Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Talk Like a Pirate Day 2016

Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day! I like to celebrate by using one of the English-to-Pirate translators out there to translate a scurvy dog. This year, there's no competition. Follow the links to see the original words of looter and pillager Donald J. Trump, but here are some of his greatest hits in pirate:

When Mexico sends its swabbies, they’re nay sendin' the'r best. They’re nay sendin' ye. They’re nay sendin' ye. They’re sendin' swabbies that be havin' lots o' problems, an' they’re bringin' them problems wi' us. They’re bringin' drugs. They’re bringin' crime. They’re rapists. An' some, I assume, be good swabbies.

I can nereapologize fer th' truth. I don’t mind apologizin' fer things. But I can’t apologize fer th' truth. I spake tremendous crime be comin' across. Sea dogs an' land lubbers knows that’s true. An' 't’s happenin' all th' time. So, why, when I mention, all o' a sudden I’m a racist. I’m nay a racist. I don’t be havin' a racist bone in me body.

Torture works. ARRR, folks? Ye know, I be havin' these guys—”Torture doesn’t work!”—b'lieve me, 't works. An' waterboardin' be yer minor form. Some swabbies say 't’s nay actually torture. Let’s assume 'tis. But they asked me th' question: What do ye think o' waterboardin'? Absolutely fine. But we ortin' ta go much stronger than waterboardin'.

Eyeball them hands, be they wee hands? An', he referred t' me hands -- `if they's wee, somethin' else must be wee.` I guarantee ye thar`s nay problem. I guarantee.

A hand wi' wee fingers comin' ou' o' a stem. Like, wee. Eyeball me hands. They’re fine. Nobody other than Graydon Carter voyages ago used t' use that. Me hands be normal hands. Durin' a debate, he be losin', an' he spake, “Oh, he has wee hands an' therefore, ye know what that means.” This be nay me. This be Rubio that spake, “He has wee hands an' ye know what that means.” Arrr? So, he started 't. So, what I spake a couple o' days later … an' what happened be I be on line shakin' hands wi' supporters, an' one o' supporters got up an' he spake, “Mr. Trump, ye be havin' strong hands. Ye be havin' good-sized hands.” An' then another one would say, “Ye be havin' great hands, Mr. Trump, I had nay idee.” I spake, “What do ye mean?” He spake, “I thought ye be like deformed, an' I thought ye had wee hands.” I had fifty swabbies … Be that a correct statement? I mean swabbies be writin', “How be Mr. Trump’s hands?” Me hands be fine. Ye know, me hands be normal. Slightly large, actually. In fact, I buy a slightly smaller than large glove, arrr? Nay, but I did this on accoun' o' sea dogs an' land lubbers be sayin' t' me, “Oh, yer hands be very nice. They be normal.” So Rubio, in a debate, spake, on accoun' o' he had nothin' else t' say … now I be hittin' th' lad's pretty hard. He wanted t' do his Don Rickles stuff an' 't didn’t work ou'. Obviously, 't didn’t work too well. But one o' th' things he spake be “He has wee hands an' therefore, ye know what that means, he has wee somethin' else.” Ye can look 't up. I didn’t say 't.

The things that be spake about me. Ye know what, I wanted t' hit a couple o' them speakers so hard. Hit them with me tiny baby hands. I would be havin' hit them — nay, nay — I be gonna hit them. I be all set. An' then I got a call from a highly respected governor. ‘How’s 't goin', Donald?’ I spake, ‘Well, 't’s goin' good, but they’re really sayin' bad things about me. I’m gonna hit them so hard.’ I be gonna hit one guy in particular, a very wee guy. I be gonna hit this guy so hard, his hade would spin. He wouldn’t know what th' hell happened. An' he came ou' o' nowhere. He came ou' o' nowhere. They made deals wi' me. ‘Would ye help me wi' this? Would ye make this deal an' solve this problem?’ I solved th' problem. I do a great job. I be goin' t' hit a number o' them speakers so hard, the'r heads would spin, they’d nererecover. An' that’s what I did wi' a lot o' swabbies — that’s why I still don’t be havin' certain swabbies endorsin' me. They still haven’t recovered, arrr, ye know?

I’m tellin' ye, I used t' use th' word incompetent. Now I jus' call them lily livered. I sailed' t' an Ivy League school. I’m very highly educated. I know words, I be havin' th' best words...but thar be nay better word than lily livered. Starboard?

