Dumb quote of the day: so dumb it accidentally circled around and became smart (but probably not in the way the speaker intended) edition

>> Thursday, May 21, 2015

Everybody else wants to ask that question of, ‘Gee, would you have gone into Iraq if you’d known what you know now?’ And I think if President Bush had known that he would have a total incompetent follow him that would not even be able to negotiate a status of forces agreement with Iraq and start helping our enemies and just totally put the Middle East in chaos, then he would have to think twice about doing anything if he had known he would have such a total incompetent leader take over after him. That should be the question
- Rep. Louie Gohmert, as quoted by Miranda Blue,
Right Wing Watch, May 20th, 2015.

Soooo... if I understand what Representative Gohmert is saying, he's saying that President Bush shouldn't have invaded Iraq?  Gee, who'd'a ever thunk I'd agree with Louie Gohmert on anything?

I mean, let's totally set aside the point that Rep. Gohmert is talking through both sides of his ass as far as President Obama's foreign policy is concerned.  Whether or not you like the President's efforts or the consequences, any problems aren't the product of the President not supporting "the right people" and not "helping our friends" and his "helping the enemies."  Rather, let's consider the actual proposition Gohmert is unwittingly making, which is that an American President doesn't control his succession (in a first term, he isn't even guaranteed he'll have a chance to succeed himself), and therefore probably ought to factor that into his policy making to whatever extent its practicable to do so.

Or, put another way: let's just assume for the nonce that Gohmert's premise that President George W. Bush was succeeded by an incompetent is correct; why, let's double-down on it, and propose that Bush was followed by a drooling idiot who can barely work the Velcro straps on his shoes and dresses himself backwards some mornings, who gets stuck pushing or pulling on doors with hinges that swing the other direction, that he once got lost for several hours because he turned out a bathroom light before exiting, that he is what that great American icon B. Bunny would have characterized as "a real maroon".

Well, then it seems Mr. Bush himself was a fool not to at least consider the possibility the reins of his little Middle Eastern adventure would be taken up by such a half-witted dunce, yes?

Indeed, let's walk things back a little and simply suppose that our imaginary President Obama is not a complete blockhead, but that he's some kind of blockhead savant, who is particularly good at some singular aspect of American foreign or domestic policy and merely Bad At War.  Surely Mr. Bush should have thought about that.

Why, come to think of it, he should have even considered the possibility he'd be succeeded by someone less capable from his own party, even!  Supposing we weren't talking about "President Obama" at all, but about "President McCain"!  I mean, Bush might suppose that Senator McCain would be a capable successor, notwithstanding the infamous 2000 South Carolina primary campaign during which "somebody" (surely not Lee Atwater, who'd never think of doing such a thing) supported Bush's first presidential bid by suggesting that McCain was at best mentally ill from his treatment as a POW in a North Vietnamese prison and at worst a brainwashed "Manchurian Candidate".  But maybe not.  Indeed, in the unlikely event Bush believed any of the garbage from the South Carolina whisper campaign, our scenario becomes one in which the sitting President starts a war with a strong possibility that it will be continued by a treasonous puppet controlled by Vietnamese Communists.

Besides, even if Bush (as is likely the case) didn't believe the slanders leveled at his former rival, who is his successor's running-mate?  William Henry Harrison kicked a bucket a month after his inauguration.  Sure, medicine's come a long way since the 19th Century, when the chief criterion for calling yourself a doctor was the ability to say "doctor," but (as Job so wisely teaches), shit happens.  (I mean, really, really fucked-up shit, too.  Just sayin'.)  As it happened, we certainly could have had "President Palin".  (She probably would have resigned three years into her term, but still.)

Now, there's an obvious hole in that, only that hole is actually the entire point of this.  To wit: that when George W. Bush launched the Iraq war, he of course had no idea Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama would eventually seek his office, or that McCain's running-mate would be Governor Sarah Palin, any more than he might have known that he himself would run against Senator John Kerry (instead of one of the other likely Democratic nominees) in 2004 or would be assured a win in that election; indeed, it's very likely Bush hoped his Iraq war would be over quickly and the capacity of his successor irrelevant in that regard, and had no idea the war would still be a thing in 2008.  But all of that's really the point, isn't it?  He didn't know.

And of course you never do, never can, because the future is uncertain and comes with few guarantees beyond the fact the Earth will still be spinning around the Sun and the Sun spinning around the Milky Way and the Milky Way zipping whichever direction it's zipping in, whether or not you're here tomorrow morning or next month or next year or next decade to notice any particular step in our cosmic dancing.

But given that you do know that much--is this what the poet Rumsfeld meant by "known unknowns"?--isn't that something you should try to factor into your plans as best you can?  If you're baking up some kind of plan (whether for a fine little war somewhere or for something else), and your plan depends on This One Guy and you don't know if This One Guy is going to be in play one day or the next (because you can't), isn't that a flaw in your plan?  If your plan is completely contingent upon never being screwed up by idiots, isn't that a flaw?  Shouldn't you do your best to come up with contingencies and escape routes?  And if you can't, then isn't that a warning flag that maybe you should scrap the plan altogether, especially if the plan is for something that isn't entirely and absolutely necessary?  I mean, maybe things are so dire that a bad plan is better than doing nothing (that could easily be the case), but if it isn't that kind of crisis?

In other words, this is part of the problem with Bush's Iraq war.  It's not at all clear that anyone involved in the operation had a clear idea of what to do if the war turned into an occupation and the occupation turned into a grind.  It'd be one thing if it looked like they planned things out and the plan just didn't work, but I don't think they did that much.

