Sunday, July 31, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Taxi Driver (1976), Pt. 2, a Fresh Appraisal

A few weekends back I saw Taxi Driver again. It had probably been three years since the last time I saw it. I decided on another viewing because recently I've been interested in the Arthur Bremer angle. Taxi Driver's screenwriter, Paul Schrader, is said to have come up with the idea for the movie based on Bremer's An Assassin's Diary.

None of the stuff I've read or the interviews I've seen mention An Assassin's Diary other than in passing. For instance, in an early 1980s interview with Paul Schrader about Taxi Driver there is zero mention of source material for the movie. In fact, Scorsese himself is unclear. In Scorsese on Scorsese (1996), edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie, Scorsese says "I never read any of Paul's source materials -- I believe one was Arthur Bremer's diary." Scorsese then goes on to say how his literary guide for the movie was Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground (1864). On Friday I speculated that Gore Vidal's New York Review of Books essay on the writings of E. Howard Hunt influenced Paul Schrader more than Bremer's An Assassin's Diary.

In any event, let's get to the movie itself, and why I think it represents Hippies vs. Punks ground zero. But before we embark, let me say a few words about when the movie premiered the winter of 1976. I was a sixth grader living in the Santa Cruz Mountains where my father's attempt to establish a communal-living situation/alternative school at an old Jesuit summer retreat was beginning to founder. I had a television in my dormitory room. Each room was self-contained with its own front door; the door opened to a wooden colonnaded walkway; the dormitory was in the same building as the communal kitchen and dining hall, but one floor below; the entire structure was built on a hill and the hill climbed upward until it disappeared into the forest above. (For an ambiance piece on the Santa Cruz Mountains, see the post on Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life.)

I remember Taxi Driver was favorably reviewed with plentiful excerpts on television. And the overwhelming feeling I got as a kid watching those reviews and advertisements was one of fear. Here was a heavily armed skinny madman with a mohawk in an old fatigue jacket gunning people down in a city that looked like a real city. Taxi Driver scared the shit out of people.

I can't recall when I first saw Taxi Driver, if it was on television or at the movie theater. My parents took me to everything regardless of the rating (my mother took me and my sisters to see Bergman's Cries and Whispers), but I don't remember seeing it during its initial release. I do remember when I saw a new print of the film at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive, which must have been to celebrate the 10th anniversary.

My takeaway from that viewing was how indebted the final shootout scene in the brothel is to Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). And it's not just the yellow wash. Scorsese says that the rating agency insisted on desaturating the color to de-emphasize all the blood; this, according to Scorsese, ended up making the shootout even more lurid and horrific. (I think he's right.) But also there is something Scorsese does, which is subtle, when Bickle and the mafioso, whose blowjob from Iris is interrupted, have their gun battle. After the mafioso has been hit, Scorsese briefly speeds up the motion and mutes the sound, which is something Hooper did to accentuate the terror and violence of Leatherface's chainsaw attacks. (I noticed during my latest viewing that at the beginning of Taxi Driver Bickle drives by a movie theater with TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE on its marquee. Scorsese doffing his cap.)

Remember, it's fear that powers the counterrevolution to the 1960s. Fear of integration with blacks (anti-civil rights movement). Fear of sexuality (anti-black, anti-Hippie, anti-gay, anti-feminist). Fear of drugs (anti-Hippie, anti-black).

Sit down and watch Taxi Driver again and you will be stunned by its over-the-top racism and negrophobia. This would have been even more explicit if Scorsese had actually followed Schrader's script. Schrader had Jody Foster's character, the 12-and-a-half-year-old Iris, managed by blacks: Sport, the pimp, Harvey Keitel's character, was supposed to be black, as were the crime boss and brothel owner. Scorsese re-imagined the pimp as a streetwise Hippie; the crime boss and brothel owner, Italian mafia.

Quentin Tarantino points some of this out in his eight-minute review of Taxi Driver; he argues that the film is a success because of Keitel's performance. It would have been easy, Tarantino says, to botch that role, a theatrical version of Pat Boone sings rhythm & blues. But Keitel knocks it out the park. (My first viewings of the film as a boy and then college student I was absolutely mesmerized and terrified by Keitel.)

Tarantino defends the picture against charges of racism by saying that Travis Bickle doesn't actually kill any black people. This is not true. Bickle guns down a black guy who is robbing a convenience store. Bickle comes up behind the robber and shoots him. The store owner then proceeds to club with a length of pipe the mortally wounded thief. This is the scene that made a lasting impression on me when I first saw the movie. I had never seen anything like it. It was so violent, so real. Watch it again. It holds up to this day. Notice how the store owner refers to the scene as "Fucking Mau Mau Land."

It doesn't stop there. There is the scene when Bickle exchanges a threatening stare with a black youth using a golf club as a walking stick. There is Bickle's intimidating fellow cab driver, a big black guy in a dashiki who points his finger at De Niro like it's a gun. The whole picture screams negrophobia.

Then there is Bickle's background as a Marine. When I first saw Taxi Driver I assumed that Bickle was just an insane pretender who might not actually have any military experience. Seeing the movie again, it is clear that both Scorsese and Schrader intend Bickle to be not only a real Marine but a combat veteran. Scorsese got the idea for De Niro's mohawk by talking to a Vietnam vet; it is something, Scorsese was told, that soldiers did to say, "Don't fuck with me. I'm going into combat and am preparing to die." In 1975 when Taxi Driver was shot Saigon had just fallen.

The mohawk would become a Punk mainstay thanks to De Niro, as would the plaid shirts that Bickle wears. (De Niro did research at a military base in Northern Italy.) In seeing Taxi Driver again, what really struck me is how much Travis Bickle and his evolving hairstyles look like the Punks -- Television, Talking Heads, Richard Hell -- performing at CBGBs that same summer.

We'll conclude with part 3 and a look Bernard Herrmann, the Hollywood legend who scored Taxi Driver and was known for his work with Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. Also, we'll attempt another helicopter landing at Hippies vs. Punks ground zero and try to answer the how and why Punks were used to wipe out the Hippies.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Taxi Driver (1976), Pt. 1, Arthur Bremer's An Assassin's Diary

Why are we here at Taxi Driver? It started last month by discovering a used copy of Devo's last big album, Oh, No! It's Devo (1982). One song, "I Desire," is written by John Hinkley, Jr. I had forgotten about John Hinkley, Jr. He was a forlorn figure that personified the first years of the 1980s. Hinkley attempted to murder Ronald Reagan because Hinckley was living out his obsession with Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Hinckley imagined himself as Robert De Niro's character in the film, Travis Bickle, a disturbed ex-Marine and presidential-candidate stalker who, in a bloody shootout, rescues Jody Foster's character, Iris, from a life of street prostitution.

