Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, July 04, 2024

Independence Day 2024

Although the United States of America is a flawed nation, it's good to remember that, in addition to other causes, it was founded in opposition to a monarchy and unaccountable power. We can add plenty of nuance and caveats to that statement (constitutional monarchy, property rights, slavery, treatment of Native Americans, women's rights, etc.), but that core principle of the democratic over the anti-democratic is worth remembering and fighting for. That's especially true given the anti-democratic and neofeudalistic goals of U.S. conservatives, as seen in the January 6th, 2021 insurrection, Project 2025, awful Supreme Court decisions from its conservative hacks, including giving the U.S. president monarchial rights, and many more examples. It would be nice if democracy weren't on the line every presidential election, and if plutocracy weren't made significantly worse with every Republican victory, but here we are.

I've often featured a 2006 piece by E.J. Dionne called "A Dissident's Holiday" that acknowledges America's flaws but also affirms its aspirations. It's a short piece worth reading in full, but this passage is especially apt:

. . . 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.

I'll end with a videos I've featured before, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen singing Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" from Obama's first inauguration. (Past versions of the video have been taken down.) Although Woody started writing it as a critical song – and Pete includes some of the social commentary verses – it's also a celebratory and aspirational song. (I also can't see Pete pickin' and grinnin' without smiling.) Happy birthday, United States of America.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

St. Patrick's Day 2024

Happy St. Patrick's Day! I've featured "The Parting Glass" before. It's a Scottish song, but is popular in Ireland and as a closing number for Irish traditional music groups. It's also used for the ending of the 1998 Irish film Waking Ned (or Waking Ned Devine in North America), which I watched this weekend and is a funny, charming movie.

I probably first heard the Clancy Brothers' version. This rendition by Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem version is subdued and lovely:

The High Kings' version starts out pretty, with a big finish:

Celtic Woman likewise uses the song for a rousing finale:

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Oscars and the Year in Review 2023

2023 had some notable films. Since the pandemic, I rarely go to movie theaters anymore, but did see Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and Godzilla Minus One. At home I saw the twin juggernauts, Oppenheimer and Barbie, as well as Killers of the Flower Moon and Asteroid City. I was glad to see both documentary winners, 20 Days in Mariupol (feature) and The Last Repair Shop (short). More summer-ish fare included Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, Gran Turismo and The Creator. Later this year I intend to see Poor Things, The Holdovers, Anatomy of a Fall, The Zone of Interest, American Fiction, Maestro, The Boy and the Heron and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.

The Oscars show was memorable and fun this year, although it had some misses as well. It started on a good note, though, with Jimmy Kimmel thanking the crew for supporting the WGA and SAG strikes, and pledging support for future negotiations by other unions. He was joined on stage by the Oscars crew, and they all received a standing ovation.

I was not happy to see the Oscars bring back individual tributes to each of the acting nominees by past nominees. The tributes did move along quicker than last time, and the approach does honor each nominee rather than just the winner. But only the actors get this special treatment, and it slows down the ceremony. Yes, actors are the most recognizable nominees to the public, but filmmaking is a collaborative effort, and I'd like to see that emphasized and thespian narcissism discouraged.

The acceptance speeches had several good moments. Robert Downey, Jr. gave a sweet thank you to his wife. I'm always fond of the writers, and Justine Triet and Arthur Harari were charmingly French accepting Best Original Screenplay for Anatomy of a Fall. Cord Jefferson, winning Best Adapted Screenplay for American Fiction, gave probably my favorite speech of the night:

I’ve been talking a lot about how many people passed on this movie, and I worry that sometimes sounds vindictive. I don’t want to be vindictive, I’m not a vindictive person anymore and I’ve worked very hard to not be vindictive anymore. It's more a plea to acknowledge and recognize that there are so many people out there who want the opportunity that I was given. . . . I understand that this is a risk-averse industry, I get it. But $200 million movies are also a risk. And it doesn’t always work out, but you take the risk anyway. Instead of making one $200 million movie, try making 20 $10 million movies. Or 50 $4 million movies. There are so many people, I just feel so much joy being here, I felt so much joy making this movie, and I want other people to experience that joy, and they are out there, I promise you. The next Martin Scorsese, the next Greta, both Gretas, the next Christopher Nolan, I promise you. They just want a shot, and we can give them one, and this has changed my life. Thank you all who worked on this movie, for trusting a 40-year-old black guy who had never directed before, it has changed my life.

The Godzilla team, winning for Best Visual Effects, all came on stage holding Godzilla figures (and I later learned, wearing Godzilla-themed shoes). Hoyte van Hoytema, winning Best Cinematography for Oppenheimer, extoled the virtues of shooting on film. Although I still haven't seen and heard The Zone of Interest yet – it's one of the 2023 films I'm most eager to experience – I caught some interviews with its sound designer and heard some his innovative work, and cheered out loud when it won for Best Sound.

Mstyslav Chernov, winning Best Documentary Feature Film for 20 Days in Mariupol, which chronicles Russia's siege of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, gave a touching speech saying he wished his film didn't need to be made, and wishing for the return of hostages and for peace. (The film is on PBS' Frontline and can be seen if you have PBS Passport or possibly in reruns.)

I was happy to see The Last Repair Shop win Best Documentary Short Film, and director Kris Bowers gave a nice speech about the value of the arts and public schools. It's a lovely, moving film that received decent local coverage. Los Angeles County is one of the few school systems in the U.S. that still doesn't charge students for musical instruments, and inevitably, instruments have to be repaired. The film alternates between short interviews with students, many who would not be able to afford instruments on their own, and longer interviews with several employees at the shop, who all have extraordinary personal stories and clearly view their work fixing instruments for students as a higher calling. It's also got a sweet ending. Check it out if you can.

Of the presenters, John Cena did a funny nude bit. Melissa McCarthy has been hilarious in past ceremonies, but her bit with Octavia Spencer was disappointingly stiff. Kate McKinnon and America Ferrera were funny presenting the documentary awards, with Steven Spielberg in the audience part of the bit as well, as Ferrara explained to McKinnon that the Jurassic Park movies were not, in fact, documentaries. Emily Blunt and Ryan Gosling were great bantering, introducing a salute to stunt teams. (They're appearing together in a film version of the The Fall Guy later this year.) Ariana Grande pulled the impressive feat of performing on Saturday Night Live in New York City on Saturday night and then presenting at the Oscars in Los Angeles on Sunday... in a down comforter. John Mulaney gave the funniest individual speech of the night introducing Best Sound, started by talking about the history of sound in film and then shifting into a lengthy digression about the plot of Field Of Dreams and the rules of "ghost baseball." It was vintage Mulaney, thoughtful, geeky and hilarious.

The montage of death was particularly disappointing this year, the worst I can remember. The music was all right, Andrea Bocelli and his son Matteo singing, "Time to Say Goodbye," although classical instrumental music, dialed down, works better if the montage features any audio. Regardless, having dancers, and cutting to them for most of the segment, was an awful decision. Viewers should see the images of the people who died, and that was barely possible except for a dozen or so. The segment even ended with a wide shot listing a long list of names of people not pictured in the montage, and it was completely illegible for viewers at home, and probably for the attendees in the theater as well.