There's a point here, by the way, that's better than Bush-bashing, which is probably what the people who gave up several paragraphs ago think this is.  Bashing Bush is kind of pointless at this stage, what's done is done and what is fucked is fucked.  But there is an object-lesson here, one which many leaders have neglected, sometimes even more catastrophically than the Bush Administration did.  (For all his greatness as a President, Abraham Lincoln's acceptance of Andrew Johnson's nomination as his running-mate in 1864 has to top our list of American presidential decisions made with stunningly poor foresight.)  The lesson, and point, is that any President ought to be thinking more than twice about the unknown future and (among other things) whether he might be succeeded by a mouth-breathing lummox or knuckle-dragging meathead.  Or even an ordinary scissorbilled clod, dunderheaded nitwit, cretinous dingbat, dumb-assed sap, foolish peabrain, or doltish boob.  (Let me just say that a thesaurus has been my best friend in drafting this post.)  If you're President, and you're contemplating a policy that could turn into a fiasco because of the unknown next administration's imbecility, maybe it's a bad play.  And even moreso when the plan (and its continuation) involves the spilling of American kids' blood.

Maybe you should think about that, yeah.

Everybody else wants to ask that question of, ‘Gee, would you have gone into Iraq if you’d known what you know now?’ And I think if President Bush had known that he would have a total incompetent follow him that would not even be able to negotiate a status of forces agreement with Iraq and start helping our enemies and just totally put the Middle East in chaos, then he would have to think twice about doing anything if he had known he would have such a total incompetent leader take over after him. That should be the question. - See more at: http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/gohmert-bush-wouldnt-have-invaded-iraq-had-he-known-obama-would-succeed-him-and-fight-wrong-#sthash.OzfbP1mc.dpuf
Everybody else wants to ask that question of, ‘Gee, would you have gone into Iraq if you’d known what you know now?’ And I think if President Bush had known that he would have a total incompetent follow him that would not even be able to negotiate a status of forces agreement with Iraq and start helping our enemies and just totally put the Middle East in chaos, then he would have to think twice about doing anything if he had known he would have such a total incompetent leader take over after him. That should be the question. - See more at: http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/gohmert-bush-wouldnt-have-invaded-iraq-had-he-known-obama-would-succeed-him-and-fight-wrong-#sthash.OzfbP1mc.dpuf
Everybody else wants to ask that question of, ‘Gee, would you have gone into Iraq if you’d known what you know now?’ And I think if President Bush had known that he would have a total incompetent follow him that would not even be able to negotiate a status of forces agreement with Iraq and start helping our enemies and just totally put the Middle East in chaos, then he would have to think twice about doing anything if he had known he would have such a total incompetent leader take over after him. That should be the question. - See more at: http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/gohmert-bush-wouldnt-have-invaded-iraq-had-he-known-obama-would-succeed-him-and-fight-wrong-#sthash.OzfbP1mc.dpuf


"But if you ask for a rise, it's no surprise...."

>> Monday, May 11, 2015

One's first thought, as ever, is to remember that old ditty about currency and the wry observation alluded to in the title to this post: "Money, so they say, is the root of all evil today; but if you ask for a rise it's no surprise they're giving none away."  Congressman Issa is evidently the humblest of men: he could, perhaps, give away all his Guilders  and Simoleons and walk the streets barefoot in sackcloth and ashes, living in a park and conversing with the squirrels and pigeons à la a latter day St. Francis of Assisi, but he wouldn't want to make us jealous.  Indeed, his martyrdom is the most noble and severe kind of martyrdom: the more evil Kronen he gathers to himself, the prouder the rest of us can be in comparison.  I'm not nearly as enviable as the guy who stands in the median on the W. Brookshire at the I85 interchange, but next to $448 million (sorry, $448 point four million, my bad), I'm the frickin' cock of the walk.

A first thought implies a second, and there's certainly more.  For instance, one wonders why a certain segment of the population seems to think--and in the CNN clip, Issa explicitly states--that developing, Third World, post-colonial states should be where we set our bar.  Apparently, we're to take it as a given that it's better to have one's family starve in America than, say for instance, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (the poorest state in the world, not one mentioned by Issa), a premise that manages to simultaneously be broadly true and yet bafflingly irrelevant.  We might grant that the United States is a better place to starve than some without agreeing that starvation is acceptable in the first place.  It also doesn't make the claim any more palatable when one considers the extent to which the miserably low bar set in some of these places was set by our own conduct as a colonial/demi-colonial power in the first half of the 20th Century and as a Cold War superpower in the second half.

E.g. doubtlessly one reason it's worse to be poor in the Congo than to be poor in Alabama is that in the 1960s the United States funded a right-wing anti-nationalist coup led by Joseph Mobutu, who proceeded to install himself as a corrupt, homicidal despot who spent thirty years watering his country's soil with the blood of dissidents and rivals while siphoning his country's wealth off to personal Swiss Bank accounts (in this, we yet again discern the humble man morally elevating his people by making them enviable); we did this, naturally, because a Congolese nationalist (Patrice Lumumba) was giving our friends the Belgians a hard time (first mistake) by saying maybe the Congo shouldn't be nearly so Belgian anymore (especially given what the Belgians had done with it) and went to the Soviets with hat in hand (second mistake) when the United Nations seemed, well, a bit Belgian about the whole affair.

Regrettably, this is a narrative that repeats (with variations) all over the place: "Well, if you think it's so bad here, what about life in this other place we raped, or helped rape, or helped the rapists of--count your lucky stars you aren't living there."  Following this line of thought all the way down the hole, one has to admit to wondering if one of the reasons some of these wealthy Republican types are so keen on keeping the proletarian classes so blessedly poor is that the West is running out of opportunities for rape and pillage abroad.  I mean, yes, our corporations pay people pennies to assemble shoes and computers and answer telephone complaints, but lately many of those people seem  keen on keeping their pennies over there where we're sending the pennies.

I dunno, maybe that's not a tenable hypothesis.  But the point perhaps remains the same, which is that one really wonders about an American Congressman not only suggesting that poor Americans ought to count their blessings they're merely desolate and not utterly devastated, but going on to suggest that if these Americans want to stay competitive in a global economy, they might consider emulating those terrible places they're lucky not to live.  (Does this sound anything like cognitive dissonance, by the by?)