Wednesday it was announced (Gardiner Harris, "John Hinckley, Who Tried to Kill Reagan, Will Be Released") that Hinckley will be released after 35 years in confinement:
Mr. Hinckley was once psychotic and depressed. After seeing the 1976 film “Taxi Driver,” in which a disturbed man plots to assassinate a presidential candidate, he became fixated on Jodie Foster, who played a child prostitute in the film.
Mr. Hinckley began to identify with the main character in the film, Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro.
After Ms. Foster entered Yale University, Mr. Hinckley moved to New Haven to be close to her and left notes, letters and poems at her dormitory. Failing to win her affections, Mr. Hinckley stalked President Jimmy Carter and was eventually arrested on firearms charges. After the 1980 election, Mr. Hinckley stalked the newly elected President Reagan in an attempt to impress Ms. Foster.
On March 30, 1981, after more unsuccessful trips to New Haven, Mr. Hinckley wrote a letter to Ms. Foster describing his plan to kill Reagan. He waited outside the Washington Hilton Hotel for Reagan to arrive and waved at the president as he went inside to deliver a speech.
Forty minutes later, when Reagan emerged from the hotel, Mr. Hinckley crouched down and fired six shots, hitting four men: Reagan; James S. Brady, the White House press secretary; Timothy J. McCarthy, a Secret Service agent; and Thomas K. Delahanty, a Washington police officer. Mr. Brady sustained permanent brain damage and eventually died from his injuries in 2014.
A jury found Mr. Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity, a decision that shocked the public and lawmakers across the country. He was sent for treatment to St. Elizabeths, a psychiatric hospital in Washington, where he has been confined ever since.
Taxi Driver was written by Paul Schrader who said he was inspired by Arthur Bremer's An Assassin's Diary (1973). Arthur Bremer shot and paralyzed George Wallace in 1972, ending the Alabama Governor's aspirations for a national political career. There is very little in common between the screenplay and the Bremer book, other than the narrative convention of a young man recording his thoughts in a journal.

This past Sunday I finished reading An Assassin's Diary, and I was blown away by what an obvious fraud it is. There is no way an unemployed 21-year-old Milwaukee busboy could have written An Assassin's Diary. Absolutely no way. Anyone who has toiled with letters will reach the same conclusion; Gore Vidal did in a 1973 New York Review of Books essay, "The Art and Arts of E. Howard Hunt."

This sent me down the rabbit hole of trying to understand why there hasn't there been more of a hullabaloo over such an obvious fraud. Bremer crippled the man who is responsible for the birth of the present-day Republican Party. Kevin Phillips designed Nixon's Southern Strategy to co-opt Wallace's nascent third-party juggernaut American Independent Party. In 1968 Wallace had run one of the most successful third-party presidential campaigns in the history of the United States, winning five states.

Wallace relied on two things to garner support: negrophobia and Hippie-bashing. Wallace also pioneered the demonization of the Washington bureaucrat. But his overwhelming appeal to voters was based on skewering the negro and the longhair.

Wallace was running strong again in 1972, when, on May 15, Bremer shot and crippled the Alabaman at a shopping center campaign rally in Laurel, Maryland. Nixon went on to trounce McGovern in one of the greatest electoral routs ever.

It goes without saying that Nixon benefited by Wallace sitting out the election in a hospital bed. Many feel that the 113-page diary found in Bremer's '67 Rambler after the shooting, presumably the manuscript Harper's Magazine Press published as An Assassin's Diary in 1973 (portions of which first appeared in the January 1973 issue of Harper's Magazine), was written and planted by the White House Plumbers in order to convince the public that Bremer's original target was Nixon not Wallace. That is why the most developed passages of An Assassin's Diary are those that describe Bremer's trip to Ottawa to kill Nixon, who was on a state visit to the seat of Canadian government.

If people believed that Bremer originally meant to kill Nixon then they wouldn't suspect that Bremer was a Nixon agent or dupe. The Ottawa passage convinced me that An Assassin's Diary is ghost written. (Vidal argued that there are too many literary references for a high school graduate who only had pornography and comic books in his apartment when it was searched; also, there is too deft a utilization of potboiler conventions, such as front-loading a sex scene, to be the work of an amateur.) The book has been heavily edited. Misspellings are used as camouflage to obscure a skillful professional pen at work. Complicated action flows precisely. Street names are used. The writing is done decorously except for all those ludicrous misspellings. If you kept a journal when you were in your early 20s, as I did, you are aware that it was nothing like the powerful economy of An Assassin's Diary.

Let's take a look. Here is a passage, pages 70 and 71, from An Assassin's Diary. Bremer has just arrived in Ottawa, and he is waiting alongside the road near a military base for Nixon's motorcade to pass. He is considering trying to get a shot off.
It was a long wait. 40 minutes at least, maybe over an hour. Some cops on bikes roared by people got out of their cars & went to the curbless, sidewalk less road. I joined in.
False alarm. Stayed out of the car 10 minutes, fingers got nume. That wouldn't do. I went back in & turned the heater on, still listening to the radio for news flashes. Earlier, I had seen the emty President's Lincoln Continental & all his cops & cars going in to the Uplands base. Against ten-of-thousands of people & tens-of-millions of dollars . . . 
I had worn a 3 inch "Vote Republican" button & a 3 inch "Richard Nixon (with his picture)" button to watch the motorcade. I exchanged looks at Mr. Moustache, my gun inside my pocket. Fantasied killing Nixon while shooting right over the shoulder of that cop.
Came out & went inside again. Longjohn weather. I was conscience of my hands. Didn't want to keep them inside of my pockets & get searched. Didn't want to keep them out & nume them too much.
Some folks there kept their hands in their pockets almost all the time, they weren't questioned & either was I. But I wanted to be careful, didn't know if a stop & frisk law existensed or what my rights were as an American here. Felt added confidence with my suit on & short hair & shave.
Didn't recognize my self clean shaven at first. My head hair came in nice & thick.
People jumped from their cars. Would the assassin get a good view? Everyone moved in close (about 20 people). We were the only people other than the cops for a few blocks.
He went by befor I knew it. Like a snap of the fingers. A dark shillowet, waving, rushed by in the large dark car. "All over", someone said to no one in particular. The following cop cars had 2 antentenas each & probaly walkie-talkies too -- jam proof communications. Umbrella in one hand, pocket in the other, I walked back to my car. I had missed him that day. The best day to make the attempt was over, I thought.
Sort of Jack Kerouac's Doctor Sax in Papa Hemingway's prose banged out on Mickey Spillane's manual typewriter. No way, no how written by a young dude with a semester of technical college. There are plenty of red flags -- reference to stop-and-frisk laws and jam-free communications; the use of synecdoche, "Mr. Moustache" -- that point to someone much older and more experienced. Most likely a middle-aged cognac-drinking operative penned this journal. The biggest tell is the management of the scene's action, which is complex, complete with backshadowing -- "Earlier, I had seen the emty President's Lincoln Continental & all his cops & cars going in to the Uplands base." -- and foreshadowing -- "I went back in & turned the heater on, still listening to the radio for news flashes."