I think that's much more coherent. (The scary thing is that's after cutting several paragraphs of him talking about his hands.) Of course, Trump should be mocked, relentlessly, but it's also important to recognize him as a serious threat, and get out the vote.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Labor Day 2016

Happy Labor Day! As uusal, I'll include some videos. (They're repeats, but good.) Let's kick it off with Billy Bragg:

Here's Robert Reich from 2013, about celebrating labor on Labor Day:

This one's funny but not safe for work. The YouTube poster explains that "This was a PSA that the voice-over person decided to record an "alternate" version of for fun."

Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, Erik Loomis has a great series called This Day in Labor History/

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

I might update this post later with other links. If you have a post celebrating labor, feel free to link it in the comments.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Assessing Hearts and Minds

The old adage to avoid discussing politics and religion remains a wise social decision in plenty of situations. However, such discussions have to be held somewhere. (Alas, honest, intelligent discussion is fairly rare on the Sunday political shows – the good guests tend to be badly outnumbered by hacks and dolts.) The art of discussion, listening and persuasion isn't dead in politics, and blogs, discussion boards and activist groups provide some good venues. Unfortunately, the quality of political discussion on social media platforms – particularly if one has a wide set of friends and acquaintances, going back years – can be pretty dreadful. It can be alarming to see someone who's personally kind (and even fairly intelligent otherwise) uncritically blast the latest factually challenged, frothing bullshit from their political tribe as a self-evident truth.

In such situations, I find myself wondering how best to proceed or whether it's worth engaging at all. How well do I know this person? How reasonable is he? What’s her background? What's influenced his views? What frameworks is she using? How much energy should I (or do I possess to) expend? In my experience, some people simply aren't persuadable; some have little substance to their views even if you politely hear them out. Trying to identify points of agreement and contention can be a useful exercise (and sometimes can de-escalate an argument), but ultimately it's impossible to find common ground with someone on another planet. (Plus, trying to do so can be draining.)

In the interests of preserving sanity and lowering blood pressure, I've been playing with some categories to assess these dynamics and where someone falls. Maybe this piece isn't necessary for most people, who have worked out their own rules or handle such matters with instinctual grace. There's also a danger of condescension or ego preservation with these classifications. To guard against that, I think it's essential to practice curiosity, listening, compassion and a willingness to consider one's own potential blind spots. (I'm certainly not claiming that I personally achieve all that, but we gotta aspire to something, right?)

Solidly Reasonable: This is the ideal to aspire to – a group of people who are reasonably well-informed, try to stay that way, who base their opinions on facts and evidence, who will seek out new and better information, and will adjust their views accordingly. They believe in research and value curiosity. They have a decent sense of what they know and what they don't (like that adage from the Socrates guy) and what sources are credible and which are suspect. If someone else has better information, generally they're interested or eager to hear it and investigate further, rather than entrenching and trying to "win" an argument. (Knowledge and wisdom are cooperative paradigms, not combative ones – they'd rather have a true discussion than a "debate.") Although they realize that 'the plural of anecdote isn't data,' they do value relevant first-hand accounts and recognize the importance of lived experience and practicality over idle speculation or soulless ideology. (For instance, data do exist on racism and sexism, but it's valuable for people who haven't been on the receiving end to listen to folks who have. What's it's like to be racially profiled? To face sexism in the workplace? To be a religious minority? To be disabled? It's easy to be well-intentioned yet unaware of significant challenges others face.) People in the "solidly reasonable" group can and will disagree with each other, but they can give decent reasons for their positions, and can even… change their minds, whether on details or bigger issues. They will even (gasp) admit error. Similarly, they will correct others (in the name of accuracy), but try to avoid rubbing their faces in it. (…Especially if they're not dealing with jerks. Obviously not everyone who is smart or reasonable is amiable, but I'm defining this group as "not unnecessarily obnoxious.")

A few caveats: The popular and lazy "both sides" school of political punditry views "partisan" as a dirty word, but a world of difference exists between supporting a particular party because its positions are genuinely better ("partisan") and supporting positions primarily because one's party is righteous and definitionally better than the other guys (what I'd call "hyperpartisan" or tribal). Voting necessarily requires decision making, and it turns out research and reflection are indeed better guides than authoritarianism. (More on all this in this 2011 post.)