And then there's one more thought, a sort of punch line to the whole thing that isn't quite relevant to Congressman Issa's comments and yet is somehow so apt one wonders if there is in fact a God and this Creature has a penchant for white suits and labored literary affectation.  I had to wonder, you see, where Mr. Issa's four-hundred (and almost a half!) million dollars came from, and to that end consulted with my era's version of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, our great digital brain to which you pose any question and from which you receive any answer, and it turns out that Mr. Issa's burden was not inherited from some 19th Century robber baron, as so many American fortunes have been, but was, indeed, self-earned.

By selling car alarms.

Now, it is possible you don't see why this is so grimly funny.  Or maybe you do, and in that case I may not say anything worth reading (this assumes you're still here and have found this worth reading so far, natch).  In case you don't see why this is terribly ironic and so funny that one can't even laugh, but ends up grimacing with gritted teeth and shaking one's head like a dog trying to get out of a collar, please allow me to explain something you already know.

You see, in the United States of America (as in many places), an automobile is a thing of value in and of itself, and a status symbol as well.  It allows one to get from one place to another rapidly, it is made up of myriad components that have some inherent value as replacements and/or possibly upgrades, it possibly "looks cool", it makes a statement that one is independent and free as the wind, it may send (the possibly erroneous) message that one has mad cash that one can throw away on something luxurious and impractical (a self-effacing display, of course).  And it is inherently mobile, unless it's up on blocks or has a blown engine or something--forget the qualifier, and let's just agree for the point that the automobile as designed can be taken from one place to another some indefinite distance away.  And it's expensive, or expensive-ish, depending on the model and one's budget.  And it is large enough to function as a kind of container--one might keep many things in the compartment or the trunk, often things of value (even though this might be a bad idea).  And various improvements to the use and enjoyment, the radio for instance, also have some value.

All of which, point being, makes the vehicle a target for thieves.  Specifically and generally, for thieves for whom it is easier to steal a car than to buy one, or who find that taking a car and/or it's various components and selling them is a somewhat reliable and convenient way to acquire much-needed money.  (Sure, you could rob a bank instead, but if you try sitting on top of the pile of money in the vault and making vroom-vrrrrooom--scroooch-va-room noises, they will catch you.)

While some people will surely always be thieves, just as some people will always be serial killers and some people will always be saints, most people will be nothing much in particular unless forced by their circumstances to be better or worse than the human lot.  'Tis just the human condition.  Thus, if there is a rise in car thefts or breakings-and-enterings, one might conclude that more people are being forced by circumstances to steal, and that the most likely pressure is a lack of money, perhaps a lack of money brought on by lack of work or lack of opportunity.  That is, one might suggest that a rise in property crimes is a symptom of poverty.

Naturally, however, the people who have cars and things in their cars don't much want their cars broken into, their cars stolen, the items in their cars taken away, and--you see where this is going, yes?  Faced by an epidemic of automobile break-ins, car owners buy car alarms, and Darrell Issa gets rich... because poverty.

I don't intend to imply that Issa is a parasite, so instead I'll just say it outright: Darrell Issa is a parasite.  This is a harsh statement, I realize, and I should mitigate it by observing that while parasites are squicky and disgusting from a certain perspective, taken from another they're also wonderfully amazing and resourceful illustrations of the wondrous variation millions upon millions of years of evolution has produced on this planet, and are even admirable in the many ways they savvily occupy and exploit the openings (no pun intended) created by life's great flourishing.  Perhaps you think of your GI tract as, well, your GI tract, but from another perspective it's just a warm, wet place with lots of nutrients regularly flowing through it and wouldn't it be a nice place to live if clamping down in warm, wet places and passively absorbing nutrients was your thing; wouldn't it be downright clever if millions of years adapted your species into the form of the simplest, most efficiently-constructed entity that can anchor itself, soak up food, and periodically spawn?  No, you wouldn't want to have a tapeworm living inside you, but you can nevertheless grudgingly admire the tapeworm's lineage for thriving in thousands of generations of guts.

So when I say Issa is a parasite, I honestly don't mean that in the sense of a creature that embeds itself somewhere and takes and takes while giving nothing back to its host, and is therefore (from a certain POV) lazy.  (An accusation so often leveled at parasites that "lazy parasite" sometimes appears redundant.)  Starting an automobile security company with the sale of several used vehicles and a loan from family members  and nurturing it into an extremely successful four-hundred-million dollar venture clearly takes resourcefulness and effort (and we'll confine ourselves to only passing snark re: stealing cars is something Issa seems to know something about, and thus could be seen as an application of his skills and education).  Many parasites in nature also put hard work into finding a host--that is, into finding a place in their world--and latching on and never letting go and getting all they can from their situation.  Nothing to be ashamed of.  Sure, it's possible Mr. Issa could have embarked on the surely less-lucrative enterprise of figuring out ways to obviate anyone's need to break into cars, but let's not talk the crazy talk, you and I.  Realistically, it's a lot easier to treat a symptom of need than to cure the underlying cause, and Mr. Issa has done well by that, for sure.


Back on the Chang gang

>> Monday, April 13, 2015

This is too good to not share: over at Esquire, Charles Pierce draws attention to Marco Rubio's magic sword, in turn leading us to Steve M., Timothy Noah, and Brad DeLong quoting the Gainesville Sun:

After more than an hour of solemn ceremony naming Rep. Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, as the 2007-08 House speaker, Gov. Jeb Bush stepped to the podium in the House chamber last week and told a short story about "unleashing Chang," his "mystical warrior" friend. Here are Bush's words, spoken before hundreds of lawmakers and politicians: "Chang is a mystical warrior. Chang is somebody who believes in conservative principles, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism, believes in moral values that underpin a free society. I rely on Chang with great regularity in my public life. He has been by my side and sometimes I let him down. But Chang, this mystical warrior, has never let me down."

