Monthly Archives: December 2009

Avatar

Spoiler alert! I’m about to spoil the whole movie; so if you care stop reading.

In the early 1960s Rod Serling observed that, in his teleplays, he could have aliens say things that Democrat and Republican characters could not. From that observation sprang “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” and “Eye of the Beholder,” two rapier sharp and thoroughly mainstream denunciations of McCarthyism as goosed by the Twilight Zone.

Similarly, once public opinion turned squarely against Generalissimo Bush’s Iraq War II in 2007, Hollywood responded with harsh, realistic films like “Stop Loss” and “In the Valley of Elah” that attempted to demonstrate the difficult sensations of that quagmire. While the films had no problem stating their political purpose they failed to resonate financially and intellectually with the polity. Like Serling, James Cameron has found surrealism to be a simpler path to an effective political polemic. Avatar is an over-the-top unapologetic left-wing hook — a parting swipe at the miserable Bush Aughts.

The plot to Avatar is simple and predictable: think “Dances with Wolves” meets the Endor battle scene in “Return of the Jedi”, with a generous pinch of “Dune” flavoring the whole stew. Time and again, the surrealism of the  venture rescues its tougher political points. The vaguely Afro-Polynesian-Native American dandruff-shampoo-blue hued Na’vi are almost too precious in their literal oneness with their planet — they embody the simplistic deification of indigenous people that a dreadlocked freshman white dude might trumpet in between bong hits in his dorm room at an obscure small liberal arts college in southern California. As glorious as the cultures of obscure tribes in the Amazon may be, would this dreadlocked Strawman give up his sedan, dorm room and zip locked narcotics to become a Tree Person? Of course not. Unlike Amazonian tribes, however, the Na’Vi are not human. Using the biological UBC cord in the Na’vi’s ponytail to mindmeld with the local fauna happens to be the logical way to get by on this imaginary world. Here the 3D aspect of the flick is also vital, as it creates an otherworldly sensation of size, scope and gravity. The texture of the 3D surrealism allows the Na’Vi’s actions to be a demonstration of how to live on their planet, rather than being a neo-luddite scold about how humans should live on Earth. This allows the truth of the films’ strongest rhetorical punches — “there is no green left there”; “they destroyed their planet” — to land without being undermined by their facile moralizing.

Far more interesting than the Na’Vi are the “villains”. I use the worry quotes because Avatar does nothing to Otherize the human inobtanium Colonizers of Pandora and the Na’Vi . The Oppressors in this case are a private mining company replete with a military wing. The fact that they are almost all white and speak with an American (not British!) accent is surely no mistake. Lets face it, there have been lots of white American colonizers in the scope of human history. At no point does the leader of this venture disobey orders from high command and go too far in his inobtanium conquest, thereby showing himself to be a rogue amongst otherwise noble people. None of the bad guys commit any sort of destruction or rape or act of private unconscionable immorality that reveals their evil souls. In the climax of the movie, when the Colonizers destroy a precious tree to get at the inobtanium underneath to the dismay of the Na’Vi, they appear distressed by what they have done. The leader is a smart corporate project manager type that does not appear far removed from a protagonist  in a contemporary TV procedural drama. The military leader is the sort of square-jawed mix of violence and cunning that is the star stuff of a million action movie heroes. When he hollers “we will fight terror with terror” and the Colonizers do just that he is simply revealing the complicity that all of us not bad Americans share in Iraq War II, whether we thought it was a good idea at the time or not. Avatar does not let the average American off the hook in the way that most entertainments do.

