The Madness of Kings

This is the second blog post that I’ve written titled The Madness of Kings. The first was about The Winter’s Tale, a Shakespearean play that I watched in Ashland. This has nothing do with that. So sue me.

This is literally about the madness of kings. What do you do when your king, the literal embodiment of the state, is mad?

I first started thinking about this while reading Tuchman’s book, A Distant Mirror, a fantastic history of the 14th century.

One of the key figures in it is the French king, Charles VI. After he took over from his corrupt uncles, he instituted reforms that led him to be known as Charles the Beloved. Later he came to be known as Charles the Mad.

At one point, during an expedition, he fell into a fit of madness, grabbed his lance, and started wildly swinging. This started off a mad scramble as his courtiers tried to calm him down but not actually touch him (since touching a king was a death sentence). Finally, he was effectively tackled and restrained, but not before killing four knights.

It didn’t help his madness later when he was at a costume party, attired in linen soaked in wax and someone (actually his brother, I believe) lit his costume on fire with a torch.

For the rest of his reign (and yes, he ruled for over 40 years), he had intermittent fits of madness. This came during a time when the Turks invaded Europe. It was decided that all of the European Christian states needed to get together to fight off this menace. Charles VI, as the King of France, was a key leader in this alliance because France was considered the military arm of Christianity.  Wenceslas IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, was considered the temporal head of Christianity.

Together, they gathered to discuss how to meet this existential threat to the Christian states. Wenceslas was alcoholic, so unfortunately, during the rare moments when Charles was sane, Wenceslas was drunk, and during the rare moments when Wenceslas was sober, Charles was mad, so the Christian states were not able to mount an organized opposition to the Turks, so they continued their attacks on Europe.

There was also the madness of King George III, of England. He started his reign in 1760. He reigned for 60 years. For the last ten years, he was completely mad and a regency was created so that his son could rule in his stead.

Long lives seem to be a problem for kings. How do you depose a beloved, successful king that has gone mad in his final years? Another case in point is Edward III, another king of England. He led the most victorious part (at least from an English point of view) of the Hundred Years’ War and was actually crowned King of France.

Ultimately, he reigned for fifty years. The last couple of years, he was senile and incontinent, apparently going around in a diaper. His son, the Black Prince, had died by this time, so next in line was his ten year grandchild. England was rudderless during this time and lost many of its gains from the war.

I could go on. How about Ivan the Terrible, who in a fit of insane rage killed his son? How about Eric XIV of Sweden, who in his paranoia ordered a family murdered, was later deposed, imprisoned, and poisoned in his jail cell?

All of this brings up interesting thoughts in my mind. When your leader is mad, what impact does that actually have on the people? Kings have a lot of power and are representative of their state. However, kings are surrounded by courtiers and the bureaucracy of state. Does this bureaucracy insulate the people from the madness? Can the state survive the madness of its king? How much does a state suffer from it? Does it, like an organic body, protect itself by enclosing the madness in some defensive bureaucratic membrane?

If you’re wondering why I’m thinking of this, of course this has been inspired by recent thoughts on Donald Trump. I read a fairly chilling article regarding Rex Tillerson and the actual growing prospect of nuclear war with North Korea. I read about John Kelly, trying to set up a protective cordon around President Trump to limit those he comes into contact with. I read about apparent conversations that have been conducted involving Defense Secretary James Mattis regarding what should be done if President Trump actually in fact orders a nuclear attack (apparently James Schlesinger, Secretary of Defense during Nixon’s final days, issued orders to military commanders not to launch any attacks without his prior approval). I read about briefings prepared for him that regularly include his name throughout to trick him into reading it. I think about the last minute cancellation of President Trump in a potential hostile 60 Minutes interview because of concerns that he’s ‘lost a step’.

Finally, I’m thinking about the recent spate of articles regarding the 25th amendment and the byzantine process it takes to involuntarily removing a president. It involves basically a revolt of half of the cabinet and two thirds of both the House and the Senate.

If Trump is truly incapacitated, can we as a nation (let alone the world) actually be protected by people that serve solely at his convenience? If he appears to becoming truly unstable, is it feasible that his hand picked cabinet and a Republican controlled House and Senate actually agree to vote him out? Remember that for those of us who see a potentially dangerously unstable man, he still has a 75 percent approval rating among the Republican party faithful. At what point will politicians place country over party? In today’s hyper partisan environment, is that even a possibility? How bad will it have to get?

These are increasingly scary days.

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Charming Rogue Death Dealer

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Title: American Made

Rating: 2 Stars

American Made is about Barry Seal, a drug smuggler turned DEA informant ultimately murdered by the Medellin Cartel.

I’m not going to spend too much time actually talking about the movie. It was pretty pedestrian. Tom Cruise has gotten to the point where it appears that all he can do is be Tom Cruise. He’s at the point in his career where he’s basically happy being a caricature of himself.

Actors seem to end up in that situation. This is not a knock on Cruise because many actors much more greatly respected than him end up there as well (ahem…Al Pacino or Robert De Niro).

The story is your classic American rogue’s tale. As he’s importing tons of drugs in exchange for arming drug lords, you’re just supposed to just chuck him on the chin and say, that’s all right, you’re a decent boy at heart.