I was not a fan of Billie Eilish being given a Bond song because it's really not her style, her Oscar win notwithstanding. But I thought her Best Original Song winner this time for Barbie, the existential "What Was I Made For?" was great – hushed and wistful, right in her wheelhouse, and a song that works decently outside of the movie but extremely well inside the movie. It had a bad mix at the show, though, and I remain baffled that such occurrences happen so frequently at the Oscars.

"I'm Just Ken" from Barbie was not the best song, but was easily the best performance, with Ryan Gosling and a large cast going completely over the top the way only a comedy song or a Bollywood musical number can pull off. In an homage to Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Gosling dressed in flaming pink, hammed it up and was joined by songwriter Mark Ronson, plus Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ncuti Gatwa, Scott Evans and an entourage of other Kens. Taking the number all the way to 11, Slash appeared on stage, playing blazing guitar riffs. Apparently Gosling, the crew and most of the cast started rehearsals four weeks out, and Gosling made sure the steadicam operator Sean Flannery was cool with being pulled on stage and having his hand kissed. You can see the number here.

2023 seemed to have a number of genuinely good films. Here's to a good 2024 in cinema.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Jon Swift Roundup 2023

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

( A Jon Swift picture, which always seems timely during Republican presidential primary season.)

Welcome to the 2023 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.

The late Lance Mannion provided the definitive description of our endeavor:

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 2010–2022 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.

Thanks to all the participants, and apologies to anyone I missed. (It'd be nice to expand our numbers again, but many bloggers don't list contact information.) 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 #jonswift2023.

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:

Show Me Progress
"Warrensburg, Missouri Pride Festival - hand wringing, pearl clutching, and sign waving in the noonday sun - June 3, 2023"
Michael Bersin: "The drag show goes on at a pride festival in small town Missouri after weeks of anonymous threats and public moral scolding. Outside the venue, in the sun and humidity, busibodies with poorly made protest signs express their self-righteous indignation. Add local police, serious private security, and rainbow flags."

First Draft
"The Talented Mr. Santos Pop Quiz"
Peter Adrastos Athas: "Test your bullshit detector with this quiz. Lying is encouraged, it's what George would do."

"MAGA at the Movies"
Bluzdude: "If these movies were made now, in today’s highly polarized political environment, who would the MAGA crowd be rooting for?"

Mock Paper Scissors
"About Last Night… (Updated)"
Tengrain: "When the Fulton County DA Fani Willis released her historic indictments against a former President. It is the story of the year (century?) and one for the history books, and I for one rejoice that if convicted, he cannot be pardoned by any future president."

You Might Notice a Trend
"Punching Themselves Just a Little Bit More"
Paul Wartenberg: "The kabuki dance we're about to see from the House Republicans isn't about accountability, as they themselves do not believe themselves accountable thanks to safe gerrymandered districts back home. This isn't about corruption because despite all their wailing and gnashing of teeth they haven't proven it. This is about embarrassing Biden and weakening him on the political stage in order to depress voter turnout in 2024. This is about making it easier to deflect or avoid the real corruption Trump is confronting in multiple courtrooms over the next six months."

Bark Bark Woof Woof
"Twenty Years"
Mustang Bobby/Bobby Cramer: "Marking the twentieth anniversary of the start of Bark Bark Woof Woof. We’re still here."

Lotus – Surviving a Dark Time
"A not-so-easy question"
Larry Erickson (Whoviating): "Do Palestinians have a right to resist?"

Mad Kane's Political Madness
"Hope, At Last?"
Madeleine Begun Kane: "My two-verse limerick celebrating Trump's first federal indictment."

This Is So Gay
"Liberals in Flames"
Duncan Mitchel: "Maybe I shouldn't pick on Mehdi Hasan after his demotion at MSNBC, but here goes anyway: posting a bogus quotation against democracy attributed to the racist, pro-fascist Winston Churchill was just not a good idea. Nor was assuming that liberal media know best. What was he thinking?"

his vorpal sword
"October Twenty Sixth, Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Three"
Hart Williams: "My fiftieth anniversary as a writer: the origin story. And the connection with Steve Miller's word 'pompatus.' "

Strangely Blogged
"TWGB: Trump Derangement Syndrome"
Vixen Strangely: "In this TrumpWorld Grab-Bag offering, I get down to what the common phrase 'Trump Derangement Syndrome' really seems to mean, and who the actual sufferers are."

Just an Earthbound Misfit, I
"This Holiday Season, Putin Should Send Gift Baskets to J.D. Vance, Gym Jordan, and the Resof the Anti-Freedom Caucus"
Comrade Misfit: "A discourse on the GOP's puzzling support for a dictatorship that is trying to conquer a democracy."

"Dear President Biden: A Birthday Tribute From a Strong Supporter"
Annie: "My decision to forgo a couple of self-satisfying anti-Trump posts and choose this one became easy when the despicable and feckless House Republicans voted unanimously to open an impeachment inquiry of President Biden based on zero crimes or misdemeanors. They know what so many pundits and the press don't seem to: Joe Biden remains a formidable candidate."

Crazy Eddie's Motie News
"Video tributes to George Zingali for his birthday on World AIDS Day"
Pinku-Sensei: I decided to write something personal for World AIDS Day, the story of an acquaintance who participated in the same youth musical activity as me and later died of AIDS. I wrote more widely read posts this year, but none as appreciated on Facebook with 101 likes."

"Yes, it could happen here"
Infidel753: "For years, people have been throwing around the epithet "Nazi" indiscriminately, at anything or anyone they didn't like. Now it turns out that our country is infested with real Nazis – and they're more numerous and dangerous than we ever suspected. The implications for the future are terrifying."

The Debate Link
"The Baggage of Whiteness"
David Schraub: "What is "whiteness" doing to Jewish identity in the wake of Hamas' 10/7 attacks, Israel's war in Gaza, and the resultant protests and antisemitic activity around the world?"

Bluestem Prairie
"MN Private Business Council gave $47,600 to Common Sense MN's mailer campaign in Mankato School District Referendum Question #1"
Sally Jo Sorensen: "An illustration of the value of an independent blog: local news reported on the mailings, but didn't track down the group behind them or the money spent. The referendum passed, despite large outside funding with a partisan edge."

"The Despairing Posture of Their Fail"
driftglass: "In which it becomes clear that none of the intellectual titans of the Right ever heard of the legend of the Golem. Or saw or read The Sorcerer's Apprentice, or Frankenstein, or..."

Blue Gal
"Ep 763 | No Fair Remembering Stuff: Immigration"
Blue Gal: "We review certain facts you'll want to have on hand when talking to MAGA relatives regarding the history of immigration in America. Special props to Maria Bartiromo, a grandchild of open-border immigrants."

God's Spies, by Thomas Neuburger
"This Generation's Problem"
Thomas Neuburger: "Analysis of Cenozoic temperature implies CO2 of about 450 ppm at transition to an ice-free planet. Current growth implies CO2 between 480–520 ppm in 2050. Time to change leaders?"