Bush then unsheathed a golden sword and gave it to Rubio as a gift. "I'm going to bestow to you the sword of a great conservative warrior," he said, as the crowd roared. The crowd, however, could be excused for not understanding Bush's enigmatic foray into the realm of Eastern mysticism. We're here to help. In a 1989 Washington Post article on the politics of tennis, former President George Bush was quoted as threatening to "unleash Chang" as a means of intimidating other players. The saying was apparently quite popular with Gov. Bush's father, and referred to a legendary warrior named Chang who was called upon to settle political disputes in Chinese dynasties of yore. The phrase has evolved, under Gov. Jeb Bush's use, to mean the need to fix conflicts or disagreements over an issue. Faced with a stalemate, the governor apparently "unleashes Chang" as a rhetorical device, signaling it's time to stop arguing and start agreeing. No word on if Rubio will unleash Chang, or the sword, as he faces squabbles in the future.

The reason this is wonderful, however, isn't the prospect of Rubio (who is expected to announce a Presidential campaign sometime today) going all Connor MacLeod on Congress, shrieking "There can be only one!" and embarking on an arguably overdue and much-needed decapitation spree.  No, what's wonderful about it is that Rubio may be an even bigger ignoramus than previously suspected, while George H.W. Bush once again offers evidence he spent much of his career hiding his light under... (sigh)... under an archaic word for some kind of basket or bucket container used to measure volumes of dry goods, okay?  Take it away, Mr. Noah:

"Unleash Chang," or the more historically precise "unleash Chiang," is something Jeb Bush's father, the 41st president of the United States, liked to say when he was about to smash a tennis ball over the net. It meant "give you the best that I've got," and it was partly an expression of sincere competitive spirit and partly a self-mocking acknowledgment that he had what his daughter Doro Bush Koch, in a memoir, lovingly describes as "a bit of a weak serve." (I use the past tense because, at 87, former President Bush has, I assume, given up tennis, but with these old Wasps you never know. According to Doro, Poppy was still unleashing Chiang on the tennis court in 2006.)

Doro explains in her book that "Unleash Chiang!" is a reference to the nationalist Chinese exile leader, Chiang Kai Shek. Specifically it was a battle cry of the American right during the Korean War. It meant that the U.S. should remove the Seventh Fleet from the Taiwan Strait (there to keep the peace between the mainland and Taiwan) so that Chiang could re-invade communist China and whup Mao. One of the principal reasons Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the great postwar right-wing hero, was relieved of his duties by President Truman was that he bypassed the White House and publicly urged Congress to allow him to unleash Chiang. Unleashing Chiang would not have been a good idea because Chiang could not win (he'd already been whupped once by Mao's army) without the U.S. dropping a few atom bombs on mainland China, and perhaps not even then. (You'll recall we had a hard enough time with the Chinese in Korea.) [internal links omitted]

I was not a fan of the elder Bush when I was a younger man, and I can't say I've changed my mind about his Presidency.  Still, I have to give the man grudging credit for having a sardonic sense of humor that appears to be lost on his sons' generation of conservatives and an independence of thought that doesn't appear to have been widely inherited within the modern GOP (unless you're counting awkwardly misplaced libertarians like Rand Paul).  Using "Unleash Chiang!" as a battle cry for your lousy tennis serve isn't just a reference to Asian history, it's grade-A, high yield snark of startling purity.

The Kraken
You have to remember that throughout WWII and well into the postwar era there was a great deal of dissension in American political circles, and particularly within the American right, over the headaches caused by  Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek or whether he was really a headache at all.  America's "China Lobby" considered Chiang to be the world's great hope in the face of the International Communist Conspiracy's expansion into China.  This despite the fact that during WWII Chiang was not only helpless before Japanese invaders, but also proved himself incapable of uniting a country divided among a motley of local regional warlords and a surprisingly effective insurgency led by Mao Zedong.  Indeed, Chiang's ineptitude was so gross he was kidnapped and held hostage by his own generals in 1936.  Postwar, Chiang's Nationalist government haplessly gave ground to the communists until they literally had nothing left under their feet to give--in 1949, he withdrew with what remained of his forces to the island of Taiwan, where he pretended he was still governing China.

And yet, many on the American right nevertheless continued throughout the 1950s to insist that Chiang's Taiwanese government-in-undeclared-exile had some miraculous potential they'd simply never been able to muster when fighting the Japanese, the communist insurgents, and their own damn selves through the 1930s and '40s.  To say that "Unleashing Chiang would not have been a good idea," is one of those transcendent understatements that is so severe it's nearly false in its truth.  Those in the United States who clamored for the chance to unleash Chiang were at best fools and at worst disingenuous to a horrifying degree: the only way to "unleash Chiang" would be to use a Nationalist re-invasion of the mainland as cover for a full-scale invasion of China or an atomic bombardment, so the suggestion was either a nadir of foolhardiness or a thinly-veiled plea to begin a holocaust (there were people, like Air Force General Curtis LeMay, who plainly wanted to bomb somebody into the Stone Age and lobbied at every opportunity).

"'Unleashing Chiang'--watch this, I've got nothin'," is basically what H.W. Bush was saying, and the former Ambassador to China and WWII Pacific veteran knew it.  It's funny stuff.  I've got to give the old man credit, that's a good one.

But then what do we make of Jeb Bush picking this up?  Did he get the joke?  Not get the joke?  Did he tell Marco Rubio about "unleashing Chiang" and Rubio misheard him and didn't get the reference, or did Jeb really say "unleash Chang" and they're both really that gormless?  And they both apparently want to be President, eh?