The film takes many liberties with Seal’s tale. It appears that they’ve taken every even scant rumor about him and thrown it into the film as fact. It has him getting recruited by the CIA while flying for TWA. It has him arming the Contras. Realizing that the Contras have no interest in the guns, he turns around and actually arms the Medellin cartel, whose cocaine he takes and brings to the US. In the middle of all this, he somehow ends up also bribing Noriega on the CIA’s behalf and setting up the Sandinistas in a drug sting (a plot apparently hatched by Oliver North). His name leaks from the drug sting, which leads the Medellin cartel to put out the hit on him.

Now, I don’t know what the truth of Seal is. In broad outlines, it does pretty accurately describe our meddling in Central America. The Reagan administration is terrified after the Sandinista revolution takes over Nicaragua. As Nicaragua goes, so goes the rest of Central America, with the ultimate domino being Mexico, which of course means that the Reds are now at our back door!

I’m really not exaggerating. In retrospect, it seems like the Cold War was some insane Kubrick bitter satire, but that was the reality. I was there. People legitimately thought that the desperately poor overthrowing their rich land owners in a tiny, impoverished Central American country was an existential threat to the United States.

Since this was taking place in ‘our’ hemisphere, this could not stand (kind of a reversed fucked up Monroe Doctrine). So, even if the movie threw way too much plot into Barry Seal’s life, it is certainly true that the President tried to arm the Contras to overthrow the Sandinistas, despite explicit direction from Congress not to provide any material to them (you know, the arm of our government that is supposed to control the purse strings). We did basically treat Noriega as a puppet, despite his known corruption.

Most shamefully, there is strong evidence that the CIA actually did aid drug running into the country as another means to fund the Contras and thus accidentally if not actively fostering the crack cocaine epidemic.

And, of course, the coup de grace, the administration that promised never to negotiate with terrorists proceeded to sell arms to Iran so that it could use its influence to free hostages in Beirut. The proceeds from the arms sales went to, …yes, the Contras.

All of those illegal deals, millions if not billions of dollars, immoral acts, and the loss of basically a generation of inner city youth to crack resulted in…the Contras being hounded out of Nicaragua and being forced to hide out in Honduras.

I’ve written about all of this now a couple of times (search for Iran or Contra and you’ll find it). I’m slightly obsessed with it because this was, in my lifetime, the clearest example of the American government just doing outright evil things with obvious grounds for impeachment. In addition, I’m not a tinfoil hat guy and generally speaking, large organizations (and you don’t get much larger than the American government) are way more likely to be incompetent than evil, but here was a case where a small cadre of people actually launched an absolutely bat shit insane conspiracy and got caught, so sometimes the tinfoil guys are right (which of course feeds them into even deeper conspiracies; to see this in action please check out exhibit A: The Octopus and Danny Casolaro).

So, I’m guessing that this was probably done intentionally, but all of this was basically glossed over in the film as some aw shucks good guy going about and doing these absolutely immoral things.

Was this film making a statement that America is so full of its self image as this beacon of goodness, freedom, and liberty that it literally does not have the self awareness of the consequences of its action? Is Tom Cruise, that eternally youthful movie star with the glamorous smile and twinkle in his eye, actually America itself?

Slouching Towards Sparta

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Title: How Everything Became The War And The Military Became Everything

Rating: 2 Stars

In my life, the United States military has changed tremendously. I came of age in the 1970s, during the worse of Vietnam and in its aftermath. I know that there are stories about people spitting on returning soldiers, calling them baby killers, etc. I was pretty young and it was a long time ago, so I don’t know how much truth there was to this and/or how common of a practice it really was.

Be that as it may, the image of the army by the end of the Vietnam War was an army of poor conscripts (the wealthy can always figure out how to get out of military service, from paying $300 to get out of the Civil War to getting medical deferments during the Vietnam War (how’s that heel spur, President Trump?)) composed of drug addicts that occasionally tried to frag their officers.

Of course, nowadays, it’s an all volunteer force (still comprised mostly of people of limited economic means, some things never change). Especially in the time of Reagan, in opposition to those flag burning liberals, Americans began to lionize military personnel. We now thank soldiers for their service and they are given great respect. Even the most flaming anti-war zealot will always make a point to say that they support the soldiers.

Lord help the politician who in any way seems to be weak on defense. In the year 2017, our defense budget is about $700 billion dollars, even though we have no real state enemies of any consequence, we have no border threats, and we are under absolutely no existential threat (I’m sorry, but the United States will not be handing over a ceremonial sword in surrender to ISIS anytime soon). Meanwhile, the State Department budget (you know, the guys that actually manage our affairs of state) is about $55 billion dollars.

How did we get here? That is the subject of the book.

First of all, we’ve been at war essentially non-stop for over fifteen years. That’s the problem with declaring a war on a noun (ie War on Terror). When does it end? Are we expecting Terror to surrender? If we quit fighting while acts of terror still occur (and let’s face it, they’re always going to be occurring, there is no other way to fight the world’s only superpower than asymmetrically), does that mean that we have given up and/or surrendered? What politician has the cojones to say that?