Compare it to my own journal entry, written when I was 24, three years older than Bremer, after six years at Cal Berkeley, four of which had been spent working as an assistant instructor teaching reading and composition. I am writing about a winter cross-country trip I made from New York City to California in a VW bus:
Spent the night in a Pennsylvania (name of town now forgotten); it must've been Northeastern. I pulled off the highway, which ran through this town. My feet were pretty well without feeling. I parked the car next to this old shutdown warehouse and went out to take a piss. It was really cold. The wind was dark and howlin'. The wind was blowing through the cracks in the bus. I unfurled my bedding. My feet were wet and as cold as ice.
I'll never have that freedom again. Driving in the sunset; pointing my nose west; the world was on fire and yellow. It was golden and I couldn't see anything, but I could see enough. Hours driven this way. Hours driven alone without the radio.
Got to California. Oil snakes on the road. Drove miles this way. Big brown and red snakes crawling along with me. I slept a few miles out of Barstow with the truckers; the old bus; I didn't put my blanket over me, and I woke up almost frozen to death. But I got it out and got it over me.
Okay so there you have it. Twenty-four and still very boyish and childlike. This despite reading plenty of Plato, Hobbes, Defoe, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Flaubert, Nietzsche, Hardy et al., as well as possessing a good knowledge of the rules of grammar and punctuation. There is no way I ever could have described the Nixon motorcade scene.

The question then is if Bremer didn't write An Assassin's Diary who did? Besides someone affiliated with Nixon, the only other obvious answer is someone at Harper's. But if Harper's was going to completely rework whatever original manuscript was found in Bremer's Rambler why leave all those misspellings? Obfuscation is the only answer. And if obfuscation is the answer then that points to Nixon.

An Assassin's Diary was the second part of Bremer's journal. The first 148 pages, dated March 1 - April 3, 1972, he buried in Milwaukee; they were discovered in 1980 and are now part of the collection of Reynolds-Finley Historical Library at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Assuming the 113-page source material for An Assassin's Diary is still intact, it would be easy enough to compare the two for inconsistencies. Of course if one was a phony the other one is probably a phony too. But to maintain the fiction, both would have to come from the same pen; otherwise, discrepancies should be noticeable. (There was a Baltimore Sun article from 20 years ago pointing out that Bremer didn't get a fair trial.)

Interestingly, Travis Bickle's famous line from Taxi Driver, "Some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets," a sentiment worthy of a Wallace supporter, is not plucked from Bremer's journal but from one of the novels, Angel Eyes (1961), that Howard Hunt wrote under the pseudonym Robert Dietrich. Vidal quotes it in his NYRB essay. The hero of the potboiler, Steve Bentley, talks of Washington, D.C., "with its 'muggers and heroin pushers and the white-slavers and the faggotry . . . . This town needs a purifying rain!' "

Schrader no doubt read Vidal's NYRB piece and purloined that line from Hunt. Did E. Howard contact Schrader after Taxi Driver won the Palme d'Or for 1976?

The irony here -- but one that I think is very illuminating -- is that Taxi Driver owes more to the chief of the White House Plumbers than poor little Artie Bremer.

In part 2, we'll look at the film itself and discuss the score of the great Bernard Herrmann.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Democrats Desperately Embrace McCarthyism

The latest story alleging that Russia was behind the DNC email hack (David Sanger and Eric Schmitt, "Spy Agency Consensus Grows That Russia Hacked D.N.C.") largely regurgitates the story from the previous day by David Sanger, "F.B.I. Examining if Hackers Gained Access to Clinton Aides’ Emails." Proof that Russia is to blame boils down to some metadata in Cyrillic found on documents released prior to the WikiLeaks dump last Friday:
Preliminary conclusions were discussed on Thursday at a weekly cyberintelligence meeting for senior officials. The Crowdstrike report, supported by several other firms that have examined the same bits of code and telltale “metadata” left on documents that were released before WikiLeaks’ publication of the larger trove, concludes that the Federal Security Service, known as the F.S.B., entered the committee’s networks last summer.
The G.R.U., a competing, military intelligence unit, was a later arrival. Investigators believe it is the G.R.U. that has played a bigger role in releasing the emails.
In an essay published on Lawfare, a blog that often deals with cyberissues, Susan Hennessey, previously a lawyer for the National Security Agency, called the published evidence about Russian involvement “about as close to a smoking gun as can be expected when a sophisticated nation-state is involved.”
Mr. Assange’s threat to release documents, she wrote, “means, put simply, that actors outside the U.S. are using criminal means to influence the outcome of a US election. That’s a problem.”
One point to keep in mind here is the timeline. The DNC first announced it was hacked in June. (See David Sanger and Nick Corasaniti, "D.N.C. Says Russian Hackers Penetrated Its Files, Including Dossier on Donald Trump.") The documents with the telltale Cyrillic fingerprint (why is it that only hackers from the FSB or GRU can leave behind metadata in Cyrillic?) were not part of the WikiLeaks trove. Assange has intimated that the DNC server was hacked by more than one party. According to an interview he conducted with CNN:
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said Tuesday his whistleblowing website might release "a lot more material" relevant to the US electoral campaign. 
Assange was speaking in a CNN interview following the release of nearly 20,000 emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee by suspected Russian hackers. 
However, Assange refused to confirm or deny a Russian origin for the mass email leak, saying Wikileaks tries to create ambiguity to protect all its sources. 
"Perhaps one day the source or sources will step forward and that might be an interesting moment some people may have egg on their faces. But to exclude certain actors is to make it easier to find out who our sources are," Assange told CNN. 
The Kremlin has rejected allegations its behind the hacking, calling suggestions it ordered the release of the emails to influence US politics the "usual fun and games" of the US election campaigns. 
"This is not really good for bilateral relations," Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, added.
Obama and the FBI will not make any direct allegations of Russian involvement out of fear of 1) escalation of a cyberwar when U.S. defenses are in poor shape and 2) proof possessed by the Russians of U.S. meddling in Russia's political system.

But what is really boundary crossing in all of this -- one really has to go back to days of Tailgunner Joe McCarthy -- is the accusation that a presidential nominee of one branch of the duopoly is basically an agent of Uncle Sam's great Cold War foe, the Russian Bear.

Donald Trump is being made out by the Democrats and their facilitators in the media to be the new Alger Hiss, an Alger Hiss not as a State Department bureaucrat but as the leader of a major party ticket. It is so bizarre and far fetched -- server hacks instead of microfilm in hollowed-out pumpkins -- it speaks of a power structure that is cracked beyond repair.

Its shrill desperation also points to more dirty secrets yet to be revealed.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Can Hillary Lose? Yes, If Somehow the Gender Gap Narrows

Friday afternoon my coworker alerted me to the WikiLeaks dump of 20,000 emails from Democratic National Committee that proved conclusively the already obvious, that the DNC had been engaged during the primary in active electioneering on behalf of Hillary.

My coworker's question to me was whether I thought this would make the news. My answer was completely wrong. I said that since the prestige press has been a co-conspirator with the DNC all along in booming Hillary, the story of a lack of neutrality at the national committee would be buried.

With the news yesterday that DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was lowered surgically on her sword by Team Hillary (good story by Jonathan Martin and Alan Rappeport, "Debbie Wasserman Schultz to Resign D.N.C. Post"), it is likely that more damaging salacious tidbits will be regurgitated from the WikiLeaks trove.

Not a promising turn of events on the eve of the party's national nominating convention, particularly after the skillful roll out of corporate Dem, Obama buddy and former DNC chair Tim Kaine as Hillary's VP choice. Thanks to the seamless collaboration between the press and Team Hillary, much of Friday and nearly all of Saturday the news seemed to snap back to a prior era of tranquility and stability, and this despite the Munich shooter (mass shootings are becoming as common as fender-benders these days).

