being invited onto the Today Show, and in fact Coulter doesn't get a lot of national attention for her run-of-the-mill ruminations about giving rat poison to Justice Stevens or fragging John Murtha. But the remark about the 9/11 widows was irresistible for its brazen and gratuitous tastelessness and the obvious pleasure Coulter took in consternation she created.

Is Coulter is sincere about the things she says? That's a silly question, like asking whether schoolchildren are sincere in the taunts they throw at each other across the school yard. But that doesn't make her a satirist, as her defenders like to claim -- usually with the implication that her literal-minded liberal critics don't get the joke.

Satire depicts things as grotesque in order to make them seem ridiculous -- what Stephen Colbert does in his Bill O'Reilly persona or Christopher Buckley does with the pointed caricatures of Thank You For Smoking. But Coulter isn't actually sending anybody up -- not herself, certainly, and not the targets of her remarks. Her fans may enjoy hearing her talk about poisoning Justice Stevens or say that it's a pity Timothy McVeigh didn't park his truck next to the New York Times building. But that's not because the remarks make either Stevens or New York Times seem particularly ridiculous. It's because Coulter seems to be able to get away with unbridled aggression by presenting it as mere mischief, leaving her critics looking prim and humorless. ("Perhaps her book should have been called 'Heartless,'" said Hillary Clinton after Coulter's remarks about the widows, inviting the response, "Oh lighten up, girl.")

That rhetorical maneuver doesn't really have a name, but it's a close relative of what we think of as smut. In the strict sense, of course, smut is the leering innuendo that veils sexual aggression. But in a broader sense, smut can be any kind of malice that pretends to be mere naughtiness. It might be a leering vulgarity, a racial epithet, or simply a venomous insult -- what makes it smut is that it's tricked out as humor, so that if anyone claims to be offended you can answer indignantly, "Can't you take a joke?"

In that broad sense, smut can sometimes be innocuous fun. It's a staple of sitcoms, in what you could think of as a Wooo! moment. That's the moment when a character who's comically malicious or catty (think Betty White, Rhea Perlman, Joseph Marcell) makes a remark that's just offensive or risqué enough to brush the limits of taste, and the studio audience reacts by saying "Woooo!!"

The political talk shows traffic in these moments, too -- not surprising, considering how much those shows owe to the classic sitcom. When you think of the most successful practitioners of the genre, whether Coulter, O'Reilly, or James Carville, there isn't a one of them who couldn't be the model for a recurring character on Cheers or Drew Carey -- the waspish virago, the bombastic blowhard, the sly yokel.

And as on the sitcoms, the drama of the political talk show is character-driven rather than plot-driven. Watching O'Reilly or Hannity and Colmes, you can't help recalling the bickering on All in the Family, where politics was always just a pretext for the clash of personalities. It doesn't matter whether the ostensible issue is the massacre at Haditha or an increase in wild bachelorette parties; it's going to be reduced to grist for the eternal squabble between liberals and conservatives -- not as adherents of opposing political philosophies, but more as distinctive political genders. ("Who are these parents who allow their kids to sleep with Michael Jackson?," Alan Colmes asked a couple of years back, and Sean Hannity answered, "Liberals.")


Coulter and Trump share a great deal in terms of a bullying style, but also in their knack for nabbing mainstream coverage and validation, in large part by crafting a character to sell, a media persona. (Coulter thankfully gets less attention these days. Incidentally, Coulter has criticized Trump for not building a border wall and not being harsh enough on immigration, but says she will vote for him anyway. My most in-depth post on Coulter is this one, although some links are broken.) Coulter, like many conservative political commentators, has always been light on substance or outright rejects it. Instead, the key selling point for such figures has always been viciousness and 'owning the libs,' to the delight of their audience. Coulter is now a less popular conservative belligerent than, say, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Mark Levin, Alex Jones, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Tomi Lahren and perennial ragemonger Rush Limbaugh (among others), but currently, they're all eclipsed by the biggest conservative troll of them all, Donald Trump.

As we've covered before, Trump's main selling point to the conservative base is spite; he promises to hurt the people they fear and dislike. He's a bigot, and racism and bigotry form a key part of his appeal to his fans. The recording of him bragging about sexual assault did not sink his presidential campaign and at least 25 women have accused him of sexual misconduct. Trump constantly lies; as of October 2019, he'd told at least 13,435 false or misleading claims over 993 days. In 2016 shortly after being elected, Trump paid $25 million to settle fraud cases against Trump University, a business that one of its own employees described as "a fraudulent scheme." Trump also recently paid a $2 million settlement for using charity funds supposedly going to military veterans for personal use instead, including buying a portrait of himself. (Grifting runs in the family; son Eric Trump's charity misused funds meant to go to St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, which predominantly serves kids with cancer.) Imagine the conservative outrage if Barack Obama or really any Democrat had done a fraction of this, yet most of them give Trump a pass.

Trump's image as a successful businessman is an utter fiction constructed by Trump himself, aided by his late father and by fawning media coverage. He's not a business genius, or even a competent businessman – he just plays one on TV. As The New York Times reported in 2016:

[Trump's] casino companies made four trips to bankruptcy court, each time persuading bondholders to accept less money rather than be wiped out. But the companies repeatedly added more expensive debt and returned to the court for protection from lenders. . . .

All the while, Mr. Trump received copious amounts for himself, with the help of a compliant board. In one instance, The Times found, Mr. Trump pulled more than $1 million from his failing public company, describing the transaction in securities filings in ways that may have been illegal, according to legal experts.