Some have argued that there is a racist element to the white marine avatared Na’Vi leading the Afro-Polynesian-Native American real Na’Vi in their fight against the Colonizers because this shows that “indigenous peoples” were not up to this task themselves. The other jaw of the “white savior” trope is that it allows the oppressors to redeem themselves by becoming one with the Natives; this is the soft way that “Dances With Wolves” Otherized the white Union Army but forgave the crowd that was busy sympathizing with Kevin Costner’s character. Here the surrealism of the movie distills its politics. Our hero doesn’t join the Na’Vi’s culture; he literally becomes one of them. In so doing he acts, in the final battle scene, as a missing link to a more “natural” state of being rather than an industrial one. In Avatar, humans cannot meld cultures with the Natives, or simply find the capacity to treat them right and be down with them as we all are now, of course. You either are one, or a rare select friend, or you are not.

The final scene of the movie is a Trail-of-Tears-like procession of not quite villainous white Americans being frog stomped back into their spaceship and off Pandora. Like the whole movie it is very predictable, but one only realizes how unusual such a scene is when one sees it.

Avatar is painted with a broad brush and is over the top and unapologetic in its moralizing. In it’s audacity, and beneath its pyrotechnics and holy moly 3D, it offers a mule kick in the solarplexis about the kind of violence and imperialism that most Americans know about but rarely pause to consider.

Bravo Mr. Cameron! Bravo!

Individual Mandate

So, I guess there’s going to be a split within the left between those that want to act like teabagger and those that don’t. FailDogLake–er FireDogLake–is taking the lead on that part.

I guess that makes me just a plain old liberal. Anyway, I voted for Hillary because she supported the individual mandate that was projected to cost $2,700 per person as opposed to Obama’s $4,400 per person mandate free plan. Of course, it looks like Obama will be giving us the mandate. And I never really saw much difference between the two on much else, so I’m still happy. I still support Obama.

Time to start again.

We felt a terrible disturbance in the force that night 9 years ago this month.

After the laughing gas childishness of the 1980s ended in an uplifting end of the Cold War, we went through an increasingly solipsistic if comfortable and optimistic decade in the 1990s. Competent, if not inspiring, administration led the country and even the most intractable problems like the federal debt and Palestine seemed to be headed towards resolution. Even the GOP temper tantrum over Monica Lewinsky seemed only to be a slight bump in the road.

Indeed, the Lewinsky Affair was a symbol of that time. Something that absolutely did not matter became the most important thing. Politicians had reached some kind of consensus that enabled them to fight over soap opera problems. How could we argue with the luke warm hypnosis of the 1990s? Gore was a lock, right? And even if he wasn’t, Bush was just Gore plus a tax cut, right? The Clinton consensus would continue.

But the questionable manhood of the Brooks Brothers mafia had been called before an unfriendly ruler by Clinton. Even if his policies were center or center-right, he kicked the GOP’s ass in politics. They could not beat him. Even after winning control of Congress in 1994, they tried to destroy the man. They couldn’t do it. So when destiny called in late 2000, the rapist-like rage of the frustrated Republican id descended on Florida. These white boys had been working the refs in the media for years and took control of the narrative on election night by declaring Bush the winner before anything was certain. The public was apathetic for the most part. Really, what was the difference? Isn’t it time for the other guys to take a turn?

The stars were crossed that night and the astrology of bad fate became clear to anyone who saw the U.S. Supreme Court intervene in a presidential election for the first time ever and decide that same election on grounds that were as cynical as they were bullshitty. Strict constructionists arguing for equal protection! Decided on party lines! “Safe harbors” that had no meaning in the Constitutional process. False deadlines. The recount could have gone on until January without disturbing the process. But not this time.

The election should have been decided by the Congress. There would have been a deal. Bush would still have been president. It’s possible that little dick Lieberman could have been elected Vice President by a 50-50 senate’s tie being broken by Al Gore himself. Or other concessions. Who knows? But the legitimacy of the Constitutional process would have remained intact, and the Bush presidency would not have begun in the slime of an abortion, a mark of Cain that symbolized everything Bush would do in his 8 year reign of terror.

The refrain that “9/11 changed everything” reflects a true perception wrapped in a false rationale. 9/11 only finally sealed the change that occurred on that December night when the Supreme Court put its majority’s ally in another branch of government. It affirmed through many people’s new-found utilitarianism (no longer did we struggle with the moral propriety of killing 1 person to save 2) the irrelevancy of the Constitution that Bush’s election wrought.