Likewise, I wouldn't put certain people in this group who definitely view themselves as reasonable (and tend to view themselves as much smarter than others, for that matter) – the "My ideology says [X], so facts and practical considerations be damned" crowd, for example. (More on that below.)

Mostly Reasonable, but with Blind Spots: This group is like the first group, but some issues exist where, for whatever cause, there's no reasoning with them. (Some of us who like to think we're in the first group are probably in this one instead.) This isn't merely a matter of strong opinions; on this issue or issues, their approach is fundamentally different from their normal mode. Perhaps some powerful personal experience or their upbringing or the influence of a pivotal figure significantly colors all discussion of some issue. Maybe their preferred remedy to some injustice suffered by themselves or someone close to them (often a legitimate grievance) would make very poor universal policy. Regardless, any discussion with them on certain contentious issues (for example, Israel and Palestine, or public policy on vaccines) won't merely feature strong and divergent views, but will inevitably shed far more heat than light. The key virtue of classifying people in this group is avoiding outright dismissal of them as "unreasonable," and instead allows for discussion on most topics while giving them a pass on a subject or two… as we might need ourselves. (Compassion, not condescension, should be the guide here.)

Crucial caveats: Some people have passionate views, but views nonetheless solidly based in fact, and I wouldn't put them in this category. As a practical matter, perhaps it's best to avoid certain subjects with them if you don't have 10 minutes to spare, but passion and reason are not opposites and can be highly complementary. Likewise, personal experience often fuels the best advocacy, especially when it involves listening and connecting with others. (The danger, perhaps, is in rigidly rewriting all other incidents through one's own views or experience instead of expanding to accommodate them.) There's also the question of venue – a survivors' support group is a place for sharing personal stories, not debating statistics, for instance (that would be callous and obnoxious). But these categories are meant for more public discussions.

Selectively Reasonable/Narrowly Reasonable: This group is a mixed bag based on subject matter. They're reasonable and perhaps genuinely knowledgeable and insightful on some subjects, but markedly (even surprisingly) bad in others. As with the previous category, the criterion isn't that 'they agree with me on some issues and not on others'; it's that their approach to some issues is significantly different from others. Perhaps they're generally bright but cloistered when it comes to some matters. Perhaps personal experience gives them insight on particular issues but clouds it on others. Perhaps they use a rational, fact-based approach on certain issues but get so focused on "winning" an argument in other situations that they turn into raving loons. I use this category more for pundits than other people, and for pundits in this group, I consider their track record on a given topic and will read them or avoid them accordingly. (I'll reconsider if someone strongly recommends a piece I'd usually avoid, but I try not to rush into classifying someone in this category to begin with.)

Your mileage definitely may vary, but I'll give some examples of folks I classify here. I'd rate Andrew Sullivan as not just correct on his stance on torture but at times genuinely thoughtful and eloquent. Occasionally, I've read other good pieces by Sullivan. But Sullivan not only supported the Iraq War, he supported it rabidly, accused war skeptics of being traitors, and years later offered a defensive, ludicrous semi-apology for his behavior. He played a key role in derailing health care reform in the 90s by promoting the lies of Betsy McCaughey and also championed the questionable racial claims of the book The Bell Curve. His positions on forgiving homophobic slurs and boycotts switch 180 degrees, apparently based on who he likes and dislikes in such conflicts. Born in England (but of Irish descent), Sullivan's lived in the U.S. since 1984, yet shows little understanding of American political history (particularly racism and its role in American conservatism) and maintains an antidemocratic streak and consistent scorn for the political left. His views seem pretty standard for a British Tory, except when he's personally affected, as with gay rights – thus, um, pretty typical for a British Tory. (For much more on Sullivan, I'd recommend the extensive driftglass archives.)

For another example, consider Jonathan Chait. In the positive column, he's excellent on economic issues, especially when it comes to debunking conservative claims about the virtues of tax cuts for the rich and cutting the social safety net. He's written incisively about the Laffer curve and Ayn Rand, and wrote an excellent debunking of Paul Ryan. In the negative column, Chait supported the Iraq War, but more problematically branded anti-war activists (opposing Joe Lieberman's re-election in 2006) as "left-wing" and "fanatics." While discussing propaganda, he made a grotesquely inaccurate and telling analogy about anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and the dishonest Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. (He's also whitewashed his Iraq positions somewhat.) In 2011, he made an odd, pedantic and dodgy argument that military intervention in Libya should be considered essentially in a vacuum from other obvious considerations. His attacks against "political correctness" were embarrassing, as were some of his exchanges on race with Ta-Nehisi Coates. His arguments about neoliberalism were similarly problematic. Meanwhile, he's shown persistent disdain for netroots activists.