In 2018, The New York Times further reported that rather than being largely a self-made man, Trump inherited at least $413 million from his father, and his entire family has enriched itself with possibly illegal schemes. In 2019, the Times reported that Trump lost over a billion dollars over a decade, losing more money than any other individual in the United States in that time period while simultaneously selling himself as a great dealmaker. Trump's retorts to these reports were unconvincing; as The New Yorker's John Cassidy put it, Trump stands revealed as the biggest loser. Trump's dealings with Deutsche Bank further undermine any claims of actual business acumen versus his ability to scam lenders. Trump may not actually be a billionaire and almost certainly has less money than he pretends, but nonetheless, he'd have more money if he had simply invested in the stock market than attempted all his deals. (As people have joked, Trump has lost money selling booze, steaks and gambling to Americans. Who does that?)

Conservatives sure love their macho daddy figures, from those fake cowboys, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, to that fake, successful businessman, Donald Trump. The book The Art of the Deal played a critical role in selling the myth of Trump, but its deeply regretful ghostwriter Tony Schwartz has explained how he made Trump appear far more thoughtful, competent and ethical than he actually is. The Art of the Deal in turn helped Trump get an even larger vehicle for mythmaking, the NBC TV show, The Apprentice. As The New Yorker article "How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump As an Icon of American Success" explains:

"The Apprentice" portrayed Trump not as a skeezy hustler who huddles with local mobsters but as a plutocrat with impeccable business instincts and unparalleled wealth—a titan who always seemed to be climbing out of helicopters or into limousines. “Most of us knew he was a fake," [producer Jonathon] Braun told me. "He had just gone through I don’t know how many bankruptcies. But we made him out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king." Bill Pruitt, another producer, recalled, "We walked through the offices and saw chipped furniture. We saw a crumbling empire at every turn. Our job was to make it seem otherwise."


(For more on the mythic Trump created on The Apprentice, see The New Yorker again, The New York Times, Fortune and People's piece on Fisher Stevens' documentary on Trump, The Confidence Man.)

Donald Trump is probably one of the worst businessmen in human history and also possibly the most successful con man. His image as a great businessman and dealmaker is a complete fraud. About the only authentic things about him are his vanity, bigotry, greed, proud ignorance and spite. Yet the conservative base loves him and congressional Republicans loyally defend him despite any misgivings.

Mainstream media outlets have often struggled to cover Trump, as well as conservative and Republican perfidy in general. In contrast to some of the excellent investigative journalism mentioned above, daily news coverage of political clashes often descends to a "he said, she said" level. For example, Dan Froomkin's piece criticizing a New York Times article on impeachment is aptly titled, "In the war on truth, the press can't be an innocent bystander." Fact-checking and calling out liars is essential, but often doesn't occur. Likewise, as we've mentioned before, "coverage on the 2016 presidential race almost entirely ignored policy issues and focused on shallow issues with false balance." Such coverage decisions help candidates with bad positions, slim policy portfolios or a habit of lying. False equivalencies and "both siderism" also remain persistent scourges to good journalism, but rather than delve into that here, I'll once again link past posts by digby, driftglass, alicublog, Balloon Juice, LGM and my own archives.

Consider entertainment programming – and news sold as entertainment – and the picture grows even worse. NBC created The Apprentice and played a central role in creating the myth of Trump that enabled him not only to run for president but win. NBC also let Trump host Saturday Night Live even after cutting ties with him over bigoted comments. And NBC and other mainstream outlets have long validated Trump and earlier toxic figures such as Ann Coulter. Trump received more than $5.9 billion of free media coverage during the election, over twice the amount received by Hillary Clinton. In 2016, then-CBS chairman Les Moonves made some infamous remarks about the "circus":

Donald Trump’s candidacy might not be making America great, CBS Chairman Les Moonves said Monday, but it’s great for his company.

"It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS," Moonves said at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in San Francisco, according to The Hollywood Reporter — perfectly distilling what media critics have long suspected was motivating the round-the-clock coverage of Trump's presidential bid.

"Most of the ads are not about issues. They're sort of like the debates," Moonves said, noting, "[t]here's a lot of money in the marketplace."

The 2016 campaign is a "circus," he remarked, but "Donald's place in this election is a good thing."


Moonves' later claim that he was joking was unconvincing. Trump was a horrible candidate who frequently behaved vilely, but he was a showman, so CBS, NBC, and other outlets gave Trump tons of coverage, some negative, but not really that critical, and certainly not substantive, given their scant discussion of policy. They rejected sound editorial judgment and shamefully if predictably chose short-term profits over a sense of civic duty to meaningfully inform their audiences, especially because they thought Clinton would win and their behavior could not affect the election. But it most certainly did.

Worse than the mainstream outlets, though, are propaganda outlets, most notably Fox News. Fox News has always scored poorly in terms of factual accuracy, but it's moved beyond being a conservative news outlet to being outright propaganda, comfortable to flat-out lie. The same is true of Republicans in government, and the two work closely together. See, for example, Jane Mayer in The New Yorker on "The Making of the Fox News White House" and Greg Sargent in The Washington Post on how "McConnell’s awful Hannity interview shows power of Fox News’s disinformation." In a similar vein, The Post reported, "A Justice Department inspector general’s report examining the FBI investigation of President Trump’s 2016 campaign rebutted conservatives’ accusations that top FBI officials were driven by political bias to illegally spy on Trump advisers but also found broad and “serious performance failures” requiring major changes." Attorney General William Barr, a Republican party loyalist, has undercut his own department and directly contradicted key findings of the report, as covered in Sargent's piece, "William Barr’s deceptions are more dangerous than you think" and Wonkette's "Just When You Thought You Couldn't Respect Bill Barr Any Less." Wired covered Barr and much more in "Fox News Is Now a Threat to National Security." Digby's commented on similar dynamics in "The Nonsense Ecosystem" (adopting a phrase from Daniel Dale) and many other posts. Fox News and the entire right-wing media ecosystem pose a serious and growing problem to democracy. As several people have noted, if Nixon had had Fox News, he might not have been impeached.