The Rectification of Names
"Israel's 9/11"
Yastreblyansky: "This was a first response to the horror in Israel of October 7 and a gloomy view of how Israel was likely to respond, which turned out to be, I'm sorry to say, fairly prophetic."

Filosofa's Word
Jill Dennison: "This post is from last January, a look at America through the news stories of the day, and reflections of how different our reality is from the America we once thought we knew."

"Past GOP Speakers, Ratings Agencies Warned of Republican Debt Ceiling 'Disaster' "
Jon Perr: "Ratings agencies and Republican House Speakers agree. GOP failure to raise the debt ceiling would result in 'financial disaster.' "

Roy Edroso Breaks It Down
"The Gut-Wringing Machine"
Roy Edroso: "A ghost in the AI machine."

"The Winsome Witchfinder Moves Up"
Roy Edroso: "Just a reminder, on the occasion of his elevation to Times columnist, what a repulsive piece of shit David French is."

The Rude Pundit
"The Georgia Indictment Is a Defense of the Workers Who Make Democracy Function"
Lee Papa (The Rude Pundit): "Fulton County DA Fani Willis's indictment of Donald Trump and his cabal of insurrectionists is a full-on punch to the face to anyone who would come to her state and try to ruin the lives of government workers."

Vagabond Scholar
"The Iraq War in 2023"
Batocchio: "Mostly a compilation of past posts on the Iraq War."

Thanks again, folks. Happy blogging and everything else in 2024.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Armistice Day 11/11/23

(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. My new piece for this year is "The Iraq War in 2023."

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)

"The Graveyard of Democracy" (2021)

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.

The Iraq War in 2023

The 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War was earlier this year in March, so the war seems like a fitting subject for this Armistice Day or Remembrance Day or Veterans Day. My 10th anniversary Iraq War post, "The Dogs of War," was pretty comprehensive and there's not much I'd add to it, especially if we include my other posts on Iraq, the war series and torture. It's worth looking at some old and more recent pieces.

I recently rewatched two of the best documentaries on the subject, both from 2007. No End in Sight meticulously explores why the U.S. occupation of Iraq went so badly, all the more powerful because most of the interview subjects who chronicle the debacle were conservatives and Republicans serving the Bush administration. Taxi to the Dark Side, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, is an excellent and chilling primer on the Bush administration's torture regime.

PBS' Frontline did a number of excellent episodes on the Iraq War and the Bush Administration, including a few good piece on torture. This list rounds up many of the best episodes, and this topic page has almost everything related to Iraq.

James Fallows, who wrote numerous excellent articles on Iraq before and during the war, wrote yet another fine piece this March, "The Iraq War and Modern Memory." He also links some other retrospectives, and some of his past, key pieces on Iraq. Alternatively, you can also read some of his best contemporaneous articles in the book compilation, Blind Into Baghdad.

Via Fallows, Responsible Statecraft hosted a symposium asking the question, aside from Bush and Cheney, who is at fault for the Iraq War? Some of the choices are silly – and presumably the question also includes Rumsfeld by default, otherwise he'd be the obvious next choice – but a number of respondents make good picks that news junkies from the era probably know but the general public likely doesn't.

Driftglass and Blue Gal had a good podcast episode in their "No Fair Remembering Stuff" series back in March, "Iraq War and Remembrance." This year, they also featured Charlie Pierce's 2014 epic condemnation of Bill Kristol for being a war ghoul.

The PBS NewsHour did a few Iraq retrospectives. One piece interviewed some American Iraq War veterans. The most interesting piece interviewed Iraqis. (The PBS site also has an 2021 AP article that ran after Colin Powell's death, "Iraqis still blame Powell for role in Iraq war.") A timeline of the war piece has some use, but because it only starts when the actual war commenced, it omits significant events, including the fact that Saddam Hussein relented and allowed weapons inspectors into Iraq, but the Bush administration invaded anyway (which Bush later lied about and the press rarely challenged). I was disappointed overall by a Iraq War conversation with Paul Wolfowitz, Charles Duelfer and Vali Nasr, because the segment didn't deal at all with the Bush administration lying to the public and Congress to start the war – Wolfowitz is allowed to present going to war as a good faith exercise. He even defends disbanding the Iraqi army without pushback, despite widespread agreement that disbandment was one of the worst, most crippling decisions by the Bush administration about Iraq after invading, causing endless ongoing problems. (No End in Sight covers this in depth.) No one in the Bush administration has even ever acknowledged who actually gave the order (Wolfowitz has been floated as a candidate). Interviewer Amna Nawaz did allow Nasr the last word, though:

It's important to think about the fact that, had this war as Ambassador Wolfowitz suggested, been conducted differently after we entered into Iraq, had we left a different legacy there, the question of the reasons we went in would not loom as large as they do right now.

When we continuously debate reasons why we went in and question the motivations of going in, it's almost we are admitting to the fact that it's better we wouldn't have gone to war, because, if we went to war, we're going to make a mess of it.

And I don't think that's a good legacy for the United States. I think how we conducted the war after we arrived is as important as the reasons why we went in.

The Bush administration lied to the American public and Congress to start a war of choice, which is another way to say an unnecessary war, and thus inherently, deeply immoral. The Bush administration also instituted a torture regime, one of the most disgraceful, shameful actions of the U.S. in living memory. And members of the Bush administration largely got away with it, which is rather discouraging. Likewise, the Bush administration was quite authoritarian, and U.S. conservatives and Republicans have moved even further in that direction since.

I did find at least one hopeful point, though. The Pew Research Center has a superb piece, "A Look Back at How Fear and False Beliefs Bolstered U.S. Public Support for War in Iraq," which chronicles the shifts in public opinion over the years and also recaps the political history of the Iraq War pretty well. (It even links a piece by The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler, whose fact-checking can be hit or miss, but wrote a pretty good piece about the claim that the Bush administration lied to start the war, all spurred by former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer claiming that it was a lie to say the Bush team lied.) In the Pew article, the most interesting parts might be these charts:

The Bush team has mostly escaped consequences, certainly legally and professionally, but public opinion definitely turned against the Iraq War and that perspective has persisted. It's telling that, from at least 2015 onward, Donald Trump has lied to conservative and Republican voters, falsely claiming he had always opposed the Iraq War. He was and is pandering, of course, but it's interesting that, even when speaking to the demographic groups most likely to still support the Iraq War, he's thought pretending to oppose the war would play better.

I won't link all of my previous Iraq posts, but besides "The Dogs of War" from 2013, these are probably the most significant:

"Iraq and Vietnam: Selling the Stab-in-the-Back Myth" (8/30/07). (Note that Blogger has oddly resized some images from old posts, but trying to fix them can create other problems.)

If Shakespeare is your thing, you might appreciate "The Knaves of the Bush Administration (3/20/07).

"Day of Shame" (2/5/08) is about Colin Powell's 2003 presentation to the United Nations about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction, a collection of falsehoods that was pivotal in selling the war.

I wrote several pieces on the "surge" of American troops in Iraq. "The Surge Is Still Not Working" (3/1/08) summarizes and links some of the others.