My impression is that Sullivan and Chait make significantly shoddier arguments against people they don't like (and I believe the links above bear me out). Presumably, they dislike some of their targets on a professional level (conservative con men for Chait), but perhaps their dislike for those darn hippies to their political left is more personal, visceral and overpowering? I find the contrast in the quality of their work striking. (Again, your mileage may vary, and anyone's free to find my own work suspect. In my better moments, I want everyone in this category to be more admirable than I rate them. But because of the dynamics described, I view them as cautionary tales urging humility and self-honesty.)

Selective Sourcing Reinforcing Existing Views/Tribal Confirmation Bias: People in this group initially present as reasonable and steadfastly view themselves as such, but in-depth discussion does not bear this out. For instance, perhaps you're discussing voting rights and voter suppression. Someone in this category might say something like, 'I have to show an ID to board an airplane and do other things, therefore everyone should have to show an ID to vote.' That's not a horrible starting position, but the problem is that people in this category won't budge from it, even if you listen to their concerns and try to address them. Show them data on voter fraud being virtually nonexistent, demonstrate why obtaining an ID can be a burden, provide evidence of bad faith from the voter suppression movement, and suggest actual voting improvements that might create some common ground… and they won't read any of it (except cursorily) and won't change their minds.

Dig deeper, and you'll find this pattern is the norm, not an aberration. People in this group tend to keep up with the news, and can cite sources during arguments, but those sources tend to be biased or otherwise unreliable. For instance, conservatives in this group may view Fox News and other conservative outlets as unbiased and all more neutral sources as liberally biased (even though a few studies have shown Fox News is less accurate on factual matters). Folks in the category might cite sources shown to be deceptive, such as conservative think tanks The Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, and they show little to no interest in pieces that directly fact-check those sources or otherwise provide reliable, corrective data.

Unfortunately, for people in this group, their chief, domineering goal is to win an argument for themselves and their tribe. Consequently, if they're provided evidence that contradicts their claims, they'll double-down in some fashion, not examining the evidence, or insisting that the source is biased, or changing the subject or moving to one of their favorite arguments, the tu quoque fallacy ("you also"), claiming that 'the other side,' their political opponents, does the same thing and is just as bad. (If they're really flailing, they'll claim their political opponents would do the same thing if they had the chance, or will the next time they have a chance, never mind that they haven't.)

The problem with tu quoque and other "both sides do it" arguments are many. (I'll cite a few examples I've actually seen.) First, one thing often is not as bad as another. For instance, it's perfectly fine to criticize Obama for casting a symbolic vote against raising the debt ceiling when he was a senator that would not have possibly prevented the necessary step of raising the debt ceiling (and was a vote that Obama later said he regretted). However, it's ludicrous to pretend that Obama's individual action was exactly the same as the majority of congressional Republicans in 2011 seriously threatening not to raise the debt ceiling in an extraordinary move not supported by most of their own constituents in an attempt to extract political concessions they couldn't earn otherwise. (I consider the term "hostage situation" apt.) It's really, really easy to criticize both stances yet not childishly pretend they're equally bad.

Second, tu quoque arguments tend to be extremely selective with their history and timeline. For instance, claims that Obama is primarily to blame for Washington gridlock and slighted Republicans ignore that Republican leaders met the night of Obama's inauguration to vow to oppose everything he proposed, regardless of merit. They rejected bipartisan offers and, by objective measures, offered unprecedented obstructionism. Perhaps those political moves could be justified, but claims that they were only done in retaliation and congressional Republicans were eager to work with Obama earlier don't withstand scrutiny (even if other criticisms of Obama remain legitimate). More to the point, "retaliation" is a bad, petulant justification regardless.