Authoritarian conservatism plays a pivotal role in making the propaganda work; Fox News and similar outlets cater to an audience eager to hate their scapegoats du jour. In 2016, then-candidate Trump bragged that "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters." He considered it praise for his supporters' loyalty; it was instead an accurate and chilling description of unquestioning obedience and authoritarianism (and Trump's megalomania). One of Trump's lawyers has actually argued in court that as president, Trump could indeed shoot someone in 5th Avenue and get away with it (shades of Bush lawyer John Yoo). The transcript of Trump's call with Ukrainian President Zelensky is damning, especially with the added context that has been provided by later reporting and the impeachment hearings. Yet Trump and his allies have shouted to "READ THE TRANSCRIPT!" as if it exonerates him. Trump even held a rally where supporters were wearing t-shirts (presumably distributed by Trump's team) saying "READ THE TRANSCRIPT!" Naturally, as The Daily Show discovered in a great segment covering a later rally, most Trump supporters have not read the transcript and were not familiar with the key takeaways, even though some said – without irony or self-awareness – that reading the transcript, not being a sheep and being an independent thinker were all important. They simply believe what they're told, and do so gladly it's from the right authority figures, whether that's Trump himself, Fox News talking heads or other conservative figures. It's completely Orwellian; they will eagerly believe that black is white and insist that their chosen political team is always in the right. (Who are you going to believe, Trump and Fox News or your lying eyes?)

Trump was clearly unfit for office before the election and has provided overwhelming evidence of his unfitness since. The misdeeds for which he's being impeached may not even be the worst things he's done (and who knows what else will come out), but they're certainly sufficient grounds for removing him from office. The conservative base, Republican voters and congressional Republicans simply do not care. Nearly 90% of self-described Republicans voted for Trump in 2016, and assuming he's still in office by the time of the 2020 election, similar percentages will likely vote for him again, despite any disapproval they express. As of this writing, Trump has been impeached but the articles of impeachment have not been sent to the Senate. The Democratic presidential candidate for 2020 has not been chosen and the presidential election has not occurred. Despite some uncertainties about the year(s) ahead, we can make some reasonable predictions, among them that conservatives and Republicans will not behave honorably and it would be folly to expect otherwise.

Conservatives tend to be bullies with power and whiners without it. They've constructed alternative realities with alternative facts, where they can believe what they want and feel simultaneously persecuted (and thus righteously aggrieved) and superior. Some religious conservatives (ostensibly Christian) will even cite ancient Roman persecution of Christians, that they were thrown to lions in the arena. There's some truth but mostly myth to that tale, but regardless, some religious conservatives will apocalyptically invoke the image as a future reality should "socialism" take hold (via a Bernie Sanders presidency, for instance). The truth is that conservatives thrill for combat with their chosen foes, and that they'd just choose new scapegoats if they ever succeeded in eliminating the old ones. They don't believe in treating others as they would like be treated, and certainly don't believe in turning the other cheek. They are pro-spectacle, anti-substance, pro-circus; authoritarian conservatives are particularly bred for circuses. They don't truly object to the idea of throwing people to the lions; they just want the power to choose the victims.

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)

Monday, November 11, 2019

Armistice Day 11/11/19

(Click on the comic strip for a larger view.)

In 1959, Pogo creator Walt Kelly wrote:

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.

You said it, brother.

Thanks to all who have served or are serving, on this Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day.

This post is mostly a repeat I run every year, since I find it hard to top Kelly.

Back in 2009, I wrote a series of six related posts for Armistice Day (and as part of an ongoing series on war). The starred posts are the most important, but the list is:

"Élan in The Guns of August"

"Demonizing of the Enemy"

"The War Poetry of Wilfred Owen"

***"Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels"

"The Little Mother"

***"War and the Denial of Loss"

The most significant other entries in the series are:

"How to Hear a True War Story" (2007)

"Day of Shame" (2008)

"The Poetry of War" (2008)

"Armistice Day 2008" (featuring the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon).

"They Could Not Look Me in the Eye Again" (2011)

"The Dogs of War" (2013)

"The Courage to Make Others Suffer" (2015)

"The Battle of the Somme" (2017)

I generally update these posts later with links to appropriate pieces for 11/11 by other folks as I find them. If you've written one, feel free to link it in a comment. Thanks.

Getting Over It

Dahlia Lithwick, who's written great pieces on the Supreme Court and legal matters for a long time, has penned a thoughtful, sobering piece called "Why I Haven’t Gone Back to SCOTUS Since Kavanaugh." It's worth reading in its entirely for her recap of the disgraceful confirmation process, the continuing, dreadful treatment of Christine Blasey Ford, and Lithwick's personal experiences. Lithwick takes aim at sexism and misogyny, but also delivers a more expansive critique of power and its abuses:

That is the problem with power: It incentivizes forgiveness and forgetting. It’s why the dozens of ethics complaints filed after the Kavanaugh hearings complaining about the judge’s behavior have been easily buried in a bottomless file of appeasement, on the grounds that he’s been seated and it’s too late. The problem with power is that there is no speaking truth to it when it holds all the cards. And now, given a lifetime appointment to a position that is checked by no one, Washington, the clerkship machinery, the cocktail party circuit, the elite academy all have a vested interest in getting over it and the public performance of getting over it. And a year perhaps seems a reasonable time stamp for that to begin.