"John '100 Years' McCain" (4/9/08) took an in-depth look at remarks then-presidential-candidate John McCain made. His defenders complained he was taken out of context, but a fair assessment with much more context did not make him look much better.

"Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels" (11/11/09) was one of the key pieces in a set of interrelated posts for Armistice Day in 2009, and the one most focused on the Iraq War.

"The Graveyard of Democracy" (11/11/21) was mainly about the Afghanistan War, but there's considerable overlap with the Iraq War, of course. The post cites Brown University's "Costs of War" project, which estimates the costs of all U.S. post-9/11 war spending at $8 trillion, which includes future obligations in veterans' care and financial debt for roughly 30 years.

May we remember history accurately, discuss decisions honestly and avoid all unnecessary wars in the future.

Thursday, October 05, 2023

Banned Books Week 2023

It's Banned Books Week, which celebrates banned and challenged books. My archive in this category is here. Last year, we looked at how LGBTQ issues have been targeted, especially in Florida. Unfortunately, the situation has gotten worse: Recently, "librarians in public schools in Charlotte County, Florida, were instructed by the school district superintendent to remove all books with LGBTQ characters or themes from school and classroom libraries." So librarians were told that even books without sexually explicit content needed to be removed if any character is LGBTQ. (The district has since said that such books will remain available in school libraries, but for high school students only, and the books cannot be taught in class.) This stance is authoritarian and hostile to LGBTQ youth, as we covered last year, but it's also now an outright denial of reality, with conservatives both trying to pretend LGBTQ people don't exist and pretending that this gambit will somehow work.

Unsurprisingly, the American Library Association's list of the most challenged books of 2022 hasn't changed much since the previous year. This year, the list has 13 titles instead of 10, due to ties:

ALA documented 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022, the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began compiling data about censorship in libraries more than 20 years ago. The unparalleled number of reported book challenges in 2022 nearly doubles the 729 book challenges reported in 2021. Of the record 2,571 unique titles targeted for censorship, the most challenged and reasons cited for censoring the books are listed below.

1. Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
Number of challenges: 151
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit

2. All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson
Number of challenges: 86
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit

3. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Number of challenges: 73
Challenged for: depiction of sexual abuse, EDI content, claimed to be sexually explicit

4. Flamer by Mike Curato
Number of challenges: 62
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit

5. (tie) Looking for Alaska by John Green
Number of challenges: 55
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit

5. (tie) The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Number of challenges: 55
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit

7. Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison
Number of challenges: 54
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit

8. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Number of challenges: 52
Challenged for: profanity, claimed to be sexually explicit

9. Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez
Number of challenges: 50
Challenged for: depictions of abuse, claimed to be sexually explicit

10. (tie) A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas
Number of challenges: 48
Challenged for: claimed to be sexually explicit

10. (tie) Crank by Ellen Hopkins
Number of challenges: 48
Challenged for: drug use, claimed to be sexually explicit

10. (tie) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
Number of challenges:48
Challenged for: profanity, claimed to be sexually explicit

10. (tie) This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson
Number of challenges:48
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, providing sexual education, claimed to be sexually explicit

On its censorship by the numbers page, the ALA provides a map of which states have had the most book challenges (Texas is still the worst by far) and some other censorship charts. The downloads page compiles some of those charts in poster formats, including the one below (click for a larger view):

One of the troubling trends we covered last year is the rise in coordinated organizations, not individuals, bringing book challenges. But another problem is that an extremely small number of individuals drive a majority of book challenges. In both cases, the views of the majority, of professionals and the community, are often overruled. The Washington Post profiled one of those book-banning individuals, 48-year-old Spotsylvania, Virginia, resident Jennifer Petersen, in a 9/28/23 piece, "She challenges one school book a week. She says she’ll never stop." It's worth reading the whole thing, but I'll provide some key excerpts, including the opening:

Jennifer Petersen keeps 73 school books she detests in her basement.

She ordered most from Amazon. In the last year, she read each one. She highlighted and typed up excerpts from more than 1,300 pages — of the 24,000-plus pages she read — that she says depict sexual acts. Then she filed challenges against 71 of the books with Spotsylvania County Public Schools, the Virginia district where one of her children is a student and the other is a recent graduate. (Two books were removed before she could challenge them.)

Across 434 pages of challenges — longer than many of the books she objected to — Petersen offered variations on a theme.

“This book reads like a how to guide for raping teens,” she wrote of one.

“The book normalizes teen sex and ... glorifies and incites teens to have sex,” she wrote of another.

“What is the fascination,” she asked of a third, “with so many of these books containing detailed sexual content?”

Petersen, 48, is part of a small army of book objectors nationwide. School book challenges reached historic highs in America in 2021 and 2022, according to the American Library Association. And just a handful of people are driving those records. A Washington Post analysis of thousands of challenges nationwide found that 60 percent of all challenges in the 2021-2022 school year came from 11 adults, each of whom objected to dozens — sometimes close to 100 — of books in their districts.

Petersen is one of these serial filers, whose actions have riven her community, earning her fervent admiration and criticism.

What indeed is Petersen's fascination with reading books she finds objectionable? It's worth repeating the key problem with the book-banning crowd: they're free not to read books they don't like. They can also prevent their children from reading those books. But they're fighting to prevent anyone else from reading those books. That shouldn't be their call. Libraries can and do have challenge systems in place, but adding a title to a library generally involves plenty of discussion and research first, including public input. Removing a book should have a high threshold. A book that's considered a classic, important, or is generally well-regarded shouldn't be removed and denied to the rest of the community just because one person or a small group doesn't like it.

In Petersen's case, she objects to sex the most, but of the books she's challenged, according to the WaPo analysis, 25% are by or about people of color or deal with issues of race, and 27% feature LGBTQ characters. Her book challenges, as of the article, totaled 434 pages, "longer than most of the books she challenged," and 6,556 words. She's definitely been disruptive:

Petersen’s district has lurched from one book controversy to another in recent years. In 2021, the Spotsylvania school board voted to remove sexually explicit tomes from libraries, with two members suggesting burning them — remarks that drew national scorn. The board later rescinded that decision. Then, this spring, the superintendent pulled 14 books for “sexually explicit material” — including Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” — and suggested shutting down school libraries to address budget shortfalls. That proposal went nowhere, but the school board voted to make it easier to yank books with sexual content.

Much of the turmoil has been driven, directly or indirectly, by Petersen. In the decades before she began filing challenges, the district saw almost no objections, maybe one every five to 10 years, library staff said. Now, in addition to her flurry of filings, Petersen attends almost every school board meeting, sometimes reading aloud graphic passages from the books she is challenging — mostly sentences too explicit to be printed in this newspaper. . . .

To some, Petersen is a fanatic bent on crushing schools under the weight of prudish objections.

“This whole effort has been a waste of money, time and resources,” school board member Nicole Cole said. (The district said it has not tracked the money, time and work it spent responding to Petersen’s requests, although a top library staffer estimated that a team of 11 people spent 40 hours per week on her challenges last school year.)

