REVIEW: Black Panther

It is testimony to the Pulp roots of the superhero genre that in Marvel Comics, the most technologically advanced nation on Earth is a traditional African kingdom that has never been colonized by whites, and no one considers this unusual.

The Black Panther character was introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: Civil War, and while he wasn’t the center of the action, Chadwick Boseman set the stage with a formidable portrayal of Prince T’Challa, seeking justice after the death of his father. This leads to the Black Panther solo movie, in which T’Challa formally claims the throne of Wakanda.

I had mentioned in my review of Wonder Woman that while Wonder Woman may be a feminist icon, the movie wasn’t precisely a feminist film, because the character had not grown up under patriarchy.  The nation of Wakanda poses a similar issue with regard to race.  The main drama in Black Panther comes from T’Challa’s would-be usurper, the mercenary code-named Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who in his character depicts the contrast between being African and African-American.  Killmonger’s personal history also brings up a state secret of Wakanda: in the MCU, in order to keep “colonizers” from exploiting the country’s wealth, the kings of Wakanda hide their country’s technology and use holograms and other tricks to convince the West that Wakanda is an (ahem) shithole country.  But this means that Wakanda is not using its resources to address the civil wars and refugee crises of its neighbors.  Right now, politicians in the United States and the European Union demonize immigrants and refugees from “developing” countries as being not only a threat to national security but the traditional way of life.  The fact that this issue is posed by a movie with an almost entirely black cast is the most subversive thing about the film, from both a left-wing and right-wing standpoint.

In this regard, Black Panther has the now-standard MCU post-credits scene, but this scene, in which T’Challa addresses the United Nations office in Vienna, isn’t simply an add-on Easter egg but the entire point of the movie.

I didn’t think that Black Panther was the most awesome movie ever – at this point in the MCU, all the super-tech didn’t impress me as much as the uber-rhinos and Hanuman warriors – but it did what it needed to do.

Show respect and bow down.


The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

-The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

“Follow the money.”
-Jesse “the Governor” Ventura

I was going to say something of a more general nature about politics this week, but then of course a 19-year old shot up the school from which he was expelled, killing 17 and wounding 14 more. And of course this is setting off another round of disingenuous calls to have a “conversation” about “gun safety.” Or, “just do what Australia did.” What, tell the vast majority of American gun owners that they’re obliged to turn in their weapons when they didn’t do anything wrong? I don’t think so, Tim.

At the same time, the right-wing apologists for gun rights, rather than address the issue of gun access, want to say the issue is the mental illness of a given shooter, when the “mentally ill” tag is conflating an emotional state with a psychiatric diagnosis that most pundits are not in position to make.

But something else that was pointed out in the news was that the killer decided to commit his crime on Valentine’s Day. So oh no, from now on, Valentine’s Day is going to be forever more associated with mass gun violence.

Except for those who read history.

The St. Valentine’s Day massacre was a Chicago gang hit in 1929 in which only seven men were killed. And the shooters were using Tommy guns.

I bring this up to point out that this is hardly the only era of American history with mass gun violence. At the same time, things were different. The government and federal law enforcement were determined to take down organized crime, perhaps because the thugs in question were mainly Italian, Jewish and Irish. But the organization of the gangs made them easier to investigate and target. Whereas the problem now is that we don’t know when any given individual is going to buy a weapon and use it to kill people. According to a Politico article (published after the Las Vegas shooting), the number of shootings in America has not increased relative to previous decades, but the death toll at each incident has. “Research shows that the number of victims killed and wounded are the strongest predictors of the extent to which a mass killing gets reported by the news media. Recent growth in the number of catastrophic mass public shootings—combined with the extensive, wall-to-wall news coverage that accompanies these tragedies—likely accounts for the commonly held misconception that mass shootings are now more frequent. ” The article continues: “But the available evidence suggests that strengthening or weakening gun laws would not significantly affect the incidence or severity of mass public shootings. For example, studies examining bans on large-capacity magazines and right-to-carry concealed firearms laws have found they would have little or no effect on mass public shootings.”

The socialist-left approach of course is to make decisions for everyone and deny a right to private arms, Second Amendment be damned. I prefer the Adam Smith  approach of acknowledging ulterior motives and channeling them into constructive directions.

