Thursday, July 5, 2018

Hollywood, bigotry, and Scarlett Johansson. . . .

Ok, it has been a long time since I last blogged, but my life in the past year has been a bit crazy and disjointed. Furthermore, I have found the current political climate so depressing that I have had difficulty talking about. I keep in touch with current events, but increases in racism, hate, and downright wilful ignorance is just debilitating sometimes. I was recently reinvigorated a little bit by the victory and voice of Alexanria Ocasio-Cortez and people like her, so it is not all doom and gloom. But, as many of you know, it's pretty dark out there at the moment.

The issue that has dragged me back to my keyboard is the recent controversy surround Scarlett Johansson and her agreement to play the trans man Dante "Tex" Gill. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I have a non-binary, trans daughter, so I have a vested interest in the issue. However, while I am a cisgender male, I am a staunch ally of trans people, and it is as an ally that I write this.

Though I admit that it is a complicated issue, I think it is deeply problematic for Ms. Johansson to be cast in this role. My concern has nothing to do with Johansson's acting ability, about which I don't feel qualified to speak. Nor do I think that no actor should ever be able to play another identity. I also understand that an argument can be made that Johansson's high profile in such a part can bring trans issues to public attention in positive ways. Johansson is a top-level Hollywood star and is not only bankable but will but a lot of people in seats.

Yet, having said that, I think that the potential payoff here is outweighed by the way such a act can reinforce the marginalizing of trans people. Hollywood has a long history of this marginalization. From the conception of film as an art form, Indigenous people, for example, have been played by white, sometime high-profile, actors like Chuck Connors who stared in the 1962 film Geronimo. The idea of Connors as Geronimo might seem absurd to us today, but in the early 60s no one batted an eye (at least not white people). While I hope that the trans issue will be handled carefully by Johansson and the rest of the film's staff, I believe that the same thing is essentially going on here.

Many people think the controversy surrounding this decision is "silly," and that trans people are being too sensitive. I have heard people suggest that "the whole point of acting is to play someone you are not," so it doesn't matter. However, if you take this argument to its conclusion, it holds little weight. Many people today would be uncomfortable with Johansson playing a Native American. This is because there is a long history of racism against Indigenous people, they have been brutalized and marginalized at all levels of society, and their exclusion from the narratives of film has been part of that marginalization. There are plenty of good native actors who can play the parts of native people and putting a white person in such a role would seem offensive and anachronistic. Furthermore, it is vitally important in our struggle against racism that Indigenous people start playing a central role in telling the story of themselves, rather than having other people do it for them.

The point is even more clear if we take a more extreme example. If Scarlett Johansson donned black-face and played the role of, say, Billie Holiday in a film, there would be near universal condemnation. The very idea is absurd. But the absurdity of the idea is a result of decades of work by activists around the issues of racism and the marginalization of African-Americans. I would say that it doesn't seem absurd to many people for Johansson to play a trans man because the vast majority of people still don't know much about trans people, their difficult struggle for acceptance, and the terrible bigotry that they still face. If such issues were more widely known and understood, I think most people would think that it is inappropriate for a woman to play a trans man.

There are many people who try to marginalize the controversy surrounding this issue by saying that there is a long history in theatre of people playing other genders. This is a misleading argument. There is, of course, a long history of men playing women in theatre, but this is mostly because for much of our history women were not even allowed on stage. This fact shouldn't compel us to ignore the problem of a woman playing a trans man. Rather, it should remind us how sexist the history of theatre is and how insensitive people have actually been to issues of equity and equality in the arts. Furthermore, a long tradition is not a good argument for continuing to ignore what is right and wrong. In actual fact there is also a very long history of white people playing racialized people in theatre (it goes back at least 600 years, maybe longer), but no one would use this as a justification for the use of black-face.

I am sure that there are many excellent trans male actors out there who would love to play this part. And the fact that the part has been given to a woman must surely be a reiteration of the marginalized status of trans people. Like indigenous people or African-Americans, trans people need to be given the space and support to tell their own story. It is sometimes a sad story full of pain and struggle, but it is an important one and one that can uplift us all as we seek to support any and all marginalized and oppressed group. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Autocrats, dictators, and our Dynastic age. . . .

It seems to me that one of the most troubling aspects of political culture is the remarkable tendency for autocrats and dictators to garner large amounts of public support regardless of how corrupt, or even murderous, they are. Even in my own lifetime I am sure I can think of a couple of dozen such autocrats who, no matter what they did to their nation or their own people, retain high levels of popular support. The big autocratic names in this kind of popular support are, of course, names like Hitler, Stalin, The Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos, the Perons, the Al-Assad family, Hastings Banda, Robert Mugabe, etc. Other than Al-Assad and Mugabe, I can think of a number of others who are still in power today like Duterte in the Philippines, Putin, Nazarbeyev in Kazakhstan, Karimov in Uzbekistan, etc. Social psychologists and political scientists have done lots of good work on this phenomenon, but making rational sense of something like this seldom helps us make emotional sense of it. It still, as the English say, beggers description. I want it all to make sense but no matter how much I know or understand about people and politics, I just can't quite wrap my head around it.