The problem with power is that Brett Kavanaugh now has a monopoly on normalization, letting bygones be bygones, and turning the page. American women also have to decide whether to get over it or to invite more recriminations. That is, for those keeping track, the very definition of an abusive relationship. You stick around hoping that he’s changed, or that he didn’t mean it, or that if you don’t anger him again, maybe it’ll all be fine when the court hears the game-changing abortion appeal this year. . . .

It is not my job to decide if Brett Kavanaugh is guilty. It’s impossible for me to do so with incomplete information, and with no process for testing competing facts. But it’s certainly not my job to exonerate him because it’s good for his career, or for mine, or for the future of an independent judiciary. Picking up an oar to help America get over its sins without allowing for truth, apology, or reconciliation has not generally been good for the pursuit of justice. Our attempts to get over CIA torture policies or the Iraq war or anything else don’t bring us closer to truth and reconciliation. They just make it feel better—until they do not. And we have all spent far too much of the past three years trying to tell ourselves that everything is OK when it most certainly is not normal, not OK, and not worth getting over.


The Beltway gang – or the Village, as Digby's sometimes called it – generally doesn't like accountability for their own, regardless of political party. The powerful rarely learn the error of their ways unless they are held to account. And when they're not held responsible, it also sends the message to other powerful people that they can get away with misdeeds as well. Even if no one served jail time for lying the U.S. into the Iraq War or the Bush administration's torture regime, at least we still could have a truth and reconciliation commission or something similar. But even that would go way too far for Beltway insiders like Peggy Noonan, who in 2009 said in reference to the torture regime:

Some things in life need to be mysterious. Sometimes you need to just keep walking. . . . It’s hard for me to look at a great nation issuing these documents and sending them out to the world and thinking, oh, much good will come of that.


Noonan, of course, was concerned with "good" coming to people in her social circle, of her class, not about justice for torture victims or all the other harm caused by the torture program. Nor was she concerned about ordinary U.S. citizens who might be bothered by abuses of power and might suffer the effects, later on if not immediately. She needn't have worried; no one was held accountable, and indeed no good came of it, if not the way she meant. Similarly, nothing good ultimately came of Gerald Ford pardoning Richard Nixon. Nothing good came of George H. W. Bush pardoning Iran-Contra conspirators. (So are they all, all honourable men.) Nothing good came of barely holding anyone responsible for the financial industry's malfeasance in creating the economic crash of 2008. Likewise, nothing good will come of the current human rights abuses on the border and grotesque and flagrant abuses of power by conservatives throughout government. This is not the time for politeness or gutless pleas for civility. A true "armistice" is impossible without remembrance, investigation and accountability.

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)

Monday, September 02, 2019

Labor Day 2019

Happy Labor Day! This a repeat, but one of the better songs for the day, methinks:

My most in-depth post for Labor Day was this 2011 post.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

rip skippy



I was saddened to learn that long-time blogger skippy passed away recently. His alter ego Gil Christner was an actor and stand-up comedian, and chances are you saw him in a commercial at some point.



Gil's website is here and Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice has written a nice obituary.

skippy/Gil lived in Los Angeles, and was a friendly guy in person and online. I didn't know him terribly well, but we corresponded a bit, and he was admirably dedicated to linking other blogs. Most of his posts were written without capital letters, and he had the honor of having his blog mocked on The Daily Show by Jon Stewart. skippy and the late Jon Swift cofounded Blogroll Amnesty Day, in which participants linked and promoted small-ish blogs. That's always good karma. He also pressed corporate media outlets for accuracy and good judgment in their coverage. (He was one of the good guys in a 2008 post of mine about an Obama nonscandal that seemingly would not die, "Skippy and the Mystery of the Missing Journalism," which is a bit long but perhaps a helpful reminder of how vapid most political coverage is.)

If you'd like to honor skippy, check out his blog, read the obituary above and make sure to visit and/or link a few small blogs.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Independence Day 2019

I'm afraid this is not a happy Independence Day. As several people have pointed out, we have tanks in DC and concentration camps on the nation's Southern border, both at the insistence of Donald Trump. The cruelty of the camps is the point; it's a feature, not a bug.

Most years for Independence Day, I post some videos, but this year, I thought I'd link a great poem I just discovered, "A New National Anthem," by Ada Limón. Follow the link for the full poem, but this may be my favorite section:

And what of the stanzas
we never sing, the third that mentions “no refuge
could save the hireling and the slave”? Perhaps
the truth is that every song of this country
has an unsung third stanza, something brutal
snaking underneath us as we blindly sing
the high notes with a beer sloshing in the stands
hoping our team wins.


It's a great piece and timely. Check out the rest.

For me, one of the best and most hopeful American traditions is the conscientious critique: MLK, Pete Seeger, Dorothea Dix, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez, Frances Perkins, and countless more. (Add Ada Limón to the list.) There's always room for improvement; we can treat each other more kindly and do better as a nation.

That idea dovetails with a 2006 piece by E.J. Dionne I've featured before, "A Dissident's Holiday." My favorite bit:

...The true genius of America has always been its capacity for self-correction. I'd assert that this is a better argument for patriotism than any effort to pretend that the Almighty has marked us as the world's first flawless nation.

One need only point to the uses that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. made of the core ideas of the Declaration of Independence against slavery and racial injustice to show how the intellectual and moral traditions of the United States operate in favor of continuous reform.