In this case, studies on the private sales of guns before the 21st century are fairly lacking, but we can look at the history of the National Rifle Association (NRA) as a primary lobbyist for the gun industry, ostensibly for the sake of the Second Amendment but ultimately for the sake of the firearms industry and its continued business. That pro-industry stance is itself fairly recent. In the 19th century, the NRA was founded for the Second Amendment purpose of giving proper training to those who would serve in the militia. In 1934, NRA President Karl Frederick testified to Congress, “I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I seldom carry one. I have when I felt it was desirable to do so for my own protection. I know that applies in most of the instances where guns are used effectively in self-defense or in places of business and in the home. I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” In fact, Frederick made this statement during the debate on passage of the National Firearms Act of 1934, which was inspired partly by the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and other acts of gangster violence. But later, after the passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968 (which also had NRA support), a more right-wing group started mobilizing and took over the NRA leadership, after which the NRA’s membership more than tripled by 1985.  Since then the NRA has developed one of the strongest political action committees in Washington.

Way back in 2012, the Washington Post reported that President Obama was “the best thing that ever happened to the firearm industry.” This was as measured by the number of federal background checks on gun purchases, which were about double the amount during George W. Bush’s first term. Prior to Bush, the gun industry was actually facing a decline because of a robust economy and declining fears of crime. In a related matter, the article noted that gun sales spike after a mass shooting. One gun store owner told the Christian Science Monitor: “Normally what happens—and I’ve been doing this for 30 years—is whenever they start talking about gun control on the news and they start pushing that, people have a tendency to think they’re going to take away their right to buy the gun, and that usually spurs sales”.

But if anything, since Obama left office and a Republican took over, the gun industry has the opposite problem. Several outlets have reported that while gun sales in the US are still strong, one gun manufacturer had a 48.5 percent drop in sales from one quarter to the next, with The Guardian reporting that overall sales fell by $100 million.  Just this weekend, historic manufacturer Remington had to reach a deal for bankruptcy protection. According to UPI, “When a presidential candidate is perceived as pro-gun control, people tend to buy more guns in case laws take hold that prevent them from doing so in the near future. But when a politician appears to be against gun control, there’s not as much urgency to stock up on weapons.”

Like the rest of the conservative agenda, support for guns has become less mainstream as that position has associated with disreputable characters like mass shooters and Trump Administration officials. So the industry, like the Republican Party, has had to substitute loyalty for numbers and focus on the people who are convinced that government is the enemy. But what happens to that posture when government is no longer the enemy? For that matter, what happens when it is?

Everybody was so hopping mad that Obama was going to take our guns. How many gun control laws did Congress pass after Sandy Hook? None. How many guns did the Obama Administration confiscate from gun stores? None.

The most consequential thing that Obama and his (brief) Democratic majority accomplished was to pass the Affordable Care Act, which was of course the most radical and socialist thing ever, except for the public option, single-payer or any of the other national health care schemes that you have in Leninist countries like Switzerland. In fact, the ACA resembles not only Romneycare in Massachusetts but a 2004 article by Ron Bailey in Reason magazine advocating that we “solve” the healthcare crisis by making private health insurance mandatory. And I remember this because at the time, when I brought this idea up to liberals on the Internet – before Democrats embraced it – they attacked it as a right-wing think tank giveaway to insurance companies and Big Pharma. And as it turned out, they were right! It’s just that that plan was the only thing that Democrats could get through their own centrist caucus.

It’s of a piece of why they don’t push “gun safety” legislation, or try and get rid of the Electoral College, or call for impeaching Trump, or even call for the government to make Trump release his tax returns. Democrats would of course argue that there’s no point in doing so when they aren’t the majority and don’t have the White House, but then won’t ask themselves why they lost the majority in the first place.

But then, Democrats are the sensible people. Unlike Republicans, they’re not going to keep pushing crazy, radical legislation if it’s likely to get shot down in Congress, which is to say, if there’s any likelihood of that at all. After all, they wouldn’t want the party that worships a pussy-grabbing race baiter who praised the Charlottesville Nazis to brand them as being extreme.

In his inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan said, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden.” In other words, in the context of Reagan’s time, in which government was built on the assumptions of Democrats and liberal Republicans, government was the problem. “Government is the problem” is not an a priori value. And if an individual is not capable of governing himself, then why should such a person be trusted with the government? The problem with conservatives is that they have disregarded the context of Reagan’s statement. Now, the government we are looking at is based on the assumptions of Big Government Republicans. And if one looks at the big picture and concludes that in almost all cases, the problem with government is the Republican Party, that conclusion may encourage Democrats to think that there is no longer anything to lose in being angry and radical and nothing to gain in continuing to play it safe and be marshmallows.