Third, even if both actions or actors are equally bad (or admittedly bad, if not equally), it doesn't mean that we should do nothing. What's so hard about criticizing multiple parties, but also doing so proportionally and soberly? For example, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party contain corrupt, corporatist elements beholden to Wall Street. Yet on this issue, the Republican Party is demonstratively worse, opposing and trying to water down the Dodd-Frank Act (rather than seeing it as not going far enough), trying to block the creation and staffing of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (and then trying to weaken or eliminate it) and generally supporting plutocracy. Liberal activists aren't shy about criticizing the Democrats on this issue. The point is to make things better. I'd argue it's hard if not impossible to achieve progress without an accurate diagnosis. In this case, it's important to acknowledge both dynamics – Democratic Party corruption and much worse Republican Party corruption. (For instance, which members of Congress would be more likely to sponsor a reform measure?) Tribal hyperpartisans aren't really interested in this type of diagnosis or activism – it's really hard to get them on board for reform efforts. Their focus is on defending the tribe, on public relations, on talking points (sometimes shouting points). Whether intentionally or not, their shallow "both sides" claims shut down any deeper discussion and positive activism. No matter how well-supported by facts the conclusion is, they will fight to the death over any assertion that their side is worse than their perceived opponents. Consequently, political conversations with them typically can only go so far.

(It's not as prevalent, but hyperpartisans for the less-bad side – in the case of Wall Street reform, diehard Democratic Party loyalists – will shut down criticism and reform efforts by correctly pointing out the other side is worse but then insisting that nothing more should be demanded of their leadership.)

The cautionary tale from this group is, 'Am I so invested in defending my "side" that I'll ignore legitimate criticism and derail attempts to improve things?'

Lazy Experts Outside Their Field: The defining feature of this group is their unshakeable belief in their own superiority. They may indeed be experts in one or several fields – but pedigreed dolts with little expertise and less sense (but plenty of smugness) are quite common in political punditry. (Substitute the name "Condescending Dolts" for this category as needed.) Members of this group feel that they can blunder into any discussion without adequately researching the subject (or without updating their ossified and inaccurate views), yet still feel certain they are right, and those other silly people squabbling about this issue should defer to them. Some of them aren't experts in any field, but none of them are when comes to political analysis. Nonetheless, they expect to be treated as political sages. (More charitably, they may understand a few political issues, but remain largely clueless.) They're especially prone to overgeneralizations and wild extrapolations – anything that saves them the trouble of actual thinking or research. Some may cite outdated or debunked statistics they haven't bothered to confirm, but they prefer to work from a predetermined, shallow conclusion backward. The heart of their style often amounts to offering an opinion, an attitude, a personality, a persona – not true, solid analysis. Some of them may know that they're bullshitters, but most of them seem to believe their own hype.

The best single example is probably Ben Carson. By most accounts, he was a gifted neurosurgeon, which takes a fair amount of intelligence, hard work and skill, but he has demonstratively batshit crazy ideas about politics and history. Numerous roundups exist of his nuttiest beliefs, including a list of 13 from ThinkProgress, 13 from the Campaign for America's Future, 7 from Alternet, 15 from Politico, 10 from Forward Progressives, 11 from Inquistr and an unnumbered recounting from Rolling Stone. (As you'd imagine, these lists overlap somewhat.) My favorite is probably Carson's claim that the pyramids were not tombs, but designed to store grain, which is an "unusual theory" to say the least. What fascinates me most is how Carson simply doesn't care if experts say he's wrong and can provide proof; he still finds his personal beliefs more convincing. Merely being wrong might be forgivable, but with his characteristic somnambulant nonchalance, Carson shows absolutely no interest in discovering the truth and amending his views – and doesn't seem to understand why anyone would object to this.

Thomas Friedman provides another good example. Putting aside for the moment some of his worst arguments, Friedman has a nasty habit of chastising Democrats for not advocating positions they actually support. (See examples from 2011, 2012 and 2016 parts one and two.) My best guess is that Friedman likes to scold people, and scolding Democrats and liberals lets him traffic in false equivalencies and look more independent and superior, so facts be damned. (I'd put Camille Paglia and Megan McArdle in this group as well, not because I consider them experts in well, anything, but because selling an "expert" persona is central to their shtick.)

Many of the pundits in "both sides" cult fall into this category – they steadfastly ignore actual policy positions, their likely consequences and any matter of substance, and also tend to ignore the actual negotiation stances of the parties involved. Whereas tribal hyperpartisans and professional hacks will invoke "both sides" as damage control, this group uses "both sides" to try to assert superiority and position themselves outside the fray. In both cases, though, the effect is to shut down serious, accurate discussion. (For more on "both siderism," see Jay Rosen, digby, driftglass, Balloon Juice or my archives.)