There is, moreover, a distinguished national tradition in which dissident voices identify with the revolutionary aspirations of the republic's founders.


Dionne's views stand in sharp contrast with Trump's, who views Independence Day as an opportunity to play with tanks in the style of a Soviet May Day parade and invite adulation of himself. Donald Trump, like many other American conservatives, is an authoritarian. And he and his most ardent followers are cruel, gleeful bullies.

The conditions in the camps are horrible by design, because of bigotry and to maximize profits. At least the camps' grotesque reality is being increasing exposed, by visiting Democratic members of Congress, pediatricians and reporters, despite efforts to prevent the public from knowing what's really going on. We're seeing the ugliest attitudes in America, in a continuing dark tradition. But we're also seeing conscientious resistance and a push for reform. That impulse is always worth supporting and celebrating.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

National Poetry Month 2019

April is National Poetry Month, and it's never too late to enjoy some poetry. As usual, I'll link the wonderful Favorite Poem Project, although its summer institute has been dissolved, alas.

This year, I thought I'd feature a great poem I just discovered earlier this year:

The Rider
By Naomi Shihab Nye

A boy told me
if he roller-skated fast enough
his loneliness couldn’t catch up to him,
the best reason I ever heard
for trying to be a champion.
What I wonder tonight
pedaling hard down King William Street
is if it translates to bicycles.
A victory! To leave your loneliness
panting behind you on some street corner
while you float free into a cloud of sudden azaleas,
pink petals that have never felt loneliness,
no matter how slowly they fell.


This is from Nye's 1998 collection, Fuel, if you want to read more of her work.

Feel free to link a favorite poem in the comments.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

St. Patrick's Day 2019

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Ireland has a wealth of songs. This year, I thought I'd feature "The Parting Glass," which has Scottish origins but also a long history in Ireland, with the melody used for another Irish song. Several musical groups have used this one to end concerts, and it's also a popular pick for funerals.

The High King's version is very good:



Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem's version is quiet and lovely:



The Celtic Women use it for a rousing finale:



Face Vocal Band delivers an a cappella rendition:



Lastly, here's a whiskey ad with memorable use of the song:



Feel free to mention and link any favorite Irish tunes in the comments.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

2018 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition, delayed this round. In addition to this section, there's The Top Four, Noteworthy Films and and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

2018 had some good smaller-scale films in addition to two notable blockbusters, but was not a particularly strong year for film overall. As for the Oscars, the best news was that the Academy reversed a dumb decision to award some categories during the commercial breaks due to intense backlash. (Credit for correcting a mistake.) As Guillermo del Toro, put it, "If I may: I would not presume to suggest what categories to cut during the Oscars show but – Cinematography and Editing are at the very heart of our craft. They are not inherited from a theatrical tradition or a literary tradition: they are cinema itself."

Did The Oscars suffer from not having a host? Not really. It meant no opening monologue, which is a good host's chance to shine, but also fewer pointless time-wasters. Many of the presenters would have made good hosts, though, including the early trio of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph. (A friend suggested the best idea I've heard: have Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie and Wayne Brady from Whose Line Is It Anyway? host the Oscars.)

The most spectacular presenter was easily Melissa McCarthy dressed as Queen Anne from The Favourite, complete with stuffed rabbits on her dress and a rabbit puppet. Sound awards presenters James McAvoy and Danai Gurira had fun playing with vocal dynamics. John Mulaney and Awkafina were also funny, presenting some of the shorts.

The winners were better organized the most years, with clear assignments for who would say what. Best Animated Feature winners for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse make neat remarks about how pleased they were that the film resonated with a diverse audience, as they intended. Anyone who thinks the short categories should be eliminated should consider that the people who make shorts often go on to make features they love. They should also watch the excitement of the winners for Skin. (I haven't seen the film, but I appreciate the enthusiasm.) Or thrill along with the young winners for Period. End of Sentence. who exclaimed, "I can't believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar!"

Bohemian Rhapsody featured some great sound work (I've included links with my review), but I would have given Best Sound Editing to First Man for the tension-ratcheting sounds of its space program and Best Sound Mixing to Roma for its lovely (and occasionally disturbing) soundscapes. (Had They Shall Not Grow Old been eligible, it would have been a superb nominee for Best Sound Editing as well, as well as Best Documentary Feature.) I believe the tales that John Ottman's film editing saved Bohemian Rhapsody, and kudos for that, but I'm not sure he deserved the award. Vice's amazing prosthetics work justifiably won Best Makeup and Hairstyling. I probably would have given Best Costuming and Best Production Design to The Favourite – they play key roles in the film – on the other hand, it was a nice change of pace to see the elaborate Black Panther win both awards over a period piece. I'm not a big fan of Lady Gaga nor "Shallow," but the song was more central to its movie, the fourth (!) version A Star Is Born, than any of the other nominees, and there's no denying that Gaga and costar (and director) Bradley Cooper threw themselves into their performance.