The fact that the baleful specter of Putin is now being invoked to explain the email leak (see "As Democrats Gather, a Russian Subplot Raises Intrigue" by David Sanger and Nicole Perlroth) is proof that the Clintons are running scared. Sanger and Perlroth make the argument for Hillary in the second-to-last paragraph of their story that Trump's campaign is an offshoot of Putin's Cold War with the United States:
Intrusions for intelligence collection are hardly unusual, and the United States often does the same, stealing emails and other secrets from intelligence services and even political parties. But the release to WikiLeaks adds another strange element, because it suggests that the intelligence findings are being “weaponized” — used to influence the election in some way. The story has another level of intrigue involving Mr. Manafort, Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman. Working through his lobbying firm, Mr. Manafort was one of several American advisers to Viktor F. Yanukovych, the Russian-backed leader of Ukraine until he was forced out of office two years ago. Mr. Yanukovych was a key Putin ally who is now in exile in Russia.
Whether or not Russian intelligence was the source of the hack of DNC servers is water over the dam at this point. The damage has been done. The Philadelphia convention has been wrong-footed. Berniacs will find a second wind. Already the Sunday march against Hillary is being reported to have been larger than any public rally in Cleveland last week. There will be a negligible, if any, windfall for the Dems following the GOP's woeful convention, an enormous lost opportunity given that Hillary could have sewn up the election with a well-managed, strong show in Philadelphia.

Charles Blow in his column this morning, "More Damned Emails," reports that Hillary's unfavorable rating is 54%, which is 4-points lower than Trump's. But what is truly noteworthy about the numbers Blow quotes is the percentage of people who find Hillary untrustworthy -- 67%.

The milieu that provides the soil for this distrust is one of pervasive economic insecurity. According to Thomas Edsall's last piece, "The Apotheosis of Donald J. Trump":
Capitalizing on legitimate discontent, Trump is both the exploiter and the beneficiary of stagnating median household income, declining productivityand gross domestic product growth, as well as a worldwide refugee andimmigration crisis.
Economic issues are arguably foremost. For the majority of men and women dependent on wages to stay afloat, the past 16 years have been marked by setbacks and uncertainty of historic proportion.
Jon Hilsenrath and Bob Davis, writing in The Wall Street Journal, put it this way:
"After 2000, the economy would experience two recessions, a technology-bubble collapse followed by a housing boom, then the largest financial crisis in 75 years and a prolonged period of weak growth."
Full-time workers’ median weekly earnings in constant 2016 dollars have hardly budged: $774.85 in 2000, $788.87 in 2015.
According to the American Psychological Association, some 72 percent of adults reported experiencing financial stress in 2014. More than half reported that their incomes were not enough or barely enough to make it from month to month.
The cost of housingrent, mortgage payments, property taxes, insurance, repairs, upkeep, utilities — has been growing steadily. The “affordability cutoff” for rent is generally set at 30 percent of income. In 1960, less than a quarter of renters paid more than 30 percent of their income; by 2013, that percentage has risen to just under 50 percent.
The growth in housing costs in our post-Lehman meltdown world doesn't get the attention it deserves in terms of why it is we all feel so insecure. Yes, there are the innumerable foreign wars and seemingly constant terrorist attacks. But living paycheck to paycheck with the knowledge that you will forced out of your home if you get a layoff inspires fear and loathing right up there with being the victim of violence.

So can Trump win? Unless there are more damning leaks and smoking guns, something so damaging it will start to whittle away Hillary's commanding lead among women, I think not. As Edsall explained in a column two-week's back, "College Men for Trump":
We often overlook the pro-Trump leanings of white men with college degrees, in part because white women with four-year degrees back Clinton 57-35 percent, and most reports combine the total. When both sexes are counted, Clinton leads by six points. The gender gap this year is historic.
The race to the bottom will continue.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

All the U.S. Can Do is Play Cat and Mouse with the Dragon in the South China Sea

Austin Ramzy has a decent story, "KFC Targeted in Protests Over South China Sea," about an uptick in Chinese protests directed at the United States for its support of the Philippines' successful suit, decided last week in The Hague by an international tribunal, denying China's territorial claims over the South China Sea. According to Ramzy,
KFC outlets in about a dozen cities, including Hangzhou, in Zhejiang Province; Changsha, in Hunan Province; and Yangzhou, in Jiangsu Province, were targeted by protests and calls for a boycott on Monday, according to a report from Sohu News, a Chinese online news outlet. But the campaign was far smaller than previous nationalist boycotts, and state media outlets warned protesters to avoid any illegal behavior.
Ramzy doesn't mention the bombings of Kentucky Fried Chickens in Egypt last year. Yum Brands, the corporate owner of KFC, says it plans on selling its China operations, no doubt a shrewd business decision given that we are at the beginning of what promises to be a prolonged period of showy super-power saber rattling.

Yesterday Michael Forsythe reported, "China Begins Air Patrols Over Disputed Area of the South China Sea," that the Dragon would begin overflight of the Spratly Islands:
HONG KONG — China said Monday that it had begun what would become regular military air patrols over disputed islands and shoals of the South China Sea, highlighting its claim to the vast area a week after an international tribunal said Beijing’s assertion of sovereignty over the waters had no legal basis
China’s air force flew a “combat air patrol” over the South China Sea “recently,” Xinhua, the official news agency, reported, citing Shen Jinke, an air force spokesman. The patrol consisted of bombers, fighters, “scouts” and tankers and would become “regular practice,” Mr. Shen said, according to Xinhua.
The announcement of the air patrols, plus a separate statement that China would conduct military exercises in the South China Sea off the coast of Hainan Island, came as Adm. John M. Richardson, the chief of United States naval operations, was in Beijing to discuss the South China Sea and other issues that arose after the tribunal rebuked China’s claims over the waters on July 12.
The landmark decision rejected China’s assertion that it enjoys historical rights over a huge area of the South China Sea encompassed by a “nine-dash line.” China had argued that the tribunal had no jurisdiction in the matter.
On Monday, Admiral Richardson’s Chinese counterpart, Adm. Wu Shengli, said China would continue construction in the South China Sea. In the past two years, China has reclaimed thousands of acres on seven features in the Spratly Islands, an area where Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims, building ports, large airstrips and radar installations.
“We will never stop our construction on the Nansha Islands halfway,” Xinhua, in a separate report, quoted Admiral Wu as saying, using the Chinese name for the Spratly chain. “The Nansha Islands are China’s inherent territory, and our necessary construction on the islands is reasonable, justified and lawful.”
Bonnie S. Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that a more telling test of China’s posture after the decision last week may come when the United States Navy resumes so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, which often involve testing Chinese claims by ordering American ships to transit within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-claimed features.
The story is worth reading for its helpful map of the South China Sea.