War itself has changed. In the olden times, two masses of men (yes, men) lined up and charged each other. Now, war can be economic. War can be cyber. War can be personalized (think of a predator drone hovering above a terrorist suspect, gathering enough information to provide a convincing case that he is indeed a terrorist, and then sending a missile to destroy only his house). Now, instead of making sure that we have the best ships, tanks, and planes, billions of dollars are invested in these traditionally non military activities.

We also now have the concept of Counter Insurgency (COIN). This is basically a newer version of winning the hearts and minds. If we can figure out how to improve the standard of living of people that could nominally becomes our enemies, than maybe they will be less likely to become our enemies. Maybe they can even become a bulwark against those that truly are our enemies. So, in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, more billions of dollars are spent building schools, hospitals, wells and the like, all done by the, you guessed it, military.

The final nail in the coffin is that budgets really are, to a certain extent, a zero sum game. It’s not completely true, but generally it’s true that every dollar that goes to defense means that someone else is losing a dollar.

The implication to this is that even if a function falls outside of the military normal duties, it devolves to the military because the normal department doesn’t have the money to do it any longer. The military has the budget and the manpower, so it, reluctantly, takes it on. For example, in some countries, it’s the military that runs a local radio station. From a COIN point of view, it’s a good tactic to have a medium to communicate locally. Historically, it’s the State Department that would perform this, but it has become so financially emasculated that the defense has picked up the function. Neither State nor Defense particularly like this, but it needs to be done and only the Defense Department has the capability to perform it.

What’s wrong with all of this, anyway? Well, the military is basically a hammer and to it, every problem looks like a nail. I’m not in any way knocking the troops (I support the troops! Thank you for your service!), but there are problems in the world that aren’t necessarily best solved by a strictly hierarchical, rigidly disciplined, gun toting group of men (OK, eighty-five percent men).

By constant war, scope creep, pouring funds to it while depriving others, the military has become the dominant government power in the United States. The impact that this has on a traditional Western democracy is something that should be and needs to be looked on with deep suspicion.

So, after all of this blather, why two stars? Well, there are five parts to this book. What I just described takes place in the first two. The author is a lawyer, and in the latter parts of the book, this shows. She goes on, at length, on the subject of the history of war and attempts made to wrap around it a legal framework. It was kind of interesting, but to me, not really all that germane to the urgent topic at hand. I felt that entire sections of the book were filler. It could have made a more powerful, cogent argument in half the length. Also, there was a bit of a travelogue element to it (Look, I went to Iraq! Look, I went to Afghanistan! Look, I went to Guantanamo!) that, again, detracted from the main argument.

Still Don’t Want To Relive The ’70s

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Title: Battle of the Sexes

Rating: 4 Stars

It’s interesting when a film covers events that I distinctly remember from my childhood. It forces me to look at events with fresh eyes. This film is about the so called battle of the sexes, in which a 55 year old Bobby Riggs took on 29 year old Billie Jean King in a $100,000 winner take all match.

Bobby Riggs had previously beaten Margaret Court rather handily, but it was generally accepted that Billie Jean King was the best woman’s player, so even though this was just an exhibition, there was a tremendous amount of hoopla over it.

The film did a good job describing the atmosphere and building up to the climatic match. It also covered King’s awakening sexuality in a sensitive manner.

From what I remember from 1973, when I was 10 years old, there were a large number of people actively rooting for Bobby Riggs. There was a general feeling that women should  know their role, stick to it, and be appreciative for the morsels that they were given. Those ‘women libbers’ might have had a point when they started but now they’ve gone too far. Why should they demand equal pay when everyone knows that men are the breadwinners?

Obviously there are people who still think that today but in the 1970s it was blatantly overt and mainstream. It wasn’t unusual on the television for some self satisfied old white guy to sanctimoniously give advice to girls about their place. Looking back, I can only imagine how much that steamed those women looking for more than just life outside of the kitchen and the bedroom.

In hindsight, it seems kind of insane that somehow the establishment decided to put itself behind Riggs, an, even at that time, known gambler, self-promoter, and hustler, in contrast to the hardworking and earnest King. His character fits the rogue narrative that main stream America mostly just chuckles at and lovingly calls a knucklehead. Barnum would have been proud.

This was the same time when Title IX passed, which mandated that women should have equal access to participating in college sports. Before it passed, one percent of college athletic budgets went to women. Athletic scholarships were given exclusively to men.

I remember when it passed. There was much gnashing of teeth. Who would want to see a woman play sports? There’s no money to be made with women’s sports! It was taking money from deserving men! Women don’t really even want to play sports, right?

Interesting enough, this happened during Nixon’s second term. Even though he probably wasn’t in love with it, he directed the executive branch to execute it, and to their credit, they did. Can you imagine a Republican administration in today’s climate doing this?

In fact, I’m surprised that Title IX hasn’t been targeted yet. There seems to be a movement that thinks that somehow making America great again involves removing hard won equal rights from those that previously were lacking them. (otherwise known as ‘special rights’).

All of this backdrop makes the film’s message all that much more important. The battle was won (OK, maybe not won but substantial progress was made) but the war is not over.