I like Spike Lee's films, but I didn't think BlackkKlansman was his best work and wasn't sure it deserved Best Adapted Screenplay. I didn't object strongly, either, given how some of his other work has been shafted. Plus, he gave a spirited speech. I thought The Favourite deserved Best Original Screenplay over Green Book for its acid dialogue and greater originality. (I've heard good things about If Beale Street Could Talk and First Reformed, respective contenders, but haven't seen either yet.) I saw far fewer of the Oscar-nominated performances than usual. Mahershala Ali was excellent in Green Book and seemed like a worthy repeat recipient, regardless of one's other thoughts about the film. Sam Rockwell was funny as George Bush in Vice, but it's a much slighter role. I thought Simon Russell Beale deserved a nomination for The Death of Stalin, but alas, too few people saw it. I missed Regina King's Best Supporting Actress performance and saw the other four, which were all excellent, but I've liked King in other roles and buy that she deserved it. (Amy Adams is overdue for an Oscar, and she's great as usual as Lynne Cheney, but she's had better roles and surely will again.) I thought Rami Malek was the best thing about Bohemian Rhapsody and made the film. He gave a heartfelt acceptance speech. I didn't see Glenn Close in The Wife – I've heard it's another good performance in a not-so-great film –but I thought Olivia Coleman was tremendous in The Favourite – funny, terrifying and pitiable by turns. During Coleman's acceptance speech, she was overwhelmed, awkward, gracious, self-effacing and utterly charming.

The montage of death had a nice accompaniment this time – the LA Philharmonic, led by Gustavo Dudamel, playing music by John Williams.

Roma deserved all its awards, although there's a controversy about writer-director Alfonso Cuaron accepting sole credit for its cinematography as well as taking an editing credit.

Now to the big controversy: Best Picture. I'd say Green Book is a good movie when taken on its own merits, an odd couple road movie with two strong lead performers with great chemistry, which is rarer than we'd like and nothing to dismiss. But the film also has problems, and it shouldn't have been nominated for Best Picture, let alone won. Four of the Best Picture nominees dealt with race pretty prominently: Roma, BlackkKlansman, Black Panther and Green Book. Even superhero movie Black Panther deals with race more incisively than Green Book, a throwback film that places racism safely in the past and centers on a white protagonist learning a valuable lesson.

Of the nominees, I'd have given Best Picture to Roma. It told a story we don't see often in cinema, and did so with a natural grace. My other favorites weren't even nominated: First Man, The Death of Stalin and They Shall Not Grow Old. I thought BlackkKlansman was decent, with a few excellent scenes, but if you know the Colorado KKK wasn't nearly as dangerous as depicted, the stakes feel much lower. The strongest scenes by far were the documentary footage used to end the movie, which Spike Lee choose to include but weren't written or directed by Spike Lee. I'd rank Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Get on the Bus and 25th Hour as his best films, and BlackkKlansman a tier below. I wouldn't have been upset if BlackkKlansman won, but I would have seen it more as a lifetime achievement award for Spike Lee; I didn't feel he got robbed. (I did note, as did many others, that he keeps losing to movies about chauffeurs.)

Likewise, although Do the Right Thing was one of the best films of 1989, by no means was it clearly superior to all the rest. Whereas 2019 wasn't a strong year for film, 1989 was. Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture that year. Few people would knock Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman as performers or Bruce Beresford as a director, but it seemed like the safest of picks, and disappointing in that regard. The other nominees were pretty good: Born on the Fourth of July is a pretty gutsy film about war, disability and fake versus true patriotism; Oliver Stone won Best Director. Dead Poets Society is one of the great films about both teaching and love of the written word, featuring a memorable performance by Robin Williams and dealing with suicide, among other things. Field of Dreams is a fantasy, but one that's awfully hard to dislike; Burt Lancaster's scenes alone make it worthwhile. My Left Foot is an acting tour-de-force by Daniel Day-Lewis (winning him the first of his three Oscars) and also won Best Supporting Actress for Brenda Fricker. Good films that weren't nominated included Do the Right Thing, but also Glory, Henry V and Crimes and Misdemeanors. It was a year the five-film nominee limit seemed particularly frustrating. Glory was more impressive for its time than it is now – it'd be nice to spend less time on the white officers, for example – but the battle scenes have some admirable realism and the film justifiably won Denzel Washington his first Oscar. I'm personally fond of both Dead Poets Society and Field of Dreams. But in terms of innovation and cinematic achievement, I'd probably list three films as the best of 1989: Do the Right Thing, Henry V and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

First, Do the Right Thing. It's got an undeniable energy and attitude, and Spike Lee is innovative with his camera, having characters speak directly to the camera, leading to many of the most memorable scenes: a montage of bigoted insults, and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) explaining hate versus love. It's got more craft than a casual viewer might realize – Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) and local DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) serve as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the action. The movie explicitly tackles bigotry, and does so primarily from a black point-of-view, delivering insights and perspectives that many previous films on race didn't necessarily have. It's a confrontational movie, and thus not easy viewing for all audiences, but the film is also a question and a discussion rather than a statement, ending with contrasting quotations from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. That's some of the good stuff. As for the bad: Spike Lee plays the central character, Mookie, and he's not a great actor (although he's probably better in Do the Right Thing than in Malcolm X and Mo' Better Blues). Reportedly, Spike Lee wanted Sal (Danny Aiello) to have less dimension and be more racist, and Aiello fought to give the character more nuance. (We see a good side, but he's still pretty bigoted.) Women aren't given much of a role. All that said, it's a good film, and I'm looking forward to revisiting it when Criterion comes out with its edition later this year.

Second, Henry V: it's one of the best Shakespeare films ever, but it's also just a great film. Director Kenneth Branagh, who was a mere 29 at the end of 1989, delivered one hell of a first film. His own lead performance is stellar, with the most rousing rendition of the famous St. Crispin's speech I've yet to see. The other performers are impeccable, giving master classes in inflexion, particularly Brian Blessed and Derek Jacobi, but there's also Ian Holm, Paul Scofield, Michael Maloney, Emma Thompson and Judi Dench (plus a very young Christian Bale). It's got a stacked cast. If you're a Shakespeare buff, the film makes a striking contrast with Laurence Olivier's 1944 version; Olivier was rallying the war effort, and his Henry is great because he transcends any human frailty; Branagh's Henry is great because he suffers and gets dirty, and struggles through his trials. The score by Patrick Doyle is fantastic, and Doyle worked closely with Branagh during filming (and has a small part). Cinematically, Branagh stages one of the great medieval battle scenes, with a fantastic use of editing to build tension during the French charge at the start, and then uses a lengthy unbroken tracking shot over the battlefield at the very end. It would be hard to overstate how impressive Branagh's Henry V is; it's a staggering achievement. Its successes may be less innovative than, say, Do the Right Thing, but if we're talking sheer craftsmanship, I'd have to say Henry V was the best film of the year.