The U.S. is in a pickle here. It can only threaten belligerence, belligerence that the Chinese know is a complete farce. Is the U.S. willing to go to war over territorial claims and island construction in the South China Sea? How can it when it is fighting multiple wars in the Greater Middle East and Africa and every aspect of its political life is divided? The GOP is split, as are the Democrats. The deep state is intact but it is at capacity managing the rewrite of Sykes-Picot and its reboot of the Cold War, not to mention the dissolution of the European Union that these moves have elicited. Also worth mentioning, a completely moribund U.S. antiwar movement will rise from the dead if it looks as if Obama's Asia pivot is going to morph into a shooting war.

No, all the U.S. can do is plead for the Dragon to come to the negotiating table. An illuminating sample of the pleading tone can be found in an unsigned editorial published by The New York Times last week, "Testing the Rule of Law in the South China Sea":
Given China’s stake in peaceful trade with the rest of the world, it would be foolish for President Xi Jinping to take provocative actions that could inflame regional tensions and conceivably lead to a military confrontation with its neighbors or the United States. Retaliatory measures — further island-building at Scarborough Shoal, for instance, or declaring an air defense zone over large portions of the South China Sea — would be risky.
In fact, the ruling offers a fresh opportunity to address maritime disputes in a peaceful manner. China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, condemned Tuesday’s ruling but said Beijing remains open to negotiations. Nations in the region have often gone wobbly in the face of pressure from Beijing. At this critical moment, despite competing interests of their own, they need to join the Philippines in endorsing the tribunal decision and then proceed, if necessary, with their own arbitration cases.
The United States, which is neutral on the various claims, can help ensure a peaceful, lawful path forward. The Obama administration has said that disputes should be resolved according to international law, a position it now reaffirms. It has built closer security relations with Asian nations and responded to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea with increased naval patrols. This combination of diplomacy and pressure is sound, but the hard part is getting the balance right.
My guess is the U.S. is going to play the long game. Draw out negotiations, play cat and mouse with its destroyers and its spy planes, and hope that Abe can rapidly militarize a pacific Japanese populous. Better than a war with China, but still foolish and unsuccesful.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Failed Coup in Turkey: Not the Usual U.S. Color Revolution

As Erdogan rounds up his opponents following the failed coup of Friday night/Saturday morning (for a particularly good synopsis read this morning's Foreign Policy Situation Report by Paul McLeary and Adam Rawnsley), it is worthwhile to question the level of support the putschists received from the United States. According to McLeary and Rawnsley:
How does this end? The Turkish government is lashing out in all directions, with a high-ranking member of the Erdogan government accusing Washington of directly helping to foment the putsch. Turkish Labor Minister Suleyman Soylu bluntly claimed over the weekend that “the U.S. is behind this coup attempt.” The comments “come on top of the long-standing U.S. criticism of Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies, which include opening roughly 2,000 legal cases against political opponents, journalists, comedians, and ordinary Turks accused of insulting the president,”  FP’s Yochi Dreazen writes.
Judging from the reaction to the coup's failure in the U.S. opinion pages, the labor minister appears to be on the money. The Gray Lady's unsigned editorial today calls Erdogan's reaction to the coup attempt a "countercoup" (see "The Countercoup in Turkey").

If the U.S. was involved it must have been in a passive role. The favored U.S. method of regime change after the shelving of "shock and awe" during the Obama administration is the color revolution format witnessed in Kiev's Maidan or the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. In a color revolution there has to be a mass of protesters to act as a foil for the coup plotters. The scheme is to have the protesters elicit a crackdown by security forces. The police overreaction ignites the rebellion. But there was no popular uprising here. There were no Gezi Park protests of three years earlier.

In order for this to work the coup plotters had to take out Erdogan. When they failed to do this the coup could not succeed. Consider this from McLeary and Rawnsley:
Commando raids, F-16s. Some critical details of the scope of the insurrection emerged on Sunday, which included a daring special operations raid on the coastal resort where Erdogan had been staying which just failed to nab the leader, and a harrowing incident where two rebel-flown F-16 fighters followed the president’s plane on its way to Istanbul, locking radars on the jet, but failing to fire.
As the purge of the military continued on Sunday, one of those arrested was Gen. Bekir Ercan Van, the chief of Incirlik Air Base, from which the U.S. military flies missions over Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State. Reports have emerged claiming Van asked U.S. officials at the base for asylum, but was refused. The Greek government also finds itself in a tough spot after eight Turkish officers flew a helicopter to Greece in a bid for asylum. Turkey has demanded their extradition.
An attempt is being made to rewrite the U.S. reaction to the coup as one of immediate and fulsome support for the Turkish government. This is not how it went down in real time. Obama and Kerry were mum until it was clear that Erdogan would survive. Then they expressed their support.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Peter Gabriel's Security (1982)

We have a way forward. We'll take a look at Peter Gabriel's followup to the Melt album, 1982's Peter Gabriel, a.k.a., Security. Then we will attempt a landing at Hippies vs. Punks ground zero, 1976's Taxi Driver. I saw it again last Saturday, wanting to make a reappraisal of the Martin Scorsese-Paul Schrader version of the Arthur Bremer story, and was blown away how perfectly it enacts the death match between the Hippie and the Punk, and in so doing, provides a punchlist for neoliberalism's rollback of post-WWII social democracy.

So far we have arrived at some solid signposts. Nineteen-seventy-five: The death rattle is gargled out of the Hippie's maw before New Year's Day with the catastrophic November-December 1974 Harrison-Shankar Dark Horse Tour, the first North American tour by a Beatle since 1966. Its failure proved prescient. One-year later Patti Smith would proclaim a new dispensation with her debut LP, Horses. Nineteen-seventy-six: Taxi Driver is released in February. Punks rise from the earth, California lite rock fills the Bicentennial airwaves, and The Band stages The Last Waltz at Winterland with Marty Scorsese in the director's chair. Carter is on his way to the White House. Alea iacta est.

Before turning to Peter Gabriel, a few thoughts on aging. One problem with aging, besides a loss of energy, is that as you age people -- young people -- stop paying attention to you. Young people are, whether conscious of it or not, governed by sexual appetites. For youth, and by youth I mean 40ish and under, it is all about the sex organs. An old codger like me -- north of the half-century mark, gray beard, with wrinkled brow and eye socket, throat flesh beginning its droop -- is politely placed off to the side.

I have no problem being out of the game. It takes too much time. But one's species-being is one's species-being. And the Homo sapiens stands out in the animal kingdom for its insatiable desire to be desired. Add to this the fact that young people are the ones with the energy and who are doing things -- being invisible to this audience is not to one's advantage -- and suddenly the realization that one is marginalized due to agedness becomes dispiriting.

Fortunately we were all once young. When I was young, living on my own for the first time as a teenager in the Bay Area, autumn of 1982, a big album for me, possibly the biggest, from the fall through the winter and into the spring, was Peter Gabriel's Security.

Peter Gabriel 3 and Peter Gabriel 4 are an amazing tandem of albums. Three, with Steve Lillywhite handling production chores, is more a Post-Punk album; with Security, Gabriel creates more of a Hippie, Lamb Lies Down on Broadway-type of album. The lead guitar is almost entirely absent. Larry Fast's synthesizers, Tony Levin's Chapman Stick, Gabriel's sampler and, last but not least, Jerry Marotta's drumming provide the album's distinctive sound.