 

This film is an example of how to make an engaging film that also has an important message. In this case, the message is equality and acceptance. In the year 2017, it’s pretty sad that this message is still important to champion, but it definitely is, so kudos to the film for making it.

Holy Mother

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Title: mother!

Rating: 4 Stars

Um…wow.

mother! starts off pretty conventionally. You have a older successful writer (Javier Bardem) (actually a poet) and his young wife (Jennifer Lawrence). The house they have been living in has burned down and the wife is slowly but surely restoring it to its original glory. Meanwhile, the poet is trying to write again but has been blocked, apparently for some time.

An unexpected visitor (Ed Harris) drops in. The wife is clearly discomforted by his appearance, but her husband encourages him to stay. The next day the visitor’s wife turns up (Michelle Pfeiffer). The visitor admits to the poet that he’s dying and that he intentionally dropped in on the poet to pay his respects. Meanwhile, the visitor’s wife intrudes upon the poet’s wife and generally makes a mess in the house.

Later the younger and older sons of the visitor show up. The younger son is infuriated with his planned inheritance, and in the ensuing argument, strikes and kills his brother.

Having nowhere else to hold it, the wake for the son is held at the house. Many people attend, the poet’s wife becomes increasingly distraught as people willfully damage the house. Finally, the poet’s wife goes off on everyone and chases them away. Afterwards, the poet and the wife fight but then passionately make love.

The next morning, the poet’s wife announces that she’s pregnant (because that’s how that works). With the previous night’s carnage in mind as well as the news of his now pregnant wife, the poet is inspired to write.

He finishes his poetry. His work is so powerful that it immediately sells out (again, because that’s how poetry sales work). He is immediately overcome with exuberant fans that over time treat his words as cultish wisdom and that over some more time form dangerous, violent, conflicting sects at war with each other.

And then it gets weird.

And when you think it’s done being weird, it gets weirder.

And when you think it’s about as weird as it can get, it gets fucked up.

So, what’s going on here?

First of all, from the name of the characters (Him, mother, Man, Woman, Younger Brother, Oldest Son, um…Cupbearer), it’s pretty clearly some form of religious parable (think Christian traveling from City of Destruction to the Celestial City in Pilgrim’s Progress).

The filmmakers point to the poet’s wife as being symbolic of mother earth and the poet being God. The visitors are the human race coming to worship God and despoiling (in an almost casual manner) mother earth in the process. There’s obviously a Cain and Abel thing going on there. Without going into too much detail (since it’s still in theaters and I don’t want to ruin the experience of the millions of my readers), there is a sacrificed son aspect to the movie (which, by the way, is heads and shoulders the most fucked up part of the movie, caveat emptor).

Pretty clearly, if this is a religious allegory, it’s a pretty bleak one. The process moves shockingly fast from exuberant fans to worshipful fans to cult like fans to reckless/raucous fans to mass organized violence, chaos, and anarchy. If the message here is that this is the cycle that all successful religions ultimately pass through, then it’s a pretty grim one (although sometimes possibly hard to argue with).

I also think that there was a fame message to it as well. Once a person becomes famous, then his/her personal life effectively ceases to exist. The poet’s wife has basically built her life around providing a refuge for the poet to feel safe and secure to write in. Once he reaches a certain level of fame, despite his obvious love for him, he has no choice but to turn his back on her to feed his ravenous public. The poet, willing to sacrifice literally everything for his creativity, regretfully but greedily takes everything that his wife has to offer.

Cabinet of Racist Curiosities

Last week, I completed Stamped From The Beginning, by Ibram X. Kendi. I’ve previously written down my thoughts on it. However, as I was reading it, I was somewhat furiously taking notes because it was so information dense.

So here is just a random list of things from the book that I found interesting. They’re in no particular order. I just wanted to get them down because, if I didn’t, then as I continue through my march of books, these interesting factoids will become lost to me.

Thomas Jefferson’s last visitor before he died was Robert E. Lee’s half brother. I keep forgetting how young our country is. To think that there is this weird connection between two key figures of both the Revolutionary War and of the Civil War is mind-boggling to me. This is similar to the fact that John Tyler, the 10th US President, born in 1790 (during the Washington administration) still has grandchildren alive today (well at least in 2016, the last article that I saw that references this).

The use of the word Negro actually became popularized during the early colonization efforts (pre Civil War attempt to address the problem of slavery/free blacks by shipping black people back to Africa). Free black people that were born here understandably did not particularly desire to be sent to Africa. Therefore, they started calling themselves Negroes in a futile attempt to get white people to stop thinking of them as being African. The use and rise of the term colored was also popularized by free black people for the same reason.

Linnaeus, the botanist, developed the system of hierarchical classification still in use today. Not so well known is that he also applied this system to humans. Shockingly enough, the European branch came out smelling like a rose (eg gentle, acute, inventive; covered with close vestments; and governed by laws) while the African branch, not so much (eg crafty, sly, lazy, cunning, lustful, careless; and governed by caprice). Like the title of the book says…Stamped From The Beginning.