Petersen is causing the district to lose staff as well as considerable time and money. She can't complain that her challenges aren't been taken seriously, because her challenges have been reviewed multiple times:

Cole said the district has lost staff members because of what Petersen is doing, although she could not provide an exact number. The district did not answer questions asking about Petersen’s effect on its personnel.

Kimberly Allen, library liaison and high school librarian for the district, estimates that, last school year, fielding Petersen’s challenges required 40 hours of labor per week from her and a team of 10 high school librarians, work they mostly did on their own time, late in the evening and on weekends, because they still had to keep up with their regular jobs. Neither she nor her colleagues received overtime pay, Allen said.

Per school district policy, each challenge at a campus required the principal, sometimes working with librarians, to form a school-level review committee comprising a half-dozen teachers and parents. Each committee recommended keeping the titles, Allen said.

But Petersen appealed every decision, leading to the formation of a second, district-level review committee, comprising another handful of teachers and parents — these selected by the Office of Teaching and Learning. Those panels, too, recommended keeping the books.

The superintendent has the final say: He intervened to pull 14 books this spring. Another 29 books await his verdict. (Five are still at the district committee stage.) So far, none of Petersen’s challenges has been rejected outright. . . .

In “most of the books [she challenged], we do not agree with her assessment, because ... you cannot base the merit of a book on just its parts,” Allen said. “She is weighing the whole book on single passages.”

Petersen is being given fair hearings; it's just that she doesn't abide by the outcomes. A single group of librarians, teachers, and parents reviewing the books and approving them should be sufficient – Petersen brought a challenge, the community considered and it approved the book, she doesn't have to read the book but the community can, case closed. But she's also forcing a second group to review the book – and still getting the same result. The superintendent should abide by those committee decisions, but isn't, presumably to try to appease Petersen. So two people (or one person and a kowtower) are imposing their will on professionals and the community. These are not healthy dynamics.

I've seen some people suggest a limit on book challenges, and that seems like a good idea. One challenge per person per month, perhaps. Petersen and others like her could still bring challenges, but not steal so much time (often unpaid) from librarians and teachers and effectively harass them.

One of the odder asides in the profile of Petersen is briefly mentioning that she's a Buddhist, not a conservative Christian. Unfortunately, the profile doesn't delve any further into Petersen's claimed Buddhism, and avoids raising the issue that the principles of Buddhism are pretty incompatible with book banning. (For that matter, the principles of Christianity don't really suggest book banning, either, but for religious conservatives, the key part has always been the social conservatism, and the religion is more of a gloss, with religious principles selectively followed or just outright ignored.)

It's worth noting that Petersen is citing bad social science as part of her justification for obsessing about sex in books:

In some challenges, [Petersen] cited scientific research to back up her contention children could be harmed by reading about sex acts — in particular a 2020 paper she found in the National Institutes of Health’s online library that said “exposure to sexually explicit media in early adolescence had a substantive relationship with risky sexual behavior” in early adulthood.

In that study, the authors suggested one solution would be for schoolteachers and parents to provide teens with “appropriate information on sexuality,” including sex education classes. Another study published two years later found that exposure to sexually explicit material made some boys happy and upset some girls, but “the majority of adolescents felt neutral, which suggests that seeing sexually explicit materials is not as distressing as originally thought.”

There's also the issue of poor judgment on Petersen's part. As Kimberly Allen points out, Petersen is reading passages out of context and "you cannot base the merit of a book on just its parts." Context matters. Good librarians, teachers and sensible adults and readers understand this:

Gina Terry, a parent and former Spotsylvania English teacher, said in an interview that sexually explicit material is not always harmful — instead, it can be educational. She gave the example of “Sold,” a book told from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl sold into sexual slavery. Terry praised the writing as “haunting,” although she acknowledged the text deals with complex, difficult and dark subjects.

“There is absolutely discomfort. But the whole point of the book is to bring attention to the real plight of real girls,” Terry said. “By saying it needs to be banned, we’ve taken these real stories about real people and denied them existence on our shelves.”

Terry makes excellent points, and it's also important to remember that a teacher in a classroom can help guide students through difficult material. So can parents, if they're not uncomfortable discussing such material with their children. But book banners tend to be the parents or other adults who are extremely uncomfortable having such discussions, all the more so if sex, sexuality, race, or racism is involved. Petersen certainly seems to fall in that category. Two passages leap out from the article:

Petersen, too, was alarmed. If children under 18 read about sex, she worries, they will be more likely to engage in unsafe sex or fall victim to sexual predators.

This makes no sense. Students who are taught age-appropriate, accurate sex education (and generally dealt with truthfully) are less likely to have unsafe sex, get sexually transmitted diseases, or get pregnant. They're also presumably less likely to "fall victim to sexual predators." This is just the familiar mentality of a parent uncomfortable talking about sex and sexuality with her kids, even teenagers. It's the same mentality that leads to reality-denying "abstinence only" sex ed classes in conservative states and districts that increase the teen pregnancy rates. It's the same mindset that tries to deny that LGBTQ people, including kids and teenagers, exist.

The second passage is also a doozy:

In that first batch [of challenges], [Petersen] wrote of Beloved: “The book illustrates the horrors of our history. However, the passages outlined do not add to the story and they are sexually explicit.”

Beloved is a good, powerful novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and one of the reasons author Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Evidently, many people think it has value. (At the school where I taught, it was part of the English 12 curriculum at least one year.) But Jennifer Petersen, self-appointed literary critic and protector of the public, arrogantly thinks she knows better than all of them, that the sex scenes Toni Morrison included are unnecessary, and the book should be banned. It's not enough for Petersen and other book banners that they are free to disapprove of a book, don't need to read it, and can even write scathing reviews if they want to. They want to prevent anyone else from having the opportunity to read it and judge it for themselves. In this specific case, as is the case with many challenged books, readers would be denied a memorable, moving experience.

Part of being a healthy, thriving democracy is that people like Jennifer Petersen get their say. But another part of a healthy, thriving democracy is that other people get their say, too, and Petersen and her ilk don't get to make decisions for everyone else. Good public libraries and good public schools are essential for developing happy, inquisitive children, for helping teenagers explore adulthood, and for developing good citizens. Art is capable of saying more than one thing at once, and can be complex and multilayered. Art can be a rich and wonderful experience. If prudes and scolds wish to deny themselves that, that's sad but their right, but the rest of us must stay free to revel in the wonders of the arts (and share good book recommendations).

Saturday, September 30, 2023

The Tyranny of the Minority and The Extremism of the Republican Party

Part One: The Tyranny of the Minority

Two government professors at Harvard have a new book out called The Tyranny of the Minority, which accurately warns that the Republican Party has been increasingly anti-democratic and right-wing, despite or because of losing the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. The book, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, is a follow-up to their 2018 book, How Democracies Die. The PBS NewsHour broadcast a decent interview with the authors on 9/14/23. You can view or listen to the 7:25 video or audio at the link above, or read a full transcript, or play the YouTube version below:

Some key excerpts, starting with Ziblatt:

To be a party committed to democracy, you have to do three very simple things. Number one, you have to accept election losses, win or lose. Number two, you have to not use violence to gain or to hold onto power. And then, number three, most critically, in some sense, for mainstream political parties, is you have to distance yourself and be explicit and open about condemning anybody who's an ally of your party that commits any of those first two types of acts.