It is possible that 9/11 fully enabled the Bush agenda. However, in retrospect, I doubt he would have had much trouble engineering a war against old nemesis Saddam Hussein without it. Indeed, on its face, the war in Iraq should have been harder with the pressing need to hunt and kill al Qaeda still incomplete. Before 9/11, Bush was permitted his campaign pledge of a trillion-dollar tax cut for the wealthy, despite a 50-50 senate (something the GOP has denied Obama and his 59 or 60 seat senate majority) and defection of Jim Jeffords to restore, however temporarily, the previously decades old (back to the mid-1950s) status quo of the Democrats having control of at least one of the House, Senate, or White House. Until 2002.

After that election, it was clear that the Democrats in power were battered wives declaring their husbands blameless good men. This—this was the opening for the new progressive awakening that began in December 2000 to gain power in the party. It was bound up in new institutions: Air America, the American Constitution Society, Internet sites, blogs, and the demand that liberals cease interest-group politicking and unite to wrest control of the government back.

This movement attempted to gain control in 2004, but simply couldn’t beat the establishment back. In part, it was the kneecapping tactics borrowed from the GOP that I think the Democratic establishment objected to. Those tactics were forged by conservatives who were out of power for decades and decades and held in check by a Democratic Congress. They were not tactics for a governing party. They were tactics to get into governance, and they were made possible by the unity of hatred for one man: George W. Bush.

Ultimately, they succeeded more than anyone’s wildest dreams would have predicted. It was apparent that the House would change hands in 2006, but it wasn’t until election night that we realized the senate would come with it. The new progressive base that took all the credit for this (even though the motivating figure was, in fact, Bush and his mammoth stupidity) and they were pissed when impeachment was “taken off the table.” They were pissed when FISA was renewed. They were pissed each time war funding was maintained. They simply believed that there would be no blowback from any liberal initiative despite the fact that their very power derived from blowback against conservative overreach. They began to predict better results by “letting it burn.” Let Iraq burn. Let the financial system burn. Let the government burn, and, now, let health care reform burn. Our fiddles are tuned. This is very much a belief adopted from the non-governing mindset of the GOP—remember the 1995 government shut down? It’s simply a way of abdicating responsibility whenever the proposed solution fails to meet purity standards acceptable to only 15% of the population, something even more sure to generate electoral failure than insipid compromises no one loves.

The movement grew and after a few false starts coalesced around Barack Obama, in whom they poured all their hopes and unified in favor of as much as they had against Bush. But now, on the cusp of 2010, without Bush, without minority status in the elected branches, this movement is pissed again. Obama didn’t dictatorially enact the right laws for them without Congress. Obama turned out not to be their messiah (and he never said he would be for anyone that bothered to ever read his positions on issues), and so they will crucify him for it. And the teabagger right, used to being in the outside and used to not governing, provides the other claw in a pincer movement that is grinding government to a halt.

The main ideological fibers of this movement were created in the dark days of 2000-2003. It served its purpose, but is now becoming too much like the tea bagger right in tactic if not in belief to credibly assist any party in governance.

It’s time to figure out yet another new progressive movement that can take advantage of the basic center-left views on major issues of the American public while still being able to govern, all while dealing with rumor-mills in the Internet era of the birther. I have no idea where to start with this, but killing the health care bill that will help 30m Americans just because it isn’t perfect is not how to start. Ceding power to the Republicans in 2010 and/or 2012 is not it either. Another lesson of 2000 is that purity on the left (or, in the case of 1992, on the right) that stems from the 1960s era call to “heighten the contradictions” fails to achieve its strategic goals because the public recoils, but only slowly, from the extreme, but only after deep damage has been done. Letting it burn only to put the fire out slowly leaves a hollowed out building rotting, not an empty plot ready for new construction.