Kendi discusses at length uplift suasion. This is the idea that if black people worked really hard to better themselves and also educated white people that black people can be just as good as white people, that racism will just die away. It seems totally logical, but the inevitable result of the effort wound up being the hardening of racism. If a racist white person actually encountered an educated, successful black person, the white person would start thinking, well, if this one black man/woman can do it, why can’t they all? See! I told you that they’re all good for nothing, lazy bums! Uplift suasion has been tried (and yes, is still being tried even now, what do you think The Cosby Show was all about?) for over 150 years. It will not effect the change that is required.

In many ways, Harry Truman was a pioneer in civil rights. For instance, he led the drive to end discrimination in the federal government. Was he guided by a moral compass or by the bravery of the black soldiers in WWII? Not exactly. Almost immediately after WWII, the Cold War between the US and the USSR commenced. Since it was a Cold War (albeit pretty damn hot in some places), much of it was waged through propaganda. At the time of the late 1940s, African nations, previously treated as European colonies, began their struggle for independence. USSR, in their propaganda to the Africans, could point to the segregated, overtly racist policies of the US and say to them, do you really want to be on that side? It reached a point where the State Department briefed Harry Truman that our racist policies was having a significant effect upon our foreign policy. Truman’s civil rights policies were an attempt to cast the US global image in a better light. So, yes, the USSR had a measurable impact upon the treatment of black people in the US.

The original Planet of the Apes movies, coming out from the late 1960s to the early 1970s were almost a direct response to the demands for black equality. Notice how in the future, it’s the black animals that now lord themselves over the white slaves. At the end of the original, the Charlton Heston character discovers the now destroyed Statue of Liberty, symbolizing the destruction of white liberty.

Contrast that to the Tarzan series. The first film appeared in 1918, got its steam in the 1930s and lasted into the 1960s. Here is the lost white boy that is raised by apes. Using his own innate superiority, he teaches himself to read, naturally leans towards a civilized life, and becomes the natural leader over the apes. Is there a better way to inculcate native white superiority?

The basic cycle of criminality boils down to where ever this is more police, inevitably there will be more arrests. Where ever there are more arrests there will inevitably be a perception that there is more crime. Where ever there is more crime, there inevitably will be more police. Rinse and repeat. This cycle, which Michele Alexander brilliantly discusses in The New Jim Crow is a pattern that can be tracked back to pre Civil War times.

That’s all for now. That’s enough. Stamped From Beginning is just chock full of facts that will make you change the way that you look at the world.

 

The Only Thing Wrong With Black People Is…

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Title: Stamped From The Beginning

Rating: 5 Stars

When men oppress their fellowmen, the oppressor ever finds, in the character of the oppressed, a full justification for his oppression.

That line is from Frederick Douglass. That one sentence manages to sum up the history of racism.

Before I go any further, I should say that this book hit me like a sledgehammer. I read a lot of history and since I lean in a progressive direction, I do read a lot of history that exposes other sides to history to that which is conventionally mainstream. However, the point of view that Kendi took shook all of my foundations. The closest that I can come to how I felt reading it was when I first read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States over twenty years ago. Clearly, I’d never read a history written from the standpoint of such an ardent anti-racist. It has changed (hopefully permanently) the way that I think and feel about our world.

Stamped From The Beginning is an encyclopedic treatment of  racism in America. In fact, it goes even further back and talks about the slave trade of Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal during the 15th century (the first slaves from Africa were brought to Europe in 1444).

The primary emphasis is on the United States. The primary thesis of this work is that the history of racism can be broken up into three camps: racist, assimilationist, and anti-racist.

The racist line is probably pretty obvious. At a basic level, racists believe that blacks are fundamentally unequal to whites and our culture reflects that, as it should.

The assimilationists believe that whites and blacks are equal, but that the blacks are lagging behind. This could because of the legacy of slavery, the legacy of Jim Crow, some fundamental problem with the black family, and/or other similar ‘cultural’ reasons. If the black people just worked a little harder or behaved just a little better, than some wonderful day in the future, all inequalities will fade away.

The anti-racists reject all of this. There is no difference, at a human level, between whites and blacks. If black people suffer from a higher rate of poverty, a higher rate of incarceration, or similar such ills, then it must be that there is something systemic in place that is actively defeating them. Equality at a social level can never be achieved without knocking down all of the barriers that hold people back.

Kendi breaks the history up into five sections, with each section centered around a significant figure of that period. The five figures that he chose were:

Cotton Mather: A key religious figure of the Puritans, he grappled with the notion of slavery and humanity. Ultimately, he decided / taught that slaves do have souls, but they are degraded and it is the white man’s responsibility to raise them up and teach them Christianity.

Thomas Jefferson: A key figure of the Enlightenment, he understood the basic immorality of slavery but could never divorce himself from the economics of it, and like men of that age, he bemoaned the curse of miscegenation but also partook of it.  The only slaves that he freed in his lifetime were the ones that he fathered with Sally Hemings. At his death, some 130 slaves from Monticello were sold to pay off his debts.

William Lloyd Garrison: The man that essentially started the white abolitionist movement. He labored at it for over 30 years. He lived to see the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves. Thinking that his mission was accomplished, he shut down his organization. In hindsight, perhaps a tad premature…

W.E.B. Du Bois: One of the great intellectuals of his time. In his very long life (he lived and was still active into his mid 90s), you can chart the progression of his views. In the early 1900s, you can see him start off as an assimilationist, advocating for the gradual advancement of blacks and bemoaning the segments of the black community that makes the Talented Tenth look bad. By the end of his life, he has become a full anti-racist.