To be a party committed to democracy, in order for democracy to survive, the political parties in a political system have to ascribe to all three of those principles. This applies to parties of the right and of the left.

And I think what is so concerning, as Steve described, is that over the last four years, we have seen a process of decay within the Republican Party where all three of those principles are violated, but, in particular, most recently among mainstream members of the Senate.


So, semi-loyal democrats are tricky, because they look like regular politicians. They look like mainstream politicians. They are, in fact, mainstream politicians.

They are in the halls of Congress. They are wearing suits. They look and talk and act like regular small-D democrats. But the key difference is their willingness to tolerate, to condone, to justify, sometimes to protect antidemocratic extremists.

And we have seen throughout history that when mainstream politicians of the left or the right tolerate, condone, protect extremists on the right or the left, democracies get into trouble. And so who are we talking about in the Republican Party today? Mainstream Republican Party leaders, Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell, leading senators, leading governors.

Both this book and their previous one offer some welcome international context on democracies in other countries and compare them to the United States – challenges, failures and better systems. Ziblatt touches on this briefly in the interview:

One big difference between the United States and a country like Hungary or other countries where democratic backsliding has really established single-party rule, we have constraints and there's a strong opposition to these forces.

That's certainly the case at the national level. What's so striking, though, because we have a federal system, that there are states in the United States where there are assaults on voting rights taking place, where there's extreme levels of gerrymandering, so that it makes it possible for a party that doesn't win the most votes to actually win control of state legislatures, where courts are then packed at the local — at the state level as well.

So what we see across the United States is increasingly a divide between states where you continue to have voting rights and democracy and states where democracy is really under assault.

Ziblatt closes by listing some concrete steps and perhaps some hopeful notes:

Some of the things that we discussed in the book and we propose, we have a 15-point set of suggestions in our last chapter, including things such as eliminating the Electoral College — we're the only democracy in the world with an Electoral College — introducing term limits and retirement ages for the Supreme Court.

We're the only democracy in the world that doesn't have retirement ages or term limits for national judges. We also propose some reforms that don't require constitutional reforms, such as eliminating or at least weakening the filibuster, the filibuster in the United States, since we're the only democracy in the world that has such a strong tool of obstruction in one of our chambers of Congress.

This tool of obstruction blocks very often majority-supported policies, gun control, efforts to address climate change, the minimum wage. Things get held up in the national Congress, which frustrates citizens. So we think there needs to be a kind of a sweeping reform agenda.

And one of the things we have discovered looking at other democracies, I should add, is that, when constitutional reforms come, they tend to cluster together. Momentum is gained. People get – regain faith in their political system. And we think this is very much part of the American tradition.

Where we are operating today without this is outside of the American tradition. And this is something we need to get back to.

This is all on point, and it's heartening to see more people considered mainstream and respectable sound the alarm about U.S. conservatism and the Republican Party. The phrase "tyranny of the minority" is nothing new; Rebecca Solnit and Michelle Goldberg both wrote good pieces with that title in 2017, and similar critiques go back further. Liberals and progressives have been accurately pointing out these dangers for over two decades now at least, but we're often not heeded, which remains a big problem, but nonetheless any truth that breaks through is welcome.

For more on the book, The Harvard Gazette did an interview, Steven Levitsky gave a lectue at Brown University, and the New York Journal of Books and Vox both have reviews.

Part Two: The Extremism of the Republican Party

Most mainstream media outlets remain reluctant to call out the extremism of U.S. conservatives and the Republican Party, and by their reticence help normalize that extremism, however inadvertently. Politeness takes precedence over accuracy. The Republican Party has become increasingly conservative and increasingly right-wing, and as a result, in mainstream media labeling, the actual political positions held by political figures called "centrists" or "moderates" have moved further to the right as well. (Classic Overton window dynamics.)

The PBS NewsHour is a good program overall, but its team seems to have made an editorial decision that any conservative or Republican who isn't far right should be called a "moderate." I've noticed it for several years, and PBS is hardly alone in this approach. Although PBS' Laura Barrón-López is a pretty good reporter and interviewer, she did exactly this early in the interview featured above:

Do you see Senator Romney's retirement as a sign that, rather than weed out the extremists in their party, Republicans are weeding out moderate Republicans like Romney and Liz Cheney?

I'd let this go if other reporters didn't use similar, misleading terminology so consistently. This approach is an ongoing problem in U.S. political coverage – normalizing conservative and Republican extremism, and not just by hacks, but even by people who presumably are trying to provide good reporting. It would be accurate to call Romney more moderate than other members of his party on at least some issues, and Liz Cheney did comport herself well during the January 6th committee hearings. It is fair to say they're being weeded out. But both Romney and Cheney are conservative, in many ways extremely so, with some horrible positions, which not incidentally are common in the Republican Party. As of a 2021 analysis by FiveThirtyEight, Romney voted with the Donald Trump agenda 75.0% of the time (which was less than many of his Republican colleagues) and Cheney voted with the Trump agenda 92.9% of the time.

Romney does deserve some credit for voting to convict Trump in both his impeachment trials (even if his vote "no" that Trump didn't obstruct Congress remains ridiculous), and Romney did put common sense and by his own account conscience above significant political and social pressure. It's technically true but a bit misleading, however, to say that Romney is "the first senator who has ever voted to remove a president of his own party"; Richard Nixon would have been both impeached and convicted by members of his party as well, but he resigned before it could happen. (The House impeaches, and the Senate convicts.) Liz Cheney, meanwhile, voted to impeach Trump in 2021 for the January 6th insurrection, but voted against impeaching him in 2020 for "withholding military aid to Ukraine in an attempt to extract dirt on rivals including Joe Biden," and said in 2022 she does not regret that vote. Her defense that the "evidence that was put on didn’t make the case" strains credulity, given the evidence presented. The Republican votes in favor of Trump in both cases were pure political loyalty and sheer political corruption.

It's worth considering Cheney and Romney's histories in a little more depth. It is nice that Liz Cheney respects election results, low bar though that may be, but she's always been pretty authoritarian herself. Liz Cheney has supported torture, opposed due process, and opposed investigating and holding accountable the Bush administration torture team, notably including her own father, Dick Cheney. This 2010 post covers some of that territory and includes a roundup of links on a disgusting attack ad run by Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol's Orwellian-named group, "Keep America Safe." This 2009 post focuses more on Dick Cheney trying to whitewash his torture record, but also touches on Liz Cheney's efforts to cover for him and the corporate media enabling it. There's also Liz Cheney in 2009 echoing her father's attacks on then-President Barack Obama for proposing to shut down Guantanamo, and arguing for torture to Anderson Cooper, including brazenly lying to his face about the key findings of the Schlesinger report on torture, and shamelessly accusing Obama of covering up the truth of the torture program (she and her cohorts prefer the Orwellian term "enhanced interrogation techniques"). In no world are supporting torture and defending torturers "moderate" positions.