I saw this lineup twice. First, must have been January 1983, at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium (now the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium); and then, either late spring or early summer 1983, at Berkeley's Greek Theater. What I remember about the show at the Greek is that Gabriel came out early, before even the warm-up band had come on and most of the audience had yet to arrive, and spoke to those of us who were there. Most didn't recognize him. Gabriel looked like a leading man. Dressed in very expensive casual clothes -- charcoal slacks, a black windbreaker jacket -- he asked us to give due consideration to the opening act, the name of which I can't recall, and he might have said a few words about Reagan's dirty wars underway in Central America.

These shows were noteworthy at the time because Gabriel would stage dive and be passed around atop the audience for more than ten minutes during "Lay Your Hands on Me." My girlfriend-who-would-be-my-wife excitedly related how at the Greek show she was able to wrap her hands around Gabriel's belly. My brother-in-law at the time, who went to the show with us, marveled at the ease with which someone could stab him.

Listening to the album again all this past week what jumps out is Marotta's drumming. The gated drum sound that defines the 1980s is tweaked and radically improved upon from the introductory experiments of Melt. Listen to "I Have the Touch" (third YouTube from the top) and "Lay Your Hands on Me" (above) to hear a tour de force. My brother-in-law, who was an aspiring prog rock drummer before becoming a history professor, stood gape-mouthed studying Marotta most of the show.

Security is also something of a bon voyage for the big statement rock album. MTV had just gotten off the ground and was rising fast. In fact, the video for "Shock the Monkey," the album's Billboard #1 single, helped establish the new television channel. After that it was all Duran Duran.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The End of Obamacare

To read Robert Pear, longtime health-care policy reporter for The New York Times, over the last year is to know that Obama's signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, is in real trouble. I'm not sure if the Gray Lady's shift from booster to skeptic happened last year or the year before, but the conversion is now fully upon us. Paul Krugman, who for many years would devote at least one column per week to the wonders of Obamacare, has largely gone silent on the issue.

For a good overview of why the ACA is headed for the dustbin read "Obamacare: The Neoliberal Model Comes Home to Roost in the United States—If We Let It," by Howard Waitzkin and Ida Hellander, which appeared in the May issue of Monthly Review. In a nutshell, the Affordable Care Act is not affordable. There is no way to control costs. Premiums, deductibles and co-pays are all on the rise, and the increases in costs are not sustainable.

Pear's story in yesterday's paper, "Obama Offers Ways to Improve His Health Care Law," dealt with the lengthy, academic apologia for the ACA penned by Obama and which appears online in the Journal of the American Medical Association. "United States Health Care Reform: Progress to Date and Next Steps," was too long for me to ingest. But the conclusion from the abstract reads as follows:
Conclusions and Relevance Policy makers should build on progress made by the Affordable Care Act by continuing to implement the Health Insurance Marketplaces and delivery system reform, increasing federal financial assistance for Marketplace enrollees, introducing a public plan option in areas lacking individual market competition, and taking actions to reduce prescription drug costs. Although partisanship and special interest opposition remain, experience with the Affordable Care Act demonstrates that positive change is achievable on some of the nation’s most complex challenges.
My coworker asked me incredulously yesterday after seeing the story online, "Can you believe Obama is backing public option now?" Pear shares her incredulity:
White House officials said that Mr. Obama’s purpose in writing the article was to start a discussion and suggest a direction for elected officials and future policy makers, but that he would not be offering detailed new legislative proposals to carry out his ideas. 
Based on his experience in the last few years, Mr. Obama said, Congress should establish “a public plan to compete alongside private insurers in areas of the country where competition is limited.” 
Most of the country has benefited from competition in the marketplaces, and 88 percent of the people who have enrolled live in counties where at least three insurers offer plans, Mr. Obama said. But, he said, the remaining 12 percent are in areas with only one or two insurers. 
Jason Furman, the chairman of Mr. Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, said, “A public option would be one way to make sure that there was competition everywhere.” 
In the debate on health care in 2009 and 2010, Mr. Obama said he supported the idea of a public option, but he did not always insist on it, and the administration sent mixed signals about how important it was.
Besides the expansion of Medicaid, the key component of Obamacare is the provision of federal subsidies for people to purchase insurance in the online marketplaces:
The online exchanges will be a viable source of coverage “for decades to come,” Mr. Obama said, but “further adjustments and recalibrations will likely be needed.” 
Of the 11 million people with marketplace coverage, 85 percent receive tax credits that, on average, cover nearly three-fourths of their premium costs. But for some, said Kristie Canegallo, a deputy chief of staff at the White House, the “tax credits aren’t big enough.”
Obama is whistling past the graveyard on this one, as Carl Hulse reports in "How an Arcane Spending Fight Could Alter the Federal Balance of Power." The Obama administration has been funding the health insurance subsidies without Congressional authorization: "The final word may come in federal court, where a district judge has already found the spending to be unconstitutional. The administration is appealing that decision."

The administration is likely to lose. Even with the premium subsidies, health insurance is too expensive for most because of the high deductibles and co-insurance. Without the subsidies the online marketplace collapses. All that will remain of Obamacare is the Medicaid expansion for those states that opted in.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Inside the Kingdom: Real News or More PR?

Yesterday The New York Times had a frontpager that jumped to a center spread about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This morning it is still prominently featured on the web site. Written by Ben Hubbard, "A Saudi Morals Enforcer Called for a More Liberal Islam. Then the Death Threats Began." is unusually long and not as illuminating as one would have hoped after wading through all that type.

Hubbard tells the story of Ahmed Qassim al-Ghamdi who worked for the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a.k.a, the religious police. Ghamdi figured out through his own research of the Quran and stories of the Prophet Muhammad that there was no doctrinal basis for the prohibition of woman from driving automobiles, mixing of the sexes, women showing their faces uncovered in public, etc.; that all these restrictions derived from traditional Arab culture not Islam.

In 2014 Ghamdi went on television with his wife, "her face bare and adorned with a dusting of makeup," as Hubbard writes,  to air his point of view, and then all hell broke lose. He was simultaneously ostracized and hounded by his fellow Saudis.

Hubbard does a decent job outlining the contours of the Saudi religious police state, a country, because of its oil wealth, that is probably without peer in terms of the thickness of its bureaucracy:
It consists of universities that churn out graduates trained in religious disciplines; a legal system in which judges apply Shariah law; a council of top clerics who advise the king; a network of offices that dispense fatwas, or religious opinions; a force of religious police who monitor public behavior; and tens of thousands of mosque imams who can be tapped to deliver the government’s message from the pulpit.
Hubbard mentions not at all the demographic time bomb that is about to detonate in the Kingdom. A tsunami of young people are soon to reach working age without any employment waiting for them.