Angela Davis: She was an anti-racist from the start and has been unequivocal in her fight to recognize the equal rights of blacks. During her era, the rights of the LGBTQ community has blended in to create truly a civil rights philosophy for all.

The book closes with a epilogue that is a stirring call to action. It is time for all of us to throw off all of the excuses of the racists and the assimilationists. The answer is not for black people to work harder. The answer is not to educate white people on why racism is bad. The answer is not for black people to act white.

The answer is to take action to explicitly put into place anti-racist policies at every level.

To quote from the final paragraph in the epilogue:

There will come a time when Americans will realize that the only thing wrong with Black people is that they think something is wrong with Black people.

 

The Goonies Fight Krusty

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Title: It

Rating: 2 Stars

This had come in with so much positive buzz that I had a lot of high hopes for it. Unfortunately, I left the theater disappointed. It was OK, but it certainly did not meet expectations.

Most of my issues with the film surround trying to distill a very dense, plot thick novel into a movie. It looks like it’s going to be at least two movies. Even so, this film involved the initial appearance of Pennywise in the children’s lives, which is still a pretty big story in of itself to tell.

The main challenge is that there are too many characters that each had some kind of plot arc. Stephen King is the master of weaving characters in and out of a complex plot. However, King has a thousand pages to accomplish this. A movie has about 135 minutes.

Under that constraint, you have to cut characters. Here, the filmmakers don’t. There are seven (count them, seven) child actors that are all in mortal danger. Not only that, but they all have personalities that need to be developed. One is an overweight budding architect. Another is a gifted mimic. Yet another is a hypochondriac. And so on. In the limited time frame, there just isn’t enough time to define and then create space for each character to develop.

I’m in the midst of reading It when I went to the film, so I know the characters. Even with that background, there were moments where I was confused. Wait, is that the kid who can’t stop talking or is he the hypochondriac?

I would have much preferred for characters to be excised from the plot than to have these one dimensional characters with carefully parceled out lines and scenes. Everybody had to have their special moment or two, which left the overarching plot a bit of a mess.

My second issue with it might come from the fact that maybe I’ve become somewhat inured to horror. Yes, the special effects were amazing and the transformation of Pennywise from creepy clown to flesh-eating hellion was impressive, but there were actually relatively few moments in the film where I actually jumped.

It might actually be an age thing as well. Perhaps I just can’t relate any more to the child in danger motif. I’ve long sense lost the innocence of youth. The perils of walking down the street and being tormented by bullies perhaps just doesn’t resonate with me anymore. If so, I’m assuming that the next chapter, if this chapter is successful, will take place the usual 27 years later, at which point the children would then be adults. Perhaps this type of horror will resonate more with me?

In the book, the setting for the children’s horror is 1958. From a pure American folklore point of view, 1958 is probably the better setting for the children’s section. Derry is presented as this typical small town with a dark shadow hanging over it. Setting it in 1958 makes this dichotomy even more apparent. The myth of the 1950’s is that of a time of bucolic innocence (well, if you’re white, anyways). Moving it into the 1980’s, while maybe will make the next chapter (ie 27 years later) a little easier to film and more relevant to our current time, caused the larger issue of lost innocence to be lost.

Finally, I wasn’t that impressed with the CGI. If anything, it was just a little too CGI-y as Pennywise seamlessly transformed into impossible shapes. Sure, from a technical point of view it was impressive, but again, maybe this is me, but horror is more effective when it’s simpler. Just last month or so I re-watched the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was I’m sure literally made for less than this film spent on catering.  Re-watching the shock and horror of that film and seeing how effective that was makes this one seem tamer, even though it clearly had way better pedigree / production values.

So, not a horrible movie, but clearly a disappointment.

Thou Shouldst Not Been Wise Till Thou Hadst Been Worldly

julius-caesar-square

Title: Julius Caesar

Rating: 4 Stars

My apologies for the pretentious title. That’s a paraphrase from King Lear. In King Lear, the great, respected and wise king decides that it’s a good idea to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughter upon the condition that they each verbally declare their love for him. This, in typical Shakespearean tragedy fashion, leads to pretty much everyone dying. Lear’s fool, in exasperation at the stubborn foolishness of the old king, pleads with him not to embark upon this destructive path by telling him, “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”

Similarly, in this play you have Brutus. Brutus is recognized as one of the wisest leaders in Rome. The conspirators to assassinate Caesar need to have Brutus in their camp to lend it legitimacy.

First of all, they fool him by leaving anonymous notes for him to find that beseeches him to rise up against Caesar. Apparently random notes are enough to convince this wise man to a path of assassination.

Then, when planning the assassination, the conspirators decide that they should also murder Antony, since it’s known how loyal Antony is to Caesar. Brutus says no, it’s better to shed only a minimal amount of blood. It sends a better message to the Roman people that the conspirators are not bloodthirsty.