Liz Cheney also can be fairly called a plutocrat, like most of her Republican colleagues, having voted for the Trump tax cuts in 2017, which like the Reagan and George W. Bush tax cuts, were (to quote a 2022 post):

. . . plutocratic, funneling even more money to the wealthiest Americans to please rich donors. Contrary to Republican claims, the corporate tax cuts did not trickle down and the tax plan did not pay for itself; they just gave rich people more money.

As the Council on Foreign Relations summarized in 2022, "income and wealth inequality is higher in the United States than in almost any other developed country, and it is rising." That post, and the website Inequality.org, have some helpful charts. (My most in-depth post on income and wealth inequality was this 2010 one, with several other posts in the category.) Given how extreme income and wealth inequality already is in the United States, especially compared to other developed countries, and the increasing economic pressures on the majority of Americans, I consider it unconscionable (or just evil) to actively work to support more inequality, favoring the rich and powerful. That unconscionable mindset is unfortunately a common one among conservative politicians, but I don't think it can fairly be called "moderate." (I'll add that many political figures labeled "centrist" by the mainstream media are really conservatives in their actual positions, or at the very least establishmentarians.)

Romney was not in the Senate for the Trump tax cut vote, but states on his Senate website that he would have supported it – while simultaneously claiming he "fought against both tax cuts for the wealthy and tax hikes on the middle class"! Romney is counting on readers not knowing his record or details of the law, and not spotting the direct contradiction (or simply believes in his powers of bullshitting). Romney, like many conservatives, isn't merely plutocratic but downright neofeudalistic – when he ran for president in the 2012 election, he adopted his running mate Paul Ryan's extreme policies to give a massive tax cut to the rich but also to gut the social safety net, including ending Medicare as it existed. Romney didn't get the flack an honest assessment of his policies should have received, because voters "simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing." (Much more analysis and links in the stealthy extremist section of this 2012 post.) The same dynamics often play out for conservative political positions – mainstream media outlets seem reluctant to describe them accurately in terms of their likely effects or their extremism, which gives cover for their mostly Republican proponents.

As with almost every Republican presidential nominee since Nixon, Romney used racist dogwhistles. In August 2012, he boasted that "No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate," feeding into the racist, bullshit "birther" conspiracies about Barack Obama. He also ran a number of ads with racist dogwhistles about welfare and Medicare, continuing, as Chauncey DeVega pointed out, "the Southern Strategy, and the politics of white racial resentment." Similar dynamics were at play with Romney's infamous remarks in 2012 that 47 percent of Americans would back Obama "no matter what" because they "believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them," and who "pay no income tax." Romney's claims were at best grossly misleading, and taken in larger context were outright false (as I covered in more depth in one section of a broader 2014 post, which did also cover Romney's multiple, contradictory revisions about his remarks).

Donald Trump lies almost constantly, and may be unbeatable in that category. But during his presidential campaign in 2011–2012, Mitt Romney told at least 917 falsehoods that Steve Benen diligently chronicled and fact-checked, and many were substantial lies at that. This wasn't a new trait, either; Romney was lying and bullshitting at least as far back as his 2007–2008 presidential run. (I have posts from 2007 on some Romney "hogwash" and the sophistry of his anti-JFK speech.)

Mitt Romney has often acted as other people are beneath him and lack the capacity to see through obvious bullshit, as when he argued opposite positions to different audiences in subsequent weeks. (The same trend comes up in Steve Benen's exhaustive series.) The most infamous example is probably from 2011, when at the Iowa State Fair Romney argued against increasing taxes on corporations by condescendingly telling a man that "Corporations are people, my friend." When the crowd responded by yelling out the obvious point, "No, they're not!" Romney replied with a straw man, "Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. Where do you think it goes?" Besides these arguments being ridiculous on the merits, it's interesting that Romney believed they would be effective politically. Faced with a crowd who wanted to protect the social safety net, raise taxes on the rich and corporations, and presumably overturn the Citizens United decision – all for the benefit of the vast majority of Americans – Romney essentially argued that corporate profits benefit stockholders (who are, technically, "people") and thus critiques of economic inequality and unequal power were invalid. Romney did express (smugly) what and who he actually values in society, as he did with his 47 percent remarks, and also betrayed an entitled, privileged narcissism that seems extremely prone to bullshitting audiences he holds in slight to significant contempt. Although Trump remains much worse in this arena, Romney shares some of Trump's worst traits.

For much more on Romney, see Jon Perr's comprehensive 7/4/22 post, "Mitt Romney Is in Denial," which superbly shows how Romney is no elder statesman, and is in fact a raging hypocrite who shares much of the blame for the current problems in American politics, which Romney instead tries to blame on 'both sides.'

So it's fine to give Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney credit for their pro-democracy moments. And it's sadly probably accurate that Romney's replacement will be worse, and his departure means that congressional Republicans as a whole will become more extreme. But let's not ignore Romney and Cheney's records and other positions. Every time conservatives and Republicans get worse, there's a tendency to look back at some earlier time with rose-colored glasses and laud an earlier generation of conservatives and Republicans, who might have a bit better in some respects, but were honestly still pretty awful. It's both possible and necessary to acknowledge both realities.

And how awful are their fellow conservatives and Republicans? The vast majority of congressional Republicans voted to defend Trump's attempted coup on January 6th, 2021 and have fought against any accountability for Trump and his cohorts. Most of the Republican presidential candidates (or vice-presidential candidates) would support Trump as the Republican nominee even if he were a convicted felon. Republican legislators in at least 11 states have been working to make it harder to vote. Conservatism has always had an antidemocratic strain, but the Republican Party has become increasingly, overtly anti-democratic and extreme.

Conservatives and Republicans are fighting hard against LGBT rights. They're also fighting against accurate discussions of racial issues and history, with a particularly egregious Florida teaching standard claiming that slavery benefited some black people (a view that Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has promoted several times). Republicans are still both trying to gut the social safety net and lying about it. And as has been observed before, the Republican Party is really the only major political party in a developed nation that both denies climate change and opposes universal health care. Unfortunately, conservatives and Republicans have chosen to be bad on almost every issue. (A 2018 post surveys their policies in the most depth.)

As of the writing of this post, Congress has narrowly averted yet another Republican-led attempt to shut down the government. As the BBC points out, this doesn't happen in other developed countries. And as many folks have pointed out, the shutdowns are Republican attempts to enforce agendas that they cannot achieve democratically. (Conservative and Republican policies tend to be both bad on the merits and unpopular.)

Media coverage has occasionally correctly blamed the Republican Party for this latest shutdown attempt, but as Dan Froomkin, Ian Milhiser and James Fallows via driftglass have pointed out, there's still a strong media tendency to blame 'both sides.' This is inaccurate, irresponsible and dangerous. (It's also nothing new. I haven't covered every shutdown attempt in depth, but covered the same dynamics in 2011's "Extremism in Defense of Nihilism Is a Vice" and " 'Serious' Culpability on the Debt Ceiling Hostage Situation" and 2012's "Why We Can't Have Nice Things." See also the more general false equivalencies category.)