I'm not quite sure just how educated and historically-literate a Presidential candidate needs to be.  Given that the collapse of China played directly into the fiascoes of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, I also can't say that not-knowing about the history of mid-Twentieth Century China is relatively harmless the way not-knowing some other historical subject might be; that is, you can learn something useful from almost any historical subject, however trivial, but in the specific case of Chinese-American relations in the Twentieth Century you have a trove of cautionary tales about backing bad horses, throwing good resources after bad, getting swept up in one's own fantasies, not repeating recent mistakes, the limits of American power and influence, keeping a line between domestic and foreign politics and the proper boundaries of party politics, etc..

Plus, there's this enormous irony in what Steve M. correctly observes: "Jeb took a joke about conservative zealotry and turned into a celebration of conservative zealotry."  Yes, this.  Even if Rubio had the right "mystical warrior" (and there's an ironical expression when you're referring to Chiang Kai-shek right there), you'd still have to grapple with H.W. Bush's snark being turned into some kind of triumphalism.  Chiang Kai-shek was never someone who you wanted by your side because he'd never let you down; he was the "buddy" who'd beg you to loan him money for the electric bill that he'd set aside for back-due rent he wasn't going to pay, either, and who'd eventually end up sleeping on your couch and double-parking his busted, oil-leaking, fume-spewing, can't-pass-inspection, expired-tag hoopty in the neighbors' assigned spots.

So what have we (re)-learned?  Marco Rubio is probably kind of dumb.  Jeb Bush is also probably kind of dumb.  And George Herbert Walker Bush was a lot funnier and smarter than some of us usually gave him credit for.  Unfortunately, only one of those men is ineligible for the Presidency.


The Presidential Job Application: Seven even better questions we should ask anyone who wants to be president

>> Thursday, April 02, 2015

Al Gore said that a presidential campaign is like a job interview. If that’s true, then when these candidates announce, we should hand them a few preliminary questions at the start of the process. After all, that’s even required of the average Starbucks employee. Presumably this job is harder.

Fair enough, but unfortunately Dickerson's questions just... well, they aren't that good.  I like Dickerson alright: he's an entertaining regular on Slate's "Political Gabfest" and he recently started his own solo spinoff podcast about American political campaign history, "Whistlestop", that's a lot of fun to listen to.  But these questions....  "What's the biggest personal crisis you’ve faced and how did you handle it?" is a question all the candidates are going to answer even if we don't ask them, and will possibly be an entire chapter in each one's Obligatory Campaign Memoir (a chapter with a title along the lines of, "A Time of Crisis," natch, just in case you weren't sure where to find it).  Ditto, "What’s your greatest governing triumph?"  And the superficially best question, "Tell us a joke," is (1) actually an imperative sentence, not a question, and (2) can probably be answered by most of the candidates' fiscal policies.  Indeed, in some cases, the candidate themselves can be regarded as a kind of conceptual performance art joke following in the footsteps of Andy Kaufman's Tony Clifton... unless... oh gods, some of them are serious, aren't they?

Which segues quite naturally into Standing On The Shoulders of Giant Midgets' "The Presidential Job Application: Seven even better questions we should ask anyone who wants to be president," starting with:

1)  Are you serious?

Because, honestly, a lot of the people who we can expect to run for President--including all of the people who have officially announced they're running as of this date--really have to be joking, don't they?  Surely.  Surely they must be.  In fact-- 

2)  No, really, are you serious?

Because we're really hoping you're kidding.    We're hoping you're pulling our legs, or at least-- 

3)  This is just a ploy to sell books or promote a reality show, right?

Remember when Newt Gingrich was on that book tour in 2012 and accidentally won the South Carolina Republican primary and Sheldon Adelson bought, like, a million billion copies of The Battle of the Crater but for some reason never came by Gingrich's table to pick up any of them (which was probably pretty good for Newt, actually: he was not looking forward to signing that many copies because he only brought five or six Flair pens along and maaaaan his wrist was going to be hurting after a bit)?  Yeah.  That was pretty fucked up.

4)  Are you trolling?

You know, I already mentioned Tony Clifton, and I would just like to point out that I don't think I've ever seen Bob Zmuda and Rick Santorum in the same room together at the same time.  I mean, maybe I'm wrong and you can find a picture and show me, but I'm just saying.  I have not seen any evidence, myself. 

5)  How do we know this isn't just a mad scheme to get access to the nuclear access codes so that you can get back at the French for that time you went to Paris when you were in college and went into this lovely little bistro and were having a great time until you tried to order an off-menu item and they relentlessly mocked your accent and pronunciation even though you took, like, three whole semesters of college French and thought you were "parlaying lah Franssaissse" like a native, or at least better than Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther movies?

That's too specific.  Sorry.  Let me edit that: 

5)  This is about the nuclear launch codes, right?  C'mon.  'Fess up.

There we go.  Let's just leave Rick Perry's humiliating junior-year summer-break European trip out of it and ask a question we can ask any of the prospective likely candidates, especially Hillary Clinton who still occasionally gives off that evil supervillain vibe when she thinks no one is looking.  And this really gets to the heart of one of the things we most want to know about our possible future overlords: are they going to nuke somebody?  Matter-of-fact-- 

6)  Alright, let's just say this is not not about getting access to nuclear launch codes: who gets it in the ass and why?

Do we expect an honest answer to this question?  Probably not.  But it's still a good one, albeit maybe with some tweaking.  The way I figure it, what we do is we change the subject after question #5, make idle chitchat with the candidate, and then abruptly, while they're on a rambling tear about Friedrich Hayek, someone shouts, "Who ya' gonna nuke?" and when the candidate unthinkingly blurts out, "Australia," we know how Senator Paul really feels about Iggy Azalea. 

7)  I know we already asked you this... but seriously?  I mean, really?

The ultimate truth is that there's one thing Republicans, Democrats and independents will agree on in 2016: that other guy (or gal) who I'm not voting for?  Really doesn't need to be President, yeah.  Christ on a unicycle doing the highwire act while juggling baby penguins, I really can't stand the candidate I'm voting for, but mercy and forgiveness upon us if ______ wins this goon show.