Stopped Clocks: As the saying goes, "Even a stopped clock is right twice per day." People in the group have almost uniformly horrible positions and generally bad (if occasionally comprehensible) reasons for them. But by accident, the law of averages or an isolated incident of sound reasoning, they hold a few good positions. It may be possible to work with them politically, but only on those issues. Likewise, it might be best to stick those subjects in political discussions among polite company.

Personally Nice but Politically Crazy: This group can be quite nice and even generous on a personal, social level, especially with their friends, but when it comes to politics, they become completely different people – rabid nutjobs. They share some similarities with the Selective Sourcing group, but their tribalism is much more charged, their sourcing is even less credible and they tend to get much nastier. For instance, as soon as Obama was inaugurated, the national debt and deficit became huge issues for them, even though they weren't under Bush. (They tend to revise their history on such things, too.) They'll denounce Obama, who's fairly centrist and establishmentarian, as a raging socialist. (The much rarer lefty version of this is to denounce Obama as uniquely awful as an imperialist rather than viewing him, as most lefty critics do, as continuing and building on a long, bipartisan tradition of American imperialism.)

When people in this group are angry (as they often are when it comes to politics), they feel they must have good cause, never that they lost a fair fight. No matter how well-supported by facts a conclusion is, if it shows them they're wrong, they'll reject it. They're fond of denouncing any source that proves them incorrect as biased, and try to change the subject after being called out (no matter how politely it's done). Conservatives in the Selective Sourcing group try to appear reasonable (and often think of themselves as so), and will cite sources that likewise try to appear credible, such as National Review and Wall Street Journal. Conservatives in the Personally Nice but Politically Crazy group are more likely to engage in outright culture war, and cite Breitbart.com, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or Alex Jones. Neither group's claims may stand up to scrutiny, but the Selective Sourcing group at least pretends to be arguing in good faith and attempting persuasion some of the time, whereas the Politically Crazy group is preaching to the converted and yelling at their perceived foes. (Someone can easily slip from the first group to the second, though.)

One way of looking at this group is that they're good people, but just have different political views (essentially, some mix of small or large blind spots). If you like each other personally, a friendship or acquaitance or conversation is workable (if you largely avoid politics). Many of us have at least a few relationships like this, with family members, old friends, coworkers or acquaintances. (It can be a fragile peace, but we deem it worthwhile because of other, positive qualities in the relationship.)

Unfortunately, such allowances break down past a certain point – "She's a good person, apart from being a bigot" isn't very convincing. Some political views aren't mere foibles. Nor is it particularly impressive is someone is nice to their family, friends and others they identify are part of their tribe and nasty to almost everyone else. In such cases, it might be accurate (if harsh) to shift the caveat and say that they're good people in some narrow contexts, but not overall. Or simply say they're not good citizens. For instance, Matt Taibbi's excellent piece on that notable conservative rebranding effort, the Tea Party, observes that the angry, older, white folks driving it are "full of shit" – they don't oppose government spending as they claim, only spending on other American citizens they look down on. People of this sort might have other redeeming qualities, but their political views are comprehensible at best, crazy at worst – far from "reasonable." Whether a friendship or other relationship with them is sustainable or desirable is a personal call.

Personally Obnoxious and Politically Crazy: People in this category are normally easy to identify and it's best to stay as far away as professional or social courtesy permits.

Professional Hacks: This group is paid to advocate positions and will only make concessions for damage control and to pivot, perhaps to a "both sides do it" argument. If you must discuss things with them (or if you want to), make sure to do your homework first and be prepared to combat bullshit.

That's it for now. I might revisit these categories later, and your mileage may vary with how useful they prove to be. But here's to honesty, curiosity, research, humility, sanity and reasonableness.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Independence Day 2016

Happy Independence Day! Normally, I post some songs and other pieces (such as a reading of the Declaration of Independence). This year, given Donald Trump's dogwhistle call to "Take America Back" and his mix of cloaked and overt appeals to bigotry, misogyny, hatred, fear and ignorance – and that he's the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States – I thought another vision of America might be welcome.