Defeating the tyranny of the minority depends on conscientious lawmakers, civil servants, activists and citizens. But it also depends on more accurate and honest reporting. Extremism should not be normalized, blame and credit should be justly and proportionally assigned, and anti-democratic rhetoric and actions must be called out.

Monday, May 29, 2023

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

The 2022 version of All Quiet on the Western Front is a decent war film. I just wish it wasn't called All Quiet on the Western Front, because it keeps only the basic framework of the novel and makes significant changes that weaken the core story. That's a shame, because this is the first German film version of the justly famous German war novel by Erich Maria Remarque, and I was intrigued to see it.

Directed by Edward Berger and cowritten by Berger, Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell, the story still centers on Paul Bäumer, a German teenager who is inspired to volunteer for the army along with several of his classmates because of the patriotic speeches of one of their teachers. Their idealism is quickly crushed by the brutal realities of the conflict that came to be known as The Great War and later World War I. Paul and his friends do find a bit of luck in being looked after by an older, veteran soldier, Stanislaus Katczinsky, nicknamed "Kat," who has an uncanny knack for finding food in a war zone and has a host of useful survival tips. Paul and the others experience the terror of trench warfare and bombings, charging across no man's land against machine guns, awful and scant food, rats, cold weather, and the wounding, maiming or even death of their friends and comrades.

All Quiet on the Western Front is well-shot, with some memorable, haunting images. The score is mostly avant-garde, minimalist, and not period, but its main, three-note riff is effectively disconcerting, and earned composer Volker Bertelmann (a.k.a. Hauschka) an Oscar. One of the key sequences from the book, Paul faced with the prospect of killing a man to preserve his own life, is nicely done, capturing the fear and regret of the whole encounter. Multiple harrowing incidents and gruesome deaths leave no doubt that war is not glorious. (Some of the war scenes are quite effective, but I did find myself pulled out by others. 'How can he still be walking after that wound?' 'Why do those tanks have no support?' and so on.) The standouts in the cast are Felix Kammerer as Paul, Albrecht Schuch as Kat, and Daniel Brühl as Matthias Erzberger, a German politician (and real person).

The filmmakers often opt for spectacle and shock rather than more subtle human experiences. For instance, a character who in the novel is struggling to imagine life after the war with a missing limb dies in a nasty way instead. Taken on its own, the shock is effective, but we get plenty other similar moments in the movie, and lose a different color that could have deepened the story.

The novel stays focuses on Paul and his comrades, but this version shows German officials (most notably Erzberger) negotiating with the French for peace, and shows a German general hell-bent on seizing territory in the last hours before the armistice takes effect. The French are mostly depicted as cruel bastards at the negotiating table and on the battlefield. (And arguably in civilian encounters, too.) The scenes are interesting in that they're invented by the German filmmakers and postulate the roots of World War II, suggesting that the more right-wing German elements, especially in the military, blamed the German politicians and the intractable French for Germany's disgrace. Such attitudes certainly did exist at the time – shortly after the war, Erzberger was assassinated by a right-wing group, and Hitler and others enflamed their followers with the stab-in-the-back myth, or Dolchstoßlegende. So getting a contemporary German perspective on these past events was intriguing, but the film really seems to lay it on thick in villainizing the French. Likewise, the filmmakers' choices in changing the ending seem problematic symbolically. (I would hope the symbolism was unintentional, but if so, why didn't it occur to them?)

The ultimate fate of key characters in this film version versus the book remain the same even if the particulars differ, and the general idea that war is often pointless and full of needless suffering does come through. The exact ending of the novel is also admittedly somewhat difficult to convey on film, although the 1930 adaptation does a pretty good job of devising a visual and emotional equivalent. Still, some of the particulars of the original ending are arguably rather important. The filmmakers opt to convey the idea that violence and hatred are cyclical, and passed down, which is all well and good, if an add-on. But much of the strength of the novel, and 1930 film, hinges on the bond between Paul and Kat. We do spend time with them in this film, but we really get to know and like them in the novel and the 1930 film. That gives the older movie much more emotional heft. One of the cardinal rules of good adaptation is that, if you change something, make it better. Perhaps you need to translate a moment into the new medium (as, for instance, The Lord of the Rings trilogy often does). The 2022 version of All Quiet on the Western Front strays from the central story to make other commentary, which would be fine in another film, or perhaps a better adaptation could have handled both elements. But here, the significant changes feel like unforced errors and a waste of stronger and more compelling source material.

U.S. and U.K. critics generally liked the film; it was nominated for nine Oscars and won four, including Best International Feature Film, and was nominated for 14 BAFTAs, winning seven. German critics were less kind, feeling it was deliberate Oscar-bait, historically inaccurate and did a disservice to the novel, a staple of many German school curricula. The most scathing critique probably came from Hubert Wetzel, who said "you have to ask yourself whether director Berger has even read Remarque’s novel." I'm guessing he read it but didn't understand the heart of the story. This version definitely feels like it's capitalizing on the famous title to make a different film. I do think that different film is still worth a look with appropriately lowered expectations, but given the title and the hype, I was hoping for better.

It's been years since I read the novel and saw the 1930 film (I haven't seen the 1979 TV adaptation), so I decided to watch it again. Directed by Lewis Milestone, it won him Best Director and Best Picture at the Oscars. It holds up fairly well and is a pretty faithful adaptation. The talkies era was still relatively new, and microphones not great. Some of the acting is theatrical and dated. Other moments, especially silent facial expressions, are quite effective. Many of the shots, including a wide shot of a town and the battle scenes, are very technically impressive for the era. About 50 minutes in, there's a roughly 10-minute sequence of an attack on the trenches and a counterattack, with long dolly shots moving one way and then back, with machine guns sputtering away and men charging and falling, that remains a marvel of storytelling and technique. It is harrowing, it is shocking, it is relentless, it is moving. (Steven Spielberg reportedly watched every war movie he could find before making Saving Private Ryan, and he definitely watched the 1930 version of All Quiet on the Western Front.) There's a bit in the novel about Paul's group of soldiers talking about taking their dying friend's nice boots, which might seem ghoulish to those back home, but they reason that someone else would just steal them and he'd have preferred that one of his buddies get them instead. In the 1930 film, this bit is rendered as a scene and a short, wordless montage. Read the passage and then see the movie sequence and you'll recognize it as a fine piece of adaptation and cinematic storytelling. The film's biggest strength is its emotional core, which depends not just on the combat scenes but the human relationships. Katz, played by Louis Wolheim, rather than being the tough-as-nails veteran scolding the new guys that we've seen in countless movies, is disarmingly compassionate, even when a greenhorn soils his pants in fear. We really get to like Katz, Lew Ayres as Paul, and some of the rest of the squad. I admired and appreciated some of the scenes in the 2022 film. But I was honestly much more moved by the 1930 film. There's no reason you can't watch both (and read the novel as well), but unless you can't stand old movies, if you could see only one version, I'd go with the 1930 one. (The Universal Blu-ray is a nice transfer, and it's remarkable to think that the film is almost 100 years old.)