Gun owners and conservatives are not completely synonymous groups, but insofar as the gun lobby/NRA is synonymous with conservatism, they’ve put themselves in a box. Either continue on their present course and alienate the rest of the country (and incidentally lower gun sales) or let the Democrats win to rile up the customer base, and in the meantime hope that Democrats are just as useless as they were the last time they were in power.

Of course considering how fixated both major parties are on the symbolic and real powers of the president, it isn’t enough for the Republicans to lose one or both houses of Congress this year. For gun sellers to keep their customers angry and motivated, they have to work to make sure that Donald Trump is a one-term president.

It makes sense in that what passes for conservatism these days is simply a grievance industry unsuited to governance and oriented solely towards opposition. The longer that conservatives have to be the government, they not only have to keep defending the indefensible, their escalating bullshit reaches a level that not even some of their biggest partisans can keep swallowing it.

(Or, conservatives could do what Reagan did and present an economic and cultural agenda that appeals to a majority of voters. But I guess that’s just too hard.)

So you know what you have to do, gun lovers. Do it for capitalism. And America.

Thoughts on Horseshoe Theory

Did I watch the State of the Union live? Nah. If I was going to waste time watching a badly-staged, insincere show of virtue that only confirmed the opposite, I would’ve watched the Grammy Awards.

But of course the main story leading up to this weekend was #ReleaseTheMemo, in which Republicans were huffing and puffing about the scandal of a biased FBI investigation against Trump, and Democrats were huffing and puffing that the release of FBI decisions was a threat to national security.

The effort was part of a somewhat successful campaign to put the prosecution on trial in the court of public opinion. (Hey, it worked for O.J. Simpson!) But it turned out to be much ado about nothing, for both sides. In terms of national security, the memo didn’t reveal much that we didn’t know. As the memo was analyzed, journalists realized that it relied on a presentation of Carter Page being targeted for his association with the Trump campaign (when it turned out that the FBI was looking at him before Trump even ran for president) and the idea that the Robert Mueller investigation is based entirely on the “Steele dossier” (when it turns out that there is at least one more dossier, and investigations proceeded mainly on suspicion of Trump advisor George Papadopoulos).

All this fails to explain why the whole investigation must be thrown out as “fruit of the poison tree” solely on the grounds of anti-Trump sympathy on the part of some players, but that demand is not automatically invalidated on the grounds that it is justified solely on pro-Trump sentiment. As Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the right-wing Cato Institute put it,  “Honestly, this reads like something you’d put together to *sound* scandalous to someone who isn’t going to parse it closely. ”

Oh gee. I wonder who that would be?

Like it matters, though. It’s of a piece with how Trump, simply by being leader of the Republicans, gets the mob to follow along as he redefines what being a Republican is. First Trump said that John McCain wasn’t a war hero. And Republicans had to go along with it. Then he said that (black) athletes were disrespecting the national anthem. And all of a sudden, Joe Sixpack started boycotting the NFL. Now Republicans are supposed to believe that the FBI – the J. Edgar Hoover organization that is more responsible for Trump’s election victory than any Russian skullduggery – is unpatriotic and a threat to the rule of law. (‘Unpatriotic’ meaning ‘does not worship Trump’ and ‘rule of law’ meaning ‘whatever wild hair is up Trump’s ass.’)

What’s next? Who knows? I’m thinking next week, Trump is going to announce that he is female and is undergoing the process of transition, at which point all the Republicans in Congress will fall on top of each other to be the first one to get castrated on the grounds that masculinity is now “gay.”