Okay, so that's not completely true: there will be some subset of the Democrat/Republican (circle one) party faithful who will have somehow managed to be excited by somebody's nomination.  But a huuuuge chunk of the electorate is voting against the other party, which is why a lot of the punditry (even that of relatively reasonable pundistas like John Dickerson) is worth less than an investment in a Bitcoin-style cryptocurrency based on Confederate dollars.  "Will Democrats be able to get over the Clinton State Department e-mail controversy?"  Yes.  Yes, they will, because as soon as they see whatever shambling parody of a candidate survives the shearing forces of the Republican primaries, they will vote for Hillary Clinton even if she shows up in an ISIL decapitation video.  "Will [insert name of shambling parody of a candidate who survived the shearing forces of the Republican primaries here] be able to bring Republican voters to the polls?"  No, but Clinton is going to bring them out in droves so it won't matter.

You know, we shouldn't be asking the candidates anything, when you get right down to it, because it's a waste of time, breath, energy, ink, pixels; it's just a way to kill time and measurably increase net entropy in this small corner of the universe by unleashing more chaos and irrelevance into the junkyards of our foolish minds.  If we want to ask somebody something meaningful about American politics, perhaps we ought to be asking ourselves why we allow ourselves to remain saddled with a screwy, Eighteenth Century, late-Enlightenment, pseudo-democratic, crypto-oligarchical, dysfunctional, better-on-paper-than-in-practice, everybody-gets-represented-by-nobody, lowest-common-denominator-is-zero-which-is-indivisible system of governance?  Why do we stick with a system that was state-of-the-art around-about the same time as the discovery of electricity when everyone else in the world ever sense who has admired our Republican values has elected to not actually model their system of government after ours?  ("Great idea for a democracy!  Let's set up a multi-party coalition parliamentary system!")  Why do we cling to a system where every four years we go symbolically vote for the least-offensive choice of evils so that the Electoral College can actually choose a President who may or may not have a majority of the American people behind him (or her) and certainly doesn't have anything like a mandate, and so that this newly-elected President can then be paralyzed by a Congress created by gerrymandering and bribery?

Seven questions or seven hundred: there's no conceivable universe in which I vote for a candidate who survives a process in which he promises to discriminate against immigrants, subvert a living wage, denies science, and swears he'll do everything in his power to eliminate the Affordable Care Act (unless he's going to replace it with a proper single-payer system, which he isn't).  Nor am I going to repeat my campaign 2000 ill-fated experiment in third-party politics; been there, done that, no thanks.  And on the other side, there's a few million Americans who aren't going to vote for a Democrat no matter what kind of raving and drooling lunatic their own party proffers--as long as he's older than thirty-five and a natural born citizen and not to the left of Richard Nixon, he's their guy even if he has an IQ of 38 and the bathroom habits of a feces-flinging resident of the local zoo's Primate House.  So tell us a joke; I know, here's one:

You're running for President.


Dumb quote of the day--Basically, I have no idea what the fuck this man is talking about Edition

>> Wednesday, April 01, 2015

...A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.

These days, you can’t be sure.


I have that particular edition of Princess Bride on my bookshelf by the way, and read it a couple of years before the movie came out; yes, it's that Princess Bride, the one with Wesley and Buttercup and Inigo Montoya and the Six-Fingered Man and the Cliffs of Insanity and "Mawwiage" and "Have fun storming the castle!"  The book is a bit different from the film--it's a send-up of all those great 19th Century epic novels by the likes of Hugo, Dumas, Melville et al. wherein one finds dozens of pages of rousing adventure filled out by hundreds of pages of interminable essay-like passages about architecture and fish, and the book's message ends up being "Life Isn't Fair" instead of "True Love Prevails" or whatever.  But it's not nearly as different as the Ballantine paper cover from the '70s might lead you to believe; no snake-humping nekkid ladies, for instance, an absence shared by book and film.

This was on my parents' bookshelf.  I must have been in junior high school.  My literary precociousness as a reader was inversely proportional to my sexual precociousness, so I grokked Goldman's satire and enjoyed the book despite the contents having nothing at all to do with the obvious reason I must have pulled it off the shelf when I didn't think the 'rents were watching.

Anyway, it's what comes to mind reading Torgerson's blog entry, though it can't even be the best example.  Honestly, if there are two literary genres most notorious for false and misleading advertising on the covers, it's got to be Science Fiction and Fantasy.  And this isn't a new thing.  Go into your local used bookstore and find the shelf where they've stashed the SF/F paperbacks published from the tail of the '50s to, oh, the mid '70s, say, and study the covers.  You'll have no idea what's going on in half of them.

I mean, what the hell is that?  I'm pretty sure it's probably Ian Miller,  whose work I adore, but what the hell are you getting when you crack the spine?

I haven't read The End of Eternity, so maybe it really is about... about... can someone tell me what this one's about?  I'm mostly wondering about the giant ball:

[EDIT, 4/2/15: So apparently this one's a bad example.  See the comments below....]

Okay, okay, maybe I exaggerate a little.  Sometimes the cover really does let you know what you're in for.  F'r'instance, yes, this one is a book about drugs:

This PKD cover, on the other hand, is possibly less helpful:

There are tears in the title and in the image, 'tis true.  So... success?

Here's a book that's sitting on the nightstand because I'm re-reading it some evenings.  It's an anthology by several authors working in the style of the mannered, post-Gothic cosmic horror of the primarily-featured author in the volume, and that emphasis on atmospheric, purple-yet-scholarly prose is why the cover features... a face... skull... head... with... uh... I think that's brains?... or mushrooms...?--

Also, he seems a bit miffed that something (steam? albino broccoli florets?) is squirting out his head.  Which is a common reaction of Lovecraftian characters upon being brought face-to-face with cosmic horrors from the bleak abysses beyond space and time--they get a little peeved by the inconvenience of being squashed by squamous godlike non-Euclidean entities.  I feel for the guy, anyway: from the look on what remains of his face, I imagine he was on his way to a job interview, or possibly getting ready for a date, when this happened.  Grrr.  Arrgh.  Empathy, am I right?  It's like having a zit pop up at the worst possible time, except with... really tiny white trees?