Hubbard does go into the foundation of the modern Saudi state, the union of a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, with the predatory militarism of the royal al-Saud family:
In the early 18th century, Sheikh Mohammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab called for a religious reformation in central Arabia. Feeling that Islam had been corrupted by practices like the veneration of saints and tombs, he called for the stripping away of “innovations” and the return to what he considered the pure religion.
He formed an alliance with a chieftain named Mohammed ibn Saud that has underpinned the area’s history ever since. Then the Saud family assumed political leadership while Sheikh Abdul-Wahhab and his descendants gave legitimacy to their rule and managed religious affairs.
That mix proved potent among the warring Arabian tribes, as Wahhabi clerics provided justification for military conquest in some cases: Those who resisted the House of Saud were not just enemies, but infidels who deserved the sword.
The first Saudi state was destroyed by the Ottomans in 1818, and attempts to build another failed until the early 20th century, when King Abdulaziz al-Saud undertook a campaign that put him in control of most of the Arabian Peninsula.
But the king faced a choice: to continue expansionary jihad, which would have invited conflict with the British, or to build a modern state. He chose the latter, even crushing a group of his own warriors who refused to stop fighting.
Since then, the alliance between the royal family and the clerics has endured, although the tensions between the quest for ideological purity and the exigencies of modern statehood remain throughout Saudi society.
Hubbard does mention that there is growing sensitivity among the Kingdom's subjects that the outside world is none too appreciative of its Wahhabism. But the only time the Gray Lady's scribe really broaches the topic of the shared ideology of the Kingdom and the Islamic State is the laughable exchange he has with Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh:
We entered a vast reception hall near the mufti’s house in Riyadh, with padded benches along the walls where a dozen bearded students sat. In the center, on a raised armchair, sat the mufti, his feet in brown socks and perched on a pillow. The students read religious texts, and the mufti interjected with commentary. He was 75, Mr. Sheikh said, and had been blind since age 14, when a German doctor carried out a failed operation on his eyes.
Mr. Sheikh said I could ask him a question, so I asked how he responded to those who compared Wahhabism to the Islamic State.
“That is all lies and slander. Daesh is an aggressive, tyrannous group that has no relation,” he said, using another term for the Islamic State.
After a pause, he asked, “Why don’t you become a Muslim?”
I responded that I was from a Christian family.
“The religion you follow has no source,” he said, adding that I should accept the Prophet Muhammad’s revelation.
“Your religion is not a religion,” he said. “In the end, you will have to face God.”
Hubbard's story has somewhat of a happy ending. The religious police, like the U.S. thin blue line, got clipped because of a cellphone video:
It had been a rough year for the Commission. A video went viral of a girl yelping as she was thrown to the ground outside a Riyadh mall during a confrontation with the Commission, her abaya flying over her head and exposing her legs and torso. For many Saudis, “the Nakheel Mall girl” symbolized the Commission’s overreach.
Then the Commission arrested Ali al-Oleyani, a popular talk show host who often criticized religious figures. Photos appeared online of Mr. Oleyani in handcuffs with bottles of liquor. The photos were clearly staged and apparently had been leaked as a form of character assassination. Many people were outraged.
In April, the government responded with a surprise decree defanging the religious police. It denied them the power to arrest, question or pursue subjects, forced them to work with the police and advised them to be “gentle and kind” in their interactions with citizens.
Mr. Ghamdi applauded the decision, although he remains an outcast, a sheikh whose positions rendered him unemployable in the Islamic kingdom.
Still and all, I can't help but feel that the story of Ghamdi the reformer is part of the PR campaign launched this year with Saudi Vision 2030 and the rise of the youthful Crown Prince Mohammed. Yemen has disappeared from The New York Times. Outside of an occasional mention in Reuters and the Associated Press, it is as if the Kingdom's war on Yemen doesn't exist.

Monday, July 11, 2016

It's the Militarization of a Culture at Perpetual War That is to Blame, Not Black Lives Matter

The effort is underway to link the Thursday night police-targeted shootings in Dallas by Army Reserve veteran Micah Johnson with Black Lives Matter. Nowhere have I seen mentioned the obvious linkage, not with Black Lives Matter, but with the U.S. military. Johnson was deployed overseas to Afghanistan. Johnson's CV is all military. According to Richard Faussett, Manny Fernandez and Alan Blinder in "Micah Johnson, Gunman in Dallas, Honed Military Skills to a Deadly Conclusion":
. . . [A]fter Johnson graduated from John Horn High School in Mesquite, Tex., where he had shown some interest in the military, going so far as to participate in the school’s Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program. He was not, it seemed on Saturday, a standout: Horn’s former J.R.O.T.C. instructor said he had little recollection of Mr. Johnson. 
He enlisted in the Army Reserve in 2009 and was assigned to a unit — a component of the 420th Engineer Brigade — near Dallas. More than four years later, the unit deployed to Afghanistan. But before the soldiers left for the Afghan theater, they stood in formation not far from the streets where Mr. Johnson would someday stage a siege.
Clearly the Army had more to do with the creation of Micah Johnson than Black Lives Matter. So why is Black Lives Matter being blamed for the deaths of police and not the Army Reserve? And why can't we read this as obvious blow back from a culture basted in militarism?

Obama performed his swan song at the NATO summit in Warsaw over the weekend, the main event being the celebration of the alliance's lurch to the East with garrisons in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland, as well as four battalions to be based in Romania and Bulgaria.

The man who owes his place in history due to an ability to convince voters that he was a peace candidate has presided over the creation of a New Cold War with Russia and NATO's garrisoning of many of the nations of the former Warsaw Pact. A spectacular achievement of misdirection.

Obama was asked about this at the NATO summit. According to White House scribe Mark Landler in "Obama on ‘Brooding’ Over the Interminable Wars of His Presidency":
[A] reporter asked [Obama] at a NATO news conference about the nature of war in the 21st century — and, specifically, how he felt about the likelihood that he would be the first two-term president to have presided over a nation at war for every day of his presidency.
Speaking with striking candor for a public setting, Mr. Obama said: “As commander-in-chief of the most powerful military in the world, I spend a lot of time brooding over these issues. And I’m not satisfied that we’ve got it perfect yet.” But he added, “I can say, honestly, it’s better than it was when I came into office.” [Talk about chutzpah!]
The president pointed out that when he took office in 2009, the United States had 180,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now that number is about 15,000. He also said these service members were not engaged in combat but in training, advising and equipping Iraqi and Afghan troops — though such roles have increasingly put them in combat situations.
Still, a week after announcing that the United States would leave 8,400 troops in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, Mr. Obama acknowledged that the threat of terrorism, the resilience of groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and the weakness of governments in Iraq and Afghanistan made it difficult for the United States to ever leave.
“It’s very hard for us ever to get the satisfaction of MacArthur and the emperor meeting and a war officially being over,” he said, referring to the surrender of Japan at the end of World War II.
Mr. Obama characterized his approach to war as a hybrid: committing limited numbers of American troops to conflict-ridden countries, but working with those countries to develop their own armies and police. He drew attention to an announcement at the Warsaw meeting that NATO would begin training Iraqi troops inside the country. (The alliance had already been training them in neighboring Jordan.)
In Landler's piece Obama hides behind the straw man that "There are fewer wars today between states, he said, and no wars between great powers," without acknowledging his reboot of the Cold War with Russia and his ballyhooed Asia pivot to confront China which is about to ratchet up several notches with The Hague set to rule tomorrow on the status of China's claim to Scarborough Shoal 140 miles off the Philippine coast.