So, MoveOn, DailyKos, liberal talk radio, and other institutions of the 2000s can continue to be this old movement or start figuring out the new one. If they chose the latter and dismantle the Democratic majorities in the process, not only will they harm the progressive agenda, they will become the relics they scoffed at in their genesis.

The Bush Doctrine

Rachel Maddow says Obama is following the Bush doctrine by escalating in Afghanistan. Specifically, because there is no threat there, fighting a war to prevent a threat means following the Bush doctrine.

Do you see how badly even smart folks are bamboozled by Bush? The “Bush Doctrine” may stink in the world of diplomacy, but it hardly requires articulation. Every country acts that way. But don’t be tricked—Bush didn’t follow the Bush Doctrine! Iraq was not a threat, was not about to be a threat, was not remotely one of the worst threats to us. Therefore, the “Bush Doctrine” was only a justification of the Iraq war if you were bamboozled into believing Iraq was even a potential threat, which it was not.

The fact that Obama is going to do what should have been done 8 years ago and saying we will withdraw in more or less 2-3 years is more than Bush, Johnson, Truman, or Nixon ever did and there is a legitimate causus belli in Afghanistan that never existed in Iraq, Vietnam or Korea. It is, essentially, the Bush I/Powell Doctrine: overwhelming force, do the job, get the fuck out.

You can agree or disagree with what Obama is doing, but to compare it with what Bush did in Iraq is intellectually dishonest and smacks of knee-jerk pacifism.

Sweden and Israel

I don’t know what the deal with Sweden is. It’s a wonderful country that cares about its people. It has an open, tolerant society. But it’s history in foreign affairs has always been strange. Despite the intense rivalries, it is closest with Denmark, Norway, and Finland—the latter two of which gladly saw it go as an imperial power. To an outsider, all three countries seem the same.

Yet the latest feint by the Swedes as the head of the EU right now was so politically tone deaf as to be disastrous, which is on par with its history in foreign affairs: ham-handed Just as the Obama administration wrastled the wily Netanyahu into a building moratorium in the West Bank (only Nixon can go to China), the EU responds by declaring that “East Jerusalem” should be the capital of a Palestinian state. Nitro, meet glycerine. Meanwhile, international negotiators have not even succeeded in talking the laconic Abbas out of packing up his toys and retiring, let alone coming back to the negotiating table.

It seems that the international community thinks setting these conditions for further negotiations is what it’s going to take to get Abbas back to the table. But all this will do is undermine Netanyahu, perhaps even forcing an election in Israel which would only delay things further. It will also leave the US in the position of backing Israel against the EU further undermining our already diminished role as an honest broker.

This is just stupid diplomacy. Neither side—no matter what they say—is married to the idea of peace. They both have their bottom lines, and, at the moment, I don’t see any overlap. The only way to get them together will be lots of pressure and appeals to the egos of the respective leaders to be the ones to do something historic. But drafting a deal whose major terms are already fixed for the Palestinians and leaving the other sides issues for “negotiations” only disincentivizes negotiations.

I tend to believe that European anti-Israelism is a proxy for anti-Americanism. I think they see Israel, especially when helmed by Likud, as a fellow traveler of American neoconservatism. This isn’t incorrect. But I don’t think the way to reduce Israeli militarism is to poke at them while supporting the other guy just to spite Bill Kristol and George Bush, in the same way that doing things in Palestine to radicalize the population there only empowers Hamas.

Oy.

Afghanistan Exit

There’s been a lot of liberal angst over Obama’s rumored escalation, but early word is it is in fact an exit strategy. If that’s the case, then it sounds like a good decision to me. Meanwhile, the additional troops, I presume, will try and give breathing room to the central government.

I wouldn’t support staying unless there’s a checklist of things to do. If he gives us that, then this sounds great to me.

For all the angst over Obama’s (lack of) results, I must say that I think he’s doing a good job in his process of decision making. Ultimately, that will add up to tangible good results over time.