I could go on forever, possibly, but I'll wrap this up with the Ace unauthorized paperback of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Two Towers, featuring an artist's interpretation of the famous passage in which a Ringwraith rides his pegasus across Utah:

(Spoiler: he falls off just outside Provo and has to catch a bus the rest of the way.  Lucky hobbits!)

(My thanks to everyone I'm stealing images from.  That's probably bad form.  Sorry.  Thank you for taking the trouble to scan these, whomever/wherever/whenever you are.)


Aid and discomfort to the enemy

>> Monday, March 09, 2015

"It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system … Anything not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement," the senators wrote. "The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time."

Ah, gee guys, thanks for clearing that up.  You probably should have addressed that to everybody in the world the United States does anything with, seeing as how everybody else in the big wide world was probably wondering if they could trust any of our agreements, compacts and treaties for more than four years.  Evidently they can't, because we're craaaaazy.

On the one hand, this seems awfully close to, oh, what's the word?  Treason.  That's the one.  I mean, no, not technically--18 U.S. Code § 2381 officially defines treason as "lev[ying] war against [the United States] or adher[ing] to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere," leaving us several elements short of forty-seven convictions.  We're not actually at war with Iran, for instance, and so they're not officially our enemies even if we, you know, don't especially like the Iranians all that much and consider them at odds with our confused strategic and economic interests in the Middle East.  For that matter, I'm not sure that broadly hinting to the Iranians that they shouldn't negotiate with Americans because we're unreliable is even "aiding and comforting"; it might even be discomfitting them.  And if talks about limiting Iran's development of nuclear weapons fall through, there's the dim prospect of us waging war on them at some point in the future, so that part's a little backwards in the treason context.  But still.

On the other hand, from a broad perspective, this would hardly be the first time in this country that an opposition party has tried to undermine a President's foreign policy, though this is one of the baldest and most brazen efforts I can think of.  I'm (still, slowly) listening to the audiobook version of Alan Taylor's The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies (I hardly have the time to listen to audiobooks at all, and generally only in half-hour clips), and have learned from Taylor that the Federalists spent a fair bit of time and effort trying to nix the Democratic-Republicans' war efforts, going so far as to get chummy with British military officials and prominent citizens and reassuring them that the war would be over soon, telling them that nobody was really in favor of it, etc..  I don't recall Taylor specifically mentioning whether they explained Constitutional law to the Brits, but it would have been on par if some Federalists had actually promised the War would be settled on favorable terms the moment James Madison returned to Virginia.  And this in an actual war with people shooting one another and everything, and this perhaps constituting actual comfort to an official enemy, and these are Founding Fathers and their generation we're talking about here.

But still, again.

One might disagree with the President's policy on Iran, but he is the President.  We've elected him and given him this thankless task, and we've legally empowered him to act on our behalf.  It seems that scuttling his best efforts by telling people he's negotiating with that they shouldn't respect the United States' word or trust us to act in good faith because everything we do is temporary and subject to the vagaries of politics is both sketchy and un-American.  I mean, certainly, members of Congress can vote to withhold their advice and consent on anything that's purposes to be some kind of treaty between the United States and Iran and whomever, but who actually benefits from this kind of posturing?  Do we really want to send the message we're untrustworthy?  Isn't it possible the President could come away with a deal even a Senate Republican could live with?  Have the signatories to the open letter thought through what the options are if negotiations fail and are they prepared to live with those?

Also also: if you're going to write a letter explaining the American Constitution to Iranians, wouldn't it behoove you to actually explain the "advice and consent" clause of Article II, Section 2 correctly?

There's an irony in the earlier-linked Rogin piece that broke this news.  Rogin writes:

Republicans also have a new argument to make in asserting their role in the diplomatic process: Vice President Joe Biden similarly insisted--in a letter to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell--on congressional approval for the Moscow Treaty on strategic nuclear weapons with Russia in 2002, when he was head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Which might, if you didn't follow the link in the paragraph through, suggest that this was yet another example of "Well, the other side did it first, and no one cared."  Which is a stupid argument in any case, although it happens to not be true at all in this one.

What you find when you chase the link is an example of what a proper Senate letter might look like: in 2002, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations about arms reduction negotiations that were being held with Russia at the time.  The CFR responded to the Secretary of State with a letter signed by the Committee chair, Senator Joseph Biden, and the ranking minority committee member, Senator Jesse Helms (the notorious left wing pansy and appeasement fanatic).  This letter set out the Committee's position that a binding arms control agreement with the Russians would implicate provisions of existing treaties (specifically START I), and thus "no Constitutional alternative exists to transmittal of the concluded agreement to the Senate for its advice and consent."

And then the CFR really lays down the law and makes a bold stand for Congressional primacy and authority by offering to "work closely with the Executive Branch on this matter, and we respectfully expect close consultation with the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations as negotiations with Russia proceed."  Ooh!  Burn!