But this dynamic gets to a more abstract discussion I had recently with a left-wing Facebook friend. He had posted an article from Quartz about how Richard Spencer and other professional racists are “targeting disgruntled white male lefties to join their movement.” For one thing, the article quotes white nationalist speaker Eli Mosley in saying: “We’ve almost literally drained the market of libertarians.” But I could have told him this. I’ve addressed that subject at length with two detailed posts. In any case, you can’t get many libertarian recruits for the same reason that libertarians have neither taken off with the Libertarian Party nor taken over the Republican Party: There just aren’t that many of us in the first place. But the article went on to mention how the rightist groups were trying to poach leftists using their own language, especially invoking the common enemy of “corporate neoliberalism”. And my friend said in his assessment of the article, “I understand a bit of how this works from back when I was a conspiracy nut. While these days I think ‘horseshoe theory’ is full of shit, from the standpoint of a poor white dude who is not particularly well educated in politics, it *appears* true. What rightwing groups do is create a common enemy and sort of set your focus in another direction. … It’s just a more subtle version of what the far right has done for a long time. Bait and switch. ”

And my first response was, “To the extent that horseshoe theory is BS, it’s because authoritarians at both ‘extremes’ have more in common with each other than they have in common with classical liberals or moderates. But then, that’s why people like me use the ‘classical’ qualifier, because it’s becoming more and more clear that the Left never cared for real liberalism. That’s the main thing Marxists had in common with the blood-and-soil types.”

My friend responded, “I don’t think they have ‘more in common’ so much as they have *weird* things in common, which stick out to moderates. I mean, obviously any group that considers the status quo in need of immediate overhaul is going to have that in common. Any group that thinks the government is illegitimate will hold that in common.
“But those don’t define the left or right as much as they do extremism in general. If there were true ‘radical centrists’ that were actually uncomfortable with the status quo, they would have these traits. But the statement that radical groups are radical is never as profound as it seems to those who just discover it. It doesn’t change that the goals of the extreme left and right are opposite, and their policy preferences are irreconcilable.”

This was a topic I wanted to go over in light of my prior observations.

I have read that the problem with “horseshoe theory” is not merely that it oversimplifies politics to say that each political wing becomes more alike as they become more extreme, but that it discounts the fundamental differences between Right and Left in their motivations and goals. But if moderates fail to grasp the real political differences between two extremes, those differences likewise seem immaterial if you are a victim of extremism. It doesn’t matter to me whether I get thrown in the concentration camp because I’m gay, or Jewish, or atheist, or Muslim, or just because I didn’t follow whatever the fashion of political correctness was last week. The result will be the same.

As an example, a lot of leftists will excuse the Cuban government under Fidel Castro on the grounds that they created free education and health care. To me, “free education and health care” strikes me as the Left’s version of “at least Mussolini made the trains run on time.” And I say this because social democracies in Europe managed to develop support systems and health care without also putting gays and religious dissenters in prison. Apologists for the Castros will tell us that the Cuban regime militarized largely to defend against the hostility of the United States and its boycott of the island. But in response to that embargo, Cuba became an economic part of the Soviet bloc, and when the USSR ended, opened trade relations with wealthy Western nations that ignored the embargo. Leftists will also say that Cuba was a small, poor Latin American country with no resources to develop itself without socialism. But Costa Rica is a Latin American country with less natural resources, and it had both universal health care and a multiparty democracy in the 1940s. If the motivations of leftism are to give power to the people and create a more equitable standard of living, liberal and left-socialist governments have done so in several cases without becoming Cuban or Soviet-style regimes. But if you want to put gays and religious people in prison, then Cuba is not a failure but a success.

This is the practical reason why we should not use the ends to justify the means, because ultimately the means are ends in themselves.

Now for a more relevant example: It was reported last month that the Koch brothers are going to spend 400 million dollars on the 2018 midterms to preserve the Republicans’ majority in both houses of Congress. Previously they had spent $20 million in 2017 to run media campaigns and support efforts to pass the tax bill. In the CNBC article on the Kochs’ support network, it was also mentioned that they sponsor efforts at prison reform and also supports Trump’s recently announced idea of creating a path to citizenship for Dreamers while also opposing their drive to end chain migration for families. In the past, the Koch family were instrumental in the development of the Libertarian Party (David Koch ran as the running mate of Ed Clark in 1980) and also helped found the Cato Institute. Several of their positions (in support of immigrants, criminal justice reform and civil liberties, for instance) are worth supporting in themselves but are at odds with the positions of most Republicans. However Koch Industries is still based in fossil fuel production and the Koch network is actively against not only climate change legislation but any attempts by government or private enterprise to create energy alternatives.  Moreover, for the sake of specific goals that coincide with libertarianism, the Kochs give monetary and other support to conservative groups with questionable goals, for example contributing to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has sponsored voter ID laws in several states to restrict voting. This would be one thing if the agenda was simply economic libertarianism or Paul Ryan-style fiscal policy (which liberals would hate in any case). But as the vehicle of the Republican Party becomes more and more enslaved to the whims of Donald Trump, whatever social or even economic libertarianism could be achieved through conservatism will be undermined by the much broader movement towards authoritarianism. Given that the Kochs, unlike most Republicans, know enough about the Libertarian Party and the libertarian movement to know the difference between libertarianism and conservatism, they had the choice to use their wealth and influence to organize and grow a party that could challenge a problematic conservatism. The fact that they do not indicates that instead of trying to replace a dysfunctional system, they would rather maintain that system in order to serve their short-term purposes.