Third and last, we have Crimes and Misdemeanors. Regardless of what one thinks of Woody Allen as a person, he's made some notable films (if not for all tastes). Crimes and Misdemeanors is exceptionally well-written and features a moral complexity rarely seen in cinema (or even novels). It's shot by the great Sven Nykvist (best known for working with Ingmar Bergman), and a nighttime crisis of conscience scene during a thunderstorm is particularly stunning work. Martin Landau gives a fantastic lead performance as Judah Rosenthal, a highly successful man considering dark deeds, and Woody Allen gives him one of the greatest character lines ever: "God is a luxury I can't afford." It's amoral, and bullshit, but it exemplifies the character and his perspective. The film packs in a ton of wisdom, but also asks more questions than it answers. I've taught the film before, and have colleagues that have used it since, and it possesses a depth and complexity that spurs great reflection and discussions. It's not a flashy film, but it's a great one.

Back to Spike Lee: he's a good filmmaker and I'm glad he's making movies. I think he probably deserves more Oscar nominations than he's gotten, but I don't think he was robbed by not winning Best Picture in either year. He was given an honorary Oscar in 2015, and those are essentially lifetime achievement awards, and also a way for the Academy to honor people who haven't won competitive Oscars (or not as many as perhaps they deserved). I have friends who think honorary Oscars don't count, but I strongly disagree – I think they matter more, because they can amend past losses and they represent a longer view at a person's career. A great performance might occur in a so-so film. The same is true for great technical work; a great sound job on an otherwise bad movie tends not to win, if it even gets nominated. A performance that might have won one year might have stiffer competition the year it was eligible. And so on. Peter O'Toole had epically bad luck and never won a competitive Oscar, despite being nominated eight times and one of great film actors. Robert Altman never won a competitive Oscar, either. Akira Kurosawa had won Oscars for Best Film in a Foreign Language, but his honorary Oscar was a well-deserved lifetime achievement award. Audrey Hepburn won Best Actress, but also received honorary Oscars later. Stanley Donen gave what was probably the most gracious acceptance speech ever when receiving his honorary Oscar. I was happy to see all of them get their awards, and yes, they matter.

Side note: 2018 had a welcome trend of women playing tech geniuses or at least proficient hackers, in Black Panther, Incredibles 2, Ready Player One and Ocean's 8.

On to the reviews. As usual, I try to label spoilers, but also follow a simple rule: if it's in the trailer, it's not a spoiler.

2018 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Four

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition that comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, Noteworthy Films and and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).
Roma: If you've been longing for a film in the style of Italian Neorealism, Roma has you covered. Named after a neighborhood in Mexico City, it's a semi-autobiographical film from writer-director Alfonso Cuarón focused on Cleodegaria Gutiérrez, "Cleo" (Yalitza Aparicio, in her film debut), one of two live-in servants for an upper middle-class family. The father, Antonio, is a doctor; he and his wife Sofía (Marina de Tavira) have four young children, and Sofia's mother Teresa also lives with them. The family can be kind to Cleo, but Sofia does yell at her occasionally. The children adore Cleo, though, occasionally fighting for her attention. On one of their days off, Cleo and Adela (the other live-in servant) meet up with their boyfriends. Cleo's boyfriend, Fermin, studies martial arts and prizes appearing strong. (A deadly serious kata he performs winds up being hilarious; you'll see.) But when Cleo tells Fermin she might be pregnant, he vanishes. Despite worrying about being fired, Cleo confides in Sofia, who promises to help her out.

Like many Italian Neorealism films, Roma is less about plot and more about characters and moments. The storytelling is unhurried, episodic and lyrical, with great black and white cinematography and a lovely, subtle sound design layered with the everyday sounds of life in a home, a city and the countryside. Most of the film consists of simply following Cleo, who's kind, patient and maintains a quiet dignity despite a series of setbacks. Films about servants, let alone an indigenous woman, are fairly rare, and I found Roma interesting and refreshing in that respect. The film's got a political aspect simply by telling Cleo's story; she's got relatively low social status, isn't always treated well, but occasionally seems prized by others. Scenes range from the funny to the surreal to the harrowing and powerful; the climactic scene is gripping stuff, with a strong performances by Aparicio and a long, unbroken camera shot given escalating power by the sound design and situation. Art house films in this style aren't for everyone, and I still prefer many of the Italian Neorealism classics, but I enjoyed this one and found it a welcome change of pace from typical Hollywood fare.

First Man: If you're looking for a conventional biopic or a rah-rah America film, you'll want to skip First Man, which juxtaposes the personal life of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) with the race to the Moon. Even in an age of stoicism, Armstrong stands out as being intensely, even aggressively private, pushing away people who try to reach out to him after the tragic death of his young daughter to illness. Meanwhile, in his professional life as an astronaut, Armstrong endures extreme conditions while appearing mostly unflappable to others, even if we're privy to his sweating and fear. The flight and test scenes are often riveting, with great sound effects work ratcheting up the tension.