Here's Reverend Dr. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, speaking to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in 2014. Barber's a fine orator and a master of that Southern declamatory style. This speech is roughly 40 minutes long, but it's stirring and well worth a listen:

Bigots and right-wing reactionaries typically think of themselves as the only true Americans. However, although America certainly has a long history of bigotry, it also has a extensive tradition of activism. When it comes to Trump versus Barber, I know which vision I find more thought-provoking and moving.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day 2016

Memorial Day is meant for remembering those who died in military service (a worthy commemoration). It's also a holiday that naturally spurs thoughts of civilians killed in war, of living veterans and how they're treated, and how war is discussed in our country. It's only right to pause and remember the dead. And perhaps the best way to honor them the other days of the year is by challenging the belligerati who believe that casually and aggressively endorsing war or torture somehow makes them tough or makes the nation safer. Requiring a high threshold for war shouldn't be a political calculation; it's the position of basic sanity. Unfortunately, saber-rattling insanity is both fashionable and profitable in some circles, and rarely seems to draw the same condemnations that wiser, less bellicose positions do.

This weekend, PBS broadcast a short documentary about The Telling Project, which uses theater to help military veterans talk through their experiences, from losing a limb, to being raped, to PTSD, to contemplating suicide. One of the veterans remarked that 'there's no bigger pacifist than a deployed serviceman.' Rather than letting our national discussions of war be hijacked by the braggadocio of the insecure, the cruel, the calculating and the delusional, we'd benefit from considering the harsh realities of war instead. Rather than letting tough guy (and tough gal) fantasies reign, we should seek out true stories. Rather than letting another bombastic speech from an irresponsible ignoramus dictate the terms of discourse, we should give time to veterans and civilians affected by war, and quietly listen.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Chain of Title

David Dayen, an excellent blogger based in Los Angeles, has a book out, Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud. His Tumblr blog links his articles and appearances (Salon, The Intercept, The Fiscal Times, The New Republic), but if you've read his work over the years, you're aware of the time and effort he's spent covering this subject. A summary:

In the depths of the Great Recession, a cancer nurse, a car dealership worker, and an insurance fraud specialist helped uncover the largest consumer crime in American history—a scandal that implicated dozens of major executives on Wall Street. They called it foreclosure fraud: millions of families were kicked out of their homes based on false evidence by mortgage companies that had no legal right to foreclose.

Lisa Epstein, Michael Redman, and Lynn Szymoniak did not work in government or law enforcement. They had no history of anticorporate activism. Instead they were all foreclosure victims, and while struggling with their shame and isolation they committed a revolutionary act: closely reading their mortgage documents, discovering the deceit behind them, and building a movement to expose it.

The book's website features blurbs from Matt Taibbi, Rick Perlstein and others and links reviews by Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. (The book also won the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize.)

As a first-time author, David Dayen depends on getting the word out and generating early sales. I've ordered the book but haven't read it yet, although I've read plenty of Dayen's other work, and you can check it out yourself through the Tumblr link above. I'm admittedly biased because I know the guy, but if you have the money to spare, ordering a copy is a great way to support a liberal writer and get a good book to boot. (Here are the links for Amazon, Powell's and Barnes & Noble.) He'll be doing book signings in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, New York, Washington, St. Louis, and Philadelphia. If you're on that Facebook thing all the kids are doing, you can get more details from the book's FB page. Thanks.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

National Poetry Month 2016

April is National Poetry Month. I'll link the wonderful Favorite Poem Project, as usual.

This year, I thought I'd post one of my favorites:

By Marianne Moore

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician--
nor is it valid
to discriminate against "business documents and

school-books"; all these phenomena are important. One must make
a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
"literalists of
the imagination"--above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them,"
shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

(Some of the formatting is lost here; you can see Moore's indents here.)

The line that always sticks with me is "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." For me, it nicely expresses the goal of much art – trying to capure some piece of real life in an invented piece.

Feel free to link or post a favorite poem in the comments.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Fool's Day 2016

Happy Fool's Day! This year, I thought I'd link Vulture's feature, "The 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy." It's got many classics, but the list is more impressive for its breadth and less obvious choices. Some supplemental pieces delve further into some of the gags, including Airplane's "Don't call me Shirley."

Thursday, March 17, 2016

St. Patrick's Day 2016

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Glen Hansard likes to end his concerts with this, and have other musicians and guests (not all of them singers) sing a verse. It's a neat, rousing and inclusive way to end the evening. (Here's some background on the song. The lyrics can vary considerably, and it's not unusual for performers to write new verses.)