In the last election, right-wingers had a choice: vote for Trump (which the majority did), vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson (which I did) or vote for Hillary Clinton (which a lot of NeverTrumpers, even Penn Jillette, did). Each choice implied different value judgments and bargains as to what package deal was acceptable in politics. If for instance you seriously believe that personhood begins at conception and therefore abortion is always murder, you will find it almost impossible to deal with the Democratic Party or even the Libertarian Party. But if you align with the Republicans, you now know that you are supporting people who place cult of personality above the rule of law.

And from the left-wing perspective, being “pro-choice” and pro-woman often means putting yourself in contradictory positions, for instance taking money from Harvey Weinstein for Democratic campaigns.

In judging political alignments, that is, what party or general platform an individual chooses, the tendency seems to be that people fixate on a few issues (like abortion, or taxes) and adjust all their other positions around them. At that point, political actions are simply a matter of what one is willing to do and how far one will justify the overall goal. This might not be done for the sake of an extreme position, but it is possible to be led into extremism for the sake of the position. In this country at least, that usually occurs because of negative motivations and a desire to stop the opposing faction rather than promote a favored one. If there is one thing that extremists of both Left and Right have in common, it is not a vision of society but a hatred of “bourgeois” moderate liberalism and the process of negotiation in a representative democracy. This may be why the racists in the Quartz article had reason to think that by bagging on neoliberalism and capitalists that they could get recruits from the Left who would otherwise have nothing in common with them. After all, historically they’d done it before.

So in reviewing horseshoe theory, I think it’s fairly clear that the two political wings can both end in authoritarianism, regardless of apparent first motives. However, horseshoe theory doesn’t strictly apply in the current case, because it doesn’t explain why the slide to authoritarianism happens in the current context.

I again return to the point that “polarization”, at least in America, doesn’t work the way it does according to conventional wisdom. The process in our two-party system has been that years before Trump, the Tea Party and other factors purified the Republican Party of “RINOs” and even serious conservatives (like Utah’s Bob Bennett) because they weren’t following the conservative version of political correctness. Trump is simply the culmination of this. The result was that in a two-party system, people kicked out of one party normally go to the other one (the Democrats) even when that really isn’t a good fit for them. The long-term result was a dilution of whatever appeal Democrats had to the hard left and working class, and increased the perception among people like the Clintons that “neoliberal” friendliness to the elites was the way to go, if for no other reason than that it got them campaign money. As a tangential point, I bring up my theory that this is why the “stuff your principles and vote for the lesser evil” attitude, promoted by the Democrats most of the time but especially in 2016, was counterproductive and actually played into Trump’s hands. Because a lot of the moderates and NeverTrump right-wingers (like myself) had quit the Republicans precisely because we rejected that binary logic, and apparently so did a lot of left-wingers. The kind of people who did embrace binary logic were the kind of people who stuffed their qualms and decided to vote for Trump. The Republicans have gambled on having fewer but more committed voters whereas the Democrats have a theoretically larger voter base but fewer actual votes when it counts. And as we see, the gamble has paid off, not so much in presidential races (until now) but in state and down-ballot races that gave Republicans their legislative majorities, which magnify the effects of a Republican presidency and stymie the goals of a Democratic one.

The problem is less the differences between Left and Right and more a matter of what approach the political environment rewards.

This means that the other point is that it doesn’t matter so much whether a party is “extreme.” If you’re not going to uphold standards when the president is not a tyrant, and his party is moderate, you can’t expect standards to be upheld when the Leader is thoroughly crooked, his party is openly authoritarian, and their emotional and political investment in him is that much deeper. Which to me means that the cause of our current political moment is not to get this country back to “normal.” Because the prior normal sucked, the normal was dysfunctional, the normal is what got us to this point, and the goal must be to get us to something better than the previous norm.