This is not a good choice for a first space race film, but a rich one for audiences who know the basic story and have already seen, say, The Right Stuff. Apollo 13, Hidden Figures, From Earth to the Moon or 2019's superb documentary, Apollo 11. Director Damien Chazelle and writer Josh Singer eschew triumphalism (which earned them some criticism), focusing instead on Armstrong's internal struggles. Brit Claire Foy gives a strong performance as Janet Armstrong, Neil's no-nonsense wife; Neil probably fears tangling with her more than any of the dangerous rigs he climbs into. (Foy's accent is a bit dodgy but the tradeoff is more than worth it.) The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, with Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler and Shea Whigham being standouts. Meanwhile, Gosling gives a fine, subtle lead performance as someone trying to be stoic, with occasionally strong emotion being held under ferocious control; the dynamic gives even mute moments a charged energy. Chazelle and Gosling last worked together on La La Land (reviewed TEXT), and this is an impressive change of pace. I understand why some audiences didn't care for First Man. But I found several of the flight scenes gripping and some of the personal moments moving.

The Death of Stalin: The Death of Stalin is not for all audiences, but a certain crowd will adore this jet-black satire based on real events. If you have the fatalistic Russian sensibility to see the dark humor of seemingly random reprieves from a totalitarian regime's capricious arrests and executions, this is the movie for you.. Director Armando Iannucci, known for The Thick of It, Veep and In the Loop (the fifth film reviewed TEXT) casts comedians in most of the roles and has them use their own accents, reasoning that the Soviet Union had many regional accents.

The plot: The opening sequence is a concert performed under duress for Soviet leader Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), which amazingly, really happened much as depicted. Shortly thereafter, Stalin has a stroke, sending the upper leadership of the Soviet Union into a panic. Deputy Premier Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is insecure and a bit of a dolt, so into the power vacuum steps Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Stalin's nefarious, scheming chief of secret police and member of the central committee. Beria's chief rival is Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), who races to recruit allies against the dangerous Beria. The ensuing struggles among central committee members, Stalin's two adult children and the military feature competitive ass-kissing, the absurdities of bureaucratic infighting, and astounding contortions to maintain ideological purity in shifting circumstances. (A speech by Molotov, played wonderfully by Michael Palin, is an absolute gem in the last category.)

I was a bit skeptical of Steve Buscemi playing Khrushchev, but he's fantastic, with the energy and fast tongue to keep the whole affair moving. Shakespearean actor Simon Russell Beale is another standout as the menacing, canny Beria, and I thought he should have gotten a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. (He also reminded me a bit of Dick Cheney, both physically and in style.) Jason Isaacs makes a memorable late entrance as macho General Zhukov, no fan of Beria. But the entire cast is great, with memorable performances by the aforementioned Tambor and Palin, as well as Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Paddy Considine and Rupert Friend. Some of the scenes are intentionally disturbing – this is a world of executions and potential coups, after all. You're also more likely to appreciate it if you know a little Soviet history. But if you like both Orwell and dark comedy, you'll probably enjoy this one.

They Shall Not Grow Old: They Shall Not Grow Old serves as a superb primer on World War I for unfamiliar audiences and offers welcome depth through first-hand accounts for audiences who know something about the subject. The Imperial War Museums of Britain contacted WWI enthusiast Peter Jackson about making an unconventional documentary with their unreleased footage. Jackson's team first did some tests to see if the footage could be restored digitally, and found that it could, in some cases quite radically. Jackson and his team then went through over 100 hours of footage and 600 hours of BBC interviews with WWI veterans to choose the pieces to craft the movie. They even consulted forensic lip readers to figure out what soldiers were saying in some clips. The narrative shows young British men being recruited and trained, going to fight in the trenches in Europe, and a sobering advance over the field of battle. You'll also learn a lot about what they ate, small pleasures and the harsh realities of life in the trenches; only a few interviewees offer an everything-was-dandy account. Much of the footage is colorized, and some of the restoration makes the faces look somewhat washed-out and plastic, but overall, it's a very effective approach. The storytelling is so smooth it's easy to take for granted the tremendous amount of work it took to pick the right footage and the right audio clips in the right order; the film has no conventional narration. In the making of doc, Jackson briefly mentions all the wonderful stories they couldn't fit in; the naval experience; the experience of women on the home front working in factories for the war effort; the experiences of racial minorities; and the stories of nationalities besides Britain (British commonwealth countries get a little screen time). You can just watch They Shall Not Grow Old and get sucked in, but I found myself marveling at the craftsmanship throughout. The sound design alone is masterful and helps pull us in (chatter, nature sounds, sound effects recreated from real WWI guns and artillery pieces), but this is impeccable work all around. It's also valuable, digestible history built on first-hand accounts versus official, sanitized versions. Unfortunately, They Shall Not Grow Old was released too late in 2018 to be eligible for the Oscars and because it's a 2018 film will not be eligible with 2019 films. But everyone involved with it should be proud of this achievement.

Personal notes: I wish World War I was studied more in the U.S. and better remembered; we prefer to remember WWII because we were more clearly the good guys, and WWI lacks such a storyline to distract from its horrific battles and many unconscionable political and military decisions. When I went to see They Shall Not Grow Old in the theater, I was heartened to see the audience had a wide age range, with elderly couples, middle-aged viewers and also a college-aged crowd. One young man in his 20s had seen it already and dragged his friend to it; they were talking about enthusiastically afterward. When the film started, Peter Jackson introduced it and stated they would play a making of documentary after the film itself. Nearly everyone stayed for what was about 45 minutes more. That's both a recommendation and encouraging.