I've featured some of my favorite Irish tunes in previous years. Feel free to link any of yours in the comments.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

2015 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Reviews

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's Part 2: The Top Four, Part 3: Noteworthy Films and Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).)

2015 was a decent year for film, with several less conventional movies winning both acclaim and some box office success. The blockbusters were less impressive this round.

The Oscars this year faced some controversy because, for the second year in a row, no black actors were nominated (after racking up multiple awards for the previous 15 years). Chris Rock's opening monologue was edgy and memorable as he chose to take this head-on:

Now the thing is, why we protesting? That's the big question. Why this Oscars? Why this Oscars, you know? It's the 88th Academy Awards. It's the 88th Academy Awards, which means this whole black nominees thing has happened at least 71 other times.

OK? You've got to figure that it happened in the '50s, in the '60s, you know? In the '60s, one of those years Sidney [Poitier] didn't put out a movie. I'm sure there wasn't no black nominees some of those years, say '62 or '63. And black people did not protest. Why? Because we had real things to protest at the time.

We had real things to protest! Too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer. You know, when your grandmother is swinging from the tree, it's really hard to care about best documentary foreign short.

Some of Rock's other bits fell flat, including a cameo by conservative black actress Stacey Dash as a "minority outreach" ambassador (too much of an inside joke for most of the audience) and Asian kids posing as accountants. Rock's decision to have his daughter and her Girl Scout Troop sell cookies to the audience was, well, an abuse of position, but kind of funny.

The best speechof the night was easily that from Inside Out's duo, producer Jonas Rivera and director Pete Docter, who endorsed the power of the arts:

Anyone out there who’s in junior high, high school, working it out, suffering – there are days you’re going to feel sad. You’re going to feel angry. You’re going to feel scared. That’s nothing you can choose. But you can make stuff. Make films. Draw. Write. It will make a world of difference.

It was somewhat refreshing that no one film dominated. Mad Max: Fury Road rightly picked up most of the technical awards, but Spotlight, The Big Short and The Revenant all won big awards as well. I would have been pleased with any of them winning Best Picture (Spotlight was a slight upset over The Revenant in that category). Spotlight and The Big Short deservedly won their best writing Oscars (original and adapted, respectively), although I also would have been happy if Inside Out had won for "original." The cinematography category was even richer than usual, and although I'd have been delighted to see badass 73-year-old John Seale win again, this time for Mad Max: Fury Road, or see Roger Deakins (Sicario) finally win after 13 nominations, I thought the award deservedly went to Emmanuel Lubezki for the third time in a row, this time for his alternately vertiginous and lyrical work on The Revenant.

The Revenant received a surprising amount of backlash, including the notion that it was unfortunate that Leonardo DiCaprio would likely finally win an acting Oscar for his work in it (as he did). I have my criticisms of the film (reviewed below), and a lengthy, occasionally gruesome revenge tale isn't to everyone's tastes, but it features some superb craftsmanship and was one of the best films of the year. In contrast, I'm flabbergasted that the worst Bond theme song ever, "The Writing's on the Wall," not only was nominated but somehow won, perhaps because of vote-splitting otherwise. At least Ennio Morricone winning for Best Original Score, and being lauded by John Williams and the entire audience, restored some karmic balance.

The Academy really should explain the sound categories better – I've seen Academy voters admit they don't understand the difference. I thought Mad Max: Fury Road deserved its win for Best Sound Editing (the effects and foley) but I'd have given The Revenant the award for Best Sound Mixing (the overall soundscape).

I didn't see all of the Oscar-nominated performances, but Brie Larson was excellent in Room. Mark Rylance delivered subtle, meticulous work in Bridge of Spies, and his win was a pleasant surprise. It was a banner year for Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, winning her the Oscar, but also Ex Machina and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and for Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina, The Revenant, Brooklyn, Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Kid actors Jacob Tremblay (Room) and Abraham Attah (Beasts of No Nation) gave impressive performances. (It was fun to see them make the awards circuit.)

On to the reviews. As usual, I wouldn't put too much stock in their relative category rankings. I've hidden spoilers with toggle buttons. (As always, my guideline is that, if it appears in the trailer, it's not a spoiler). The other sections are Part 2: The Top Four, Part 3: Noteworthy Films and Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).