Antony is clearly grief stricken by Caesar’s death and asks to give the funeral oration. Cassius, the main conspirator, thinks it’s crazy to let Antony speak to the people over the body of Caesar. Brutus says no, it’ll look better because the conspirators will look magnanimous letting Antony speak and anyway, he (ie Brutus), a great orator himself, will speak first and will pacify the people. What could go wrong?

Of course, immediately Antony gives a speech that turns all of Rome against them. They have to flee and a civil war commences.

Finally, on the field of battle, Brutus’ forces are nicely arrayed in fine defensive position waiting for Antony’s / Octavius’ forces to attack. Cassius advises Brutus, since they are in such fine defensive position, to let the battle come to them. Brutus says no, we are at the pinnacle of our strength right now, so we should leave our fortifications and attack them at Phillipi.

Multiple suicides later, both Brutus and Cassius are dead and Antony and Octavius reign supreme.

Brutus is the classic example of someone with great wisdom, judgement, and respect but just absolutely horrible gut instincts.

Cassius, who is portrayed here more of a sneaky character, does not have Brutus’ gravitas but clearly knows how to get the best of a situation. Unfortunately, his respect for Brutus is so great that he always yields against his own judgment.

This actually reminds me of…Night of the Living Dead. Now, bear with me. For those of you who haven’t seen it, there’s a group of people trapped in a house as zombies are trying to break in and get to them. The two main sources of conflict are between Ben and Harry.  Ben is the conventional heroic type (a young black man in a very early effort at actually representing minorities non stereo-typically) and Harry, who’s kind of a sniveling coward.

Ben is all about trying to figure out to fight the zombies and get out of the situation. Harry just wants to go into the cellar, barricade it, and wait for the authorities. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a movie if they all went down into the cellar and then spent the night playing pinochle or whatever, so Ben inspires them all to fight the zombies. Of course (yes, spoiler alert for a 50 year old movie), they all die except for Ben. Ben himself dies when he is shot by the authorities who mistake him for a zombie (and well, probably also because he’s black).

The point here is that, although Ben is a indisputably a brave and wise man, Harry was actually right. The zombies weren’t all that strong, the cellar door was solid, and the authorities were coming. If they’d just spent the night in the cellar they’d probably have been perfectly fine.

That connection was also probably triggered because in the play, Brutus was played in a wise, brave, heroic manner by a black actor and Cassius was played by a kind of middle management snivelly white actor. There’s probably a message here that leaders can’t be completely driven by some abstract concept of morality and sometimes have to do things that others might perceive as cowardly and weak. I could connect this even more to events in the 100 years war, but I’m going to stop now because it’s already getting too long.

I’m always a little suspicious of Shakespearean plays that place themselves in the current day, but here Julius Caesar really does seem weirdly relevant, which is bizarre for a 400 year old play. It’s a testament to Shakespeare’s genius and maybe to some common notes of humanity that stretch across centuries.

Here you have, in the background, 24 hour news channels continuously blasting events as they occur (including spot on imitations of how somber news channels get upon the death of a popular leader / celebrity). Here you also have leaders overtly manipulating the masses for their own political ends. Here you have the war hero Caesar, all ego and bluster, pretending not to want the crown while obviously secretly aching for it (every military dictator ever). Here you have the unthinking masses, all fired up in anger, literally tearing to pieces an innocent person in a case of bad timing and mistaken identity.

Also, I like the race / sex neutral casting of the play. Brutus is a black man. Antony is a black man. The Roman senators, Casca and Cinna, are a black woman and an Asian woman, respectively. They all were effective. I have no idea if there are Shakespearean canonical purists out there anywhere that raises a ruckus about this (considering the fact that there was a somewhat defensive note about it in the program, there must be), but if so, they need to get over it, or would you prefer that we go all the way back to the original and have prepubescent boys in drags for all of the female characters?

So, why not five stars? It’s not the players’ fault. The first three acts is where all of the interesting things occur, in my opinion. Acts IV and V have plenty of military action, but the moral questions have been answered, decisions have been made, and the final two acts is just the play heading towards its foregone conclusion. Everything after the intermission just seemed anticlimactic, even if well done.

Introverts Unite!…Quietly Alone

I am, I must confess, an introvert. Looking at my blog, with its 130 book reviews and 90 movie reviews, this is probably not exactly a shock.

I am in something approaching a leadership position where I work, so I can overcome it. It’s gotten to the point where I’m actually pretty comfortable now speaking up in meetings, giving presentations, and other such nonsense.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been living alone. I have no real burning desire to become the guy that dies at 90, his body  left undiscovered for weeks, and when the authorities finally do break down the door, they’re confronted by ceiling high piles of newspapers, mildewed books, and decades of old magazines. There’s a rabbit warren of barely navigable pathways that lead inevitably to my shriveled, desiccated body, buried under a pile of National Geographics from the 1980’s.

To avoid that, I make a conscious effort to go out, especially on the weekends. I try to make it a point to try a new restaurant, go to a play, concert, reading, or movie, or some other public event where I have to, even minimally, be amidst other people.