So, yeah, "Vice-President Joe Biden similarly insisted," if by "similarly" you mean the alternate usage of "not similarly at all" that I'm sure appears in the OED somewhere.  No one could possibly dispute that Senate CFR Chair Senator Bob Corker (who, by the way, didn't sign the open letter) and ranking member Senator Bob Melendez could send a letter on behalf of the Committee to the Secretary of State--and/or to the President--explaining their reservations and expressing a desire to be consulted on a matter that might ultimately come before them for their advice and consent; that would be routine, a sign our republic was functioning about as well as it might be expected to.  However, I don't believe anyone with half a brain or a lick of sense would expect the Committee to bypass the Executive Branch and send a letter straight to the Iranians (which is probably why Senator Corker didn't make a prat of himself by doing so), and one telling the Iranians not to expect anything from the United States.  And, good gravy, on top of that: preemptively doing so; then-Senators Biden and Helms wrote to Secretary Powell about the necessity of sending concluded agreements to Congress for advice and consent; their desire to be kept in the loop in the meantime would appear to be nothing more than a perfectly sensible wish not to be sent a concluded agreement with no hope of being consented to.

This was a stupid stunt by Senator Cotton and the forty-six other jerks who went along with it.  It was irresponsible, dangerous, and dumb.  If it wasn't without precedent going back to the early days of the Republic, it must be remembered that we're talking about precedents that flirted with death-penalty eligible treason back in the day, and precedents that stand in stark contrast to responsible Constitutional participation by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in earlier eras.


The ten percent

>> Wednesday, March 04, 2015

But if we’re talking strictly about feature film franchises, it is curious at worst, fascinating at best, how many so-called iconic franchises rest their entire reputations, and thus the core of their fandom, on the initial one or two entries out of a handful of respective films in each respective franchise. Point being, and I ask this with no judgment and genuine curiosity, can you call yourself a fan of a given film franchise if you dislike the vast majority of the franchise’s entries?
Forbes, February 19th, 2015.

"Ninety percent of everything is crap."
- Theodore Sturgeon, supposedly.

An Onion A.V. Club piece handwringing over whether fans will embrace Neill Blomkamp's Alien sequel with as much fervor when it actually hits screens as they did when it was first tweeted about leads one to a Forbes piece full of similar concerns, wondering aloud how someone can say they're a fan of a franchise when they really only like a third of it, or a quarter of it, or even less.

Which further reflects a complaint that often comes up whenever fanboys fling feces at one another over Prometheus or The Phantom Menace or any other project that causes a vocal and loud partisan outcry.  (Mind, I write this as a seasoned shit-slinger.)  No true fanboy would castigate Prometheus as the worst film ever made, or only a true fanboy who has his head up a space jockey's arsehole with misplaced reverence for Alien would, or something.  You see both.  And why?  Why can't fans ever be satisfied, for pity's sake?

Theodore Sturgeon
Thing is, this is shallow water lapping at the ankles of people who have been genre fans long enough to remember when we all communicated much the same damn things in the letters pages of Starlog or in fanzines with much less gloss and much more reek from the mimeograph fluid causing lightheadedness, back when the Internet (such as it was) was still used for transmitting DARPA thermonuclear yield models and ASCII renderings of Playboy centerfolds.  We've been having this kind of thing about science fiction in general for decades, almost a century since at least the 1920s when SF fandom was probably invented.  We fans have hated the bulk of science fiction as long as we've been loving it, and that's how it came to pass (or probably didn't) that one Theodore Sturgeon was asked a question along the lines of, "How come so much science fiction is crap?" whereupon he looked up (maybe not), blinked, paused, and said (so the story goes), "Ninety percent of everything is crap."

One of those stories, as you may know, that's totally apocryphal and probably didn't happen, and yet it definitely should have.  Because Sturgeon (let's pretend the whole thing really happened) was completely right, the bulk of popular culture is frankly pure crap and most of it will be forgotten in ten years and nostalgically recalled as kitsch in twenty.

With SF in general, 90% of it is despised (although not always by the same people), even by fans, because it's despicable.  It's horrid.  Some of it, admittedly, is fun and horrid, or enjoyable in some kind of non-enjoying manner--ironically, for instance, or pruriently or lazily.  But, still: horrid.

And when you think of the Aliens franchise in those terms, let's say, and you take the number that Mr. Mendelson does and say that there are only two good Alien films in the entire bunch and the franchise therefore "has a batting average of 28%," well, you have to then conclude that 28% is better than 10% and therefore Alien is still nearly three times as good as most of what else is out there.

Which, I think, goes a very long way towards explaining why hope springs eternal for the Alienists.

But there's more to it than that, methinks.  Let's go back to SF in general (and you can replace SF with any genre you'd like and have the same discussion--Sturgeon's Law can be applied fractally to Romance, or Westerns, or Whodunnits): if 90% of science fiction sucks, why are there any science fiction fans at all?  Aren't they wasting a good bit of their time?  How can they be fans if they passionately hate the overwhelming mass of what they profess to love?

There's a very simple answer, really: because maybe 90% sucks, but omigod the other 10%!

And in fact, this solves the whole mystery when you get right down to it.  SF fans get worked up about crap SF because they love the good stuff so goddamn much.  Because the 10% that doesn't suck inspires a passion for the genre as a whole, because the 10% seems worth fighting for, because they care so greatly for what's good and wonderful they have to care about all of it.  Because to hate Battlefield Earth is, at some level, to defend Dune and Foundation.

And if you want to break it down to the franchise level, Star Wars fans ultimately hate The Phantom Menace because The Empire Strikes Back is worth love and devotion.  Alien fans hate Prometheus not because they have this unfulfillable yearning for the same exact experience all over again that makes them impossible to please (although there may be some faint whiff of that in the mix, granted), but because they believe Alien is worth a perfect sequel or none at all; and they hold out hope for Blomkamp's take on the material because they will always hope a particular project is part of the 10% (or 28%) and not another drop into the 90% cesspool.

We're fans for things because we believe that something, at its very best, is worth fighting for and fighting over.  Because we love.  And so the number could be much, much lower: it could be five percent, or one percent, and if we fell in love with it we'd continue to say that when this category was good, it was very good, and all the times it wasn't makes us sad and angry because we knew what it was capable of being.  We're bitterest about our disappointments, naturally.  But the ten percent?

Ten percent is enough to love on.


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