The obvious is that the U.S. is on perpetual war footing with indefinite deployments in Africa, Afghanistan and the Middle East. Nations are shattered beyond repair. And Obama's overriding concern is that he will leave office before being able to thoroughly routinize this new perpetual warfare with its drones and mass surveillance and secret legal findings:
Earlier in his presidency, Mr. Obama spoke of taking the United States off the perpetual war footing of the post-9/11 era. These days — with troops going back into Iraq and Afghanistan, airstrikes in Libya, and drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan — he says less about this. 
For Mr. Obama, who was a lawyer, the shadowy legal status of this hybrid form of warfare is another heavy burden. That, he said, helped explain why the White House issued a report two weeks ago disclosing estimates of the civilian casualties from drone strikes. 
“What I’m trying to do there is to institutionalize a system where we begin to hold ourselves accountable for this different kind of national security threat and these different kinds of operations,” he said. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Peter Gabriel 3 (1980)

The 1980 Peter Gabriel song "Family Snapshot" is often considered to recount a combination of Bremer's attempt on Wallace and the assassination of JFK. The song told from the point of view of a would-be assassin, suggests that the action he is taking as an adult is to make up for the attention he never received as a child.
Tim Huddleston, The Real Life Taxi Driver: A Biography of Arthur Bremer, The Real Inspiration of Travis Bickle, 2013.

Let's tarry a while longer in the early 1980s. First, a quick recap on why we are here. A couple weeks back, browsing in one of the city's few remaining large used record stores, I stumbled upon a scuff copy of Oh, No! It's Devo (1982), the last album the spud boys produced while still in the limelight. An unremembered gem from Oh, No! It's Devo is "I Desire," a song co-written with Reagan's attempted assassin John Hinckley Jr.

Hinkley tried to kill Reagan because he wanted to impress actress Jodie Foster. Hinckley was obsessed with Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), a Paul Schrader screen-play interpretation of the diary of Arthur Bremer, George Wallace's attempted assassin. (Gore Vidal argued in The New York Review of Books that Bremer's An Assassin's Diary (1973) was ghost written by White House Plumber E. Howard Hunt.)

Taxi Driver stars Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, a loner, ex-Marine who decides to kill a presidential contender to impress the beautiful campaign worker (played by Cybill Shepherd) after she dumps him for taking her to a Scandinavian pornographic film on their first date. Jodie Foster plays a young runaway, Iris, street hooking for a pimp played by Harvey Keitel. Travis, after botching an assassination attempt on the Kennedyesque presidential contender, shifts his focus to liberating Iris from white slavery.

As Tim Huddleston summarizes:
Probably the biggest impact Bremer had on the world was to provide Paul Schrader with the inspiration to create the character Travis Bickle, portrayed by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's brilliant 1976 film, Taxi Driver. Then, in a case of life imitating art imitating life [which, if Vidal is correct, was actually a Hunt contrivance], John Hinckley, Jr., who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan, claimed to be inspired by Travis Bickle, who had been inspired by Arthur Bremer. All three men, including the fictional one, failed in their efforts.
All this got me thinking about Jodie Foster's Army (JFA), a Phoenix Hardcore Skatepunk band formed in 1981 in the wake of Hinckley's real-life reenactment of Taxi Driver. JFA records were everywhere during my lower-division undergraduate years, 1982-1984. One takeaway from my JFA study last week was the realization of how dark things were that late fall of 1980 on into the spring of 1981.

I have this memory of my mother going off to vote for Jimmy Carter before the polls closed at the high school gymnasium. It was already apparent that Reagan would win in a landslide. But she, a good liberal Democrat (just think how rapaciously liberals have been fucked, mostly with their consent, the last forty years) went out and voted anyway. I remember that November evening being very cold and inky black. A month later we would watch the television news of the murder of John Lennon.

This past week I wanted to sample something that my friends and I were listening to during this time, and I made a decision with hardly any thought to sync my iPod with Peter Gabriel albums. Sunday, while reading, the iPod plugged into a docking station with decent speakers, Peter Gabriel 3 (1980), a.k.a. Melt, started playing. Forty-five minutes later I was stunned. What an incredible album! 

Listening to Melt again -- and I listened to Melt and its followup, Security, a lot back in the day -- it all immediately became clear, the 1980s that is. 

Peter Gabriel 3 is the key code for the decade to come. The signature "gated drum" sound of "Intruder," announced on the album's first track (see the YouTube three paragraphs above), played by Phil Collins but crafted in collaboration with producer Steve Lillywhite, Gabriel himself and engineer Hugh Padgham, runs throughout Melt, but particularly the first cuts: "Intruder," "No Self Control," and "I Don't Remember."

No Self Control

I Don't Remember

The gated drum sound is like a juiced-up, cyborg version of the Japanese taiko, bottom heavy and resonant of infinite black space. Phil Collins would cash in big half-a-year later with "In the Air Tonight," the huge hit single off his 1981 solo debut, Face Value.

At a time when neoliberalism is attaining escape velocity, the gated drum, accompanied by the Frippian guitar burst, basically recreates rock 'n' roll in the 1980s. Hippies vanish beneath a banker's suit and Punks go post- into New Wave House music. (John Lydon devotes an entire PiL album, 1981's The Flowers of Romance, to the drum sound of Melt.) Powerful stuff. Imagine Miami Vice or the puissant Michelob commercials of the 1980s, what I used to refer to as "television on TV," without the gated drum. You can't do it. It made us believe that what we were doing was somehow new. And so was capitalism.

Peter Gabriel 3 makes it all possible. Sure, the gated drum would have come along and become popular. But Melt provided a Garden of Eden, a place at the beginning of the world. It is a flawless record, a perfect melding, thanks to Steve Lillywhite, of prog-rock Hippies with Punk rockers, creating a monstrous third way. I think my favorite cut is the last track on side one, "And Through the Wire," with The Jam's Paul Weller on lead guitar:

Having recently finished reading Philip JenkinsDecade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America (2006), I was reminded how much the year 1980 scared the shit out of people. Iran and Afghanistan inaugurated a rightward shift in the country that has never been reversed. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

More Signs of the End

The debate -- six years or six decades? -- is one worth having. The guy who works on the same floor of the building where I work still insists that six decades is the safer bet when it comes to the longevity of the status quo. My position is six years. Violence is now ever present. The state, with all the wonders of technology at its disposal, is unable to guarantee peace. Going back to Hobbes' Leviathan (1651), the primary rationale for the state is security. Security breaks down, and we are allowed to declare the state a failure and withhold our allegiance.

There are many kinds of security other than protection from physical violence. Affordable housing and medical care, meaningful, remunerative employment -- these are as important to the security of a state as safe streets. In no way are we more secure now than a decade ago.

I read something yesterday that under Obamacare,  "A conservative projection shows that premiums and out-of-pocket expenditures for the average family will equal half of the average family income by 2019 and the full average family income itself by 2029." A perfect example of the unsustainable nature of the status quo (though in this gauge, the sustainability of Obamacare, 13 years, not six, is the estimate).

War rages in the Middle East. Eventually the Israel/GCC/U.S. axis is going to tilt at Iran.

It is all coming apart before our eyes and we don't have the ability to knit it back together.