This weekend, I had several options. One option was to go to Punk Drublic, which is a punk rock / beer festival. Some popular bands from back in the day were going to be there. I was tempted but it was an all day thing and it was way out in the hinterlands of Tacoma, so if I was to drink (which I would), getting there and back was going to be a minor hassle.

Literally next door from where I live, Chris Rock was performing tonight. Maybe a mile away or so, Jim Gaffigan was performing. At a small club about a mile from me The Beaumonts were going to play. I don’t really know much about The Beaumonts, but they appear to be a Texan honky-tonk punkish kind of band, which sounded fun.

But…there was another option. Without going into too many details explaining why, one of my lifetime goals is to read James Joyce’s novel, Finnegans Wake. For those who don’t know about it, Finnegans Wake is Joyce’s last novel. He spent nearly twenty years writing it, and was blind or poorly sighted for much of that time. He essentially invented a new language while writing it. Eighty years later, there are people still trying to figure out what it’s about. Here are some examples of prose from it:

  • The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy. 
  • And the duppy shot the shutter clup (Perkodhuskurunbarggruauyagokgorlayorgromgremmitghundhurthrumathunaradidillifaititillibumullunukkunun!)
  • The (klikkaklakkaklaskaklopatzklatschabattacreppycrottygraddaghsemmihsammihnouithappluddyappladdypkonpkot!).
  • Wold Forrester Farley who, in deesperation of deispiration at the diasporation of his diesparation, was found of the round of the sound of the lound of the Lukkedoerendunandurraskewdylooshoofermoyportertooryzooysphalnabortansporthaokansakroidverjkapakkapuk.
  • For hanigen with hunigen still haunt ahunt to finnd their hinnigen where Pappappapparrassannuaragheallachnatullaghmonganmacmacmacwhackfalltherdebblenonthedubblandaddydoodled and anruly person creeked a jest. [205]
  • Let us here consider the casus, my dear little cousis (husstenhasstencaffincoffintussemtossemdamandamnacosaghcusaghhobixhatouxpeswchbechoscashlcarcarcaract) of the Ondt and the Gracehoper.

And yes, in case you’re wondering, those bolded words are one hundred characters long each.

I think that you can see now that, even though I’ve been reading semi-seriously for over thirty years, I have yet to tackle it.

What does this have to do with anything?

Well, apparently someone in the Seattle area has, not only read it, but has decided to memorize it. And not only memorize it, but he puts on shows where he declaims it. His goal is apparently to find the musical underpinnings of the prose.

That’s actually cool on a couple of levels. First of all, apparently there is a rhythm to Finnegans Wake when spoken aloud. More than that, the pre-written word epic poets of ancient Greece used to recite their poems. These poems were passed down from generation to generation by poets memorizing the verses. To aid in the memorization, poems like The Odyssey or The Illiad also have a musical structure, so we seem to be circling back to the arts of the ancients. Lastly, Joyce was nearly blind and Homer was allegedly blind, so there’s yet another weird multi-millenial tie that binds.

The artist is apparently up to chapter four. If that doesn’t impress you, understand that reciting just chapter one takes an estimated three hours.

So, given all of that, imagine my shock and surprise when I saw that he was going to read chapter one Saturday night. Even though I have no idea how such an event could possibly go (if I can’t read it and understand it, how can I possibly hear someone else recite and get anything out of it?), I quickly abandoned thoughts of Chris Rock and decided that I wanted to hear some dude recite from memory some gibberish!

Perfectly normal!

It starts at eight. It’s about a mile and a half away, so I walk. I arrive about five minutes early. It is in the middle of a residential neighborhood. There are no lights anywhere. I walk past what appears to be a couple of hyper-local storefronts (one is a hairstylist). I keep walking. I walk past one of the storefronts and the door is open.

I look in and see about fifty chairs set up. It looks like nothing more than one of those storefront non-denominational churches (Rock of Faith, all are welcome!). I look in as I pass by. No one is sitting down. There are three people standing at the front. I figure one of them must be the counter person (tickets must be purchased). The three of them have formed a conversational triad with a level of comfort that implies that they all have known each other for a while. There is no one else there.

I walk past the theater (I guess?) and stand off to the side. No one else comes in over the next ten minutes.

What do I do? If I’m literally the only person in the audience, that will leave me extremely uncomfortable. Even if two of the people are audience members, clearly I’m the guy that doesn’t fit in. What if they ask me about Finnegans Wake and I have to confess that I’ve never read it? That I have to admit that I’m some kind of voyeuristic poseur of avant-garde literature? I was planning on checking it out and then maybe ducking out at the intermission. That’s going to be really hard to do if I’m the only fucking person in the audience. What if it’s really uncomfortable? How am I going to respond if this artist, who has spent God knows how many probably thousands of hours memorizing gibberish, stands in front of me looking sad or forlorn but feels some show must go on duty to make sure that I get my $15 worth? Or even worse, what if he sits next to me, knees touching, and stares at me fiercely, eye-to-eye, while he regurgitates Joycean stream of consciousness at me for three hours?

The pressure becomes too much. I bolt. Like I said earlier, I do try to make an effort to break out of my introvert shell, but this was asking too much. We all have our breaking point and I’ve just found mine.

I think that I’ll see what’s in my Netflix queue.