The Americans are in the midst of this phenomenon right now and it is just as bizarre and weird to me as it always is. Anyone with rational sense understands that Trump is an unhinged narcissist who, other than having little grasp on most other issues facing the US, simply doesn't have the temperament or basic skills for any job in which he has to be accountable, diplomatic, and consensus building. But all of that makes no difference to the fact that he is, in fact, president, he continues to be solidly popular with his base, and despite what we would like to think, it is very very difficult to remove a president from office (that is why it has never been done). Given Trump's narcissism, it is very unlikely that he will be, like Nixon, compelled to resign. And even if he is impeached by the House of Reps, it is very unlikely that the Senate will ever have 67 members that will be willing to actually force him from office. Thus it seems likely to me that we are looking at three and half more years of this. And given the popularity of autocrats and the fervency of Trump's base, I don't exclude the possibility that Trump could be reelected. We shouldn't overlook the dispiriting effect that four years could have on those who oppose Trump. And I think that this is one of the primary issues concerning the ability of autocrats to stay in power; after a while they just wear down the opposition and people lose faith in the possibility of change.

Political systems deteriorate over time because institutions atrophy, political classes become too professionalized or worse, dynastic. The deterioration of political culture results, or happens concurrently, with the breakdown of civil society. Democracy can only work or, more properly progress, with a thriving civil society. This is why Harper was so detrimental to Canadian democracy; he actively tried to shut down civil discourse and sabotage civil society. People like Harper and Trump do this by portraying any opposition media as an enemy of the people and the nation, they criticize judges or independent bodies that are meant to make government accountable, they defund education institutions and legal bodies that are meant to empower people, and (perhaps most importantly) they create an imaginary "liberal" elite, all the while promoting and strengthening the real, economic elite who pull society's strings.

I don't know where we go from here, and I am sure many Americans feel adrift on a threatening and stormy sea. The struggles for democracy, equality, justice, and civil society, are long historical struggles. As individuals, we can live nice long lives and still must realize that we are only bit players in this historical drama. The ebb and flow of tyranny and freedom is hard to measure. It makes me think of that analogy that they use in Good Will Hunting concerning the lifeline between two ships. Sometimes the swells of the ocean cause the person on the lifeline to lose sight of both ship, so you can't see where you have been or where you are going. Well, I think it is safe to say that we are between swells and waiting for the weather to clear at least a little.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

When John Dean accuses you of a "Cover-up," you've got a real Problem. . .

Few people have as intimate a knowledge of political cover-ups as counselor to Richard Nixon John Dean. If you haven't already seen it, watch as Dean describes the Trump presidency in full-on "cover-up" mode. There is little question in my mind now that Trump has already committed multiple impeachable offences, and that is without even touching collusion with the Russians, something that John Dean seems to think is becoming ever more clear. The only question now is whether the Republicans will choose Party over Country and the Rule of Law. Unfortunately, the answer to that is painfully obvious. Frankly, as cynical as I am, even I didn't think that a democracy like the US (imperfect by any standard but still just about holding on) could unravel this quickly.

The depth of the political crisis in the US can be seen in the effort to push through the so-called "Trump-care" bill. At the moment it looks like it will fail to pass the House, and even if they do get the seven votes or so that they need to swing it, it looks like it is dead on arrival in the Senate. But here's the thing, if Trump-care fails it will not be because Republican lawmakers have rejected it because it will take literally millions of people off of Medicaid, Medicare, and their insurance, but because the most conservative Republicans in the House (the tragically misnamed "Freedom Caucus") think that it gives TO MUCH to the poor, the sick, and the elderly. This is how bad the US political system has become; the party in power is rejecting a conservative, Trump-sponsored bill because it tries to take care of society's most vulnerable. (And, keep in mind, that these Congress Members who are upset because the Republican establishment is trying to care for people, all call themselves devout Christians!)

The real question that is haunting us today is not "will Trump be impeached?" or "will Trump cause a war?" or even "is Trump mentally unstable?" The real question is - how long can a society last hat is actively promoting detached, callousness toward its own vulnerable citizens?

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Trump is giving Rich, Corrupt, White men a Bad Name. . .

I find it very interesting that hundreds of Congressional hours (as well as the efforts of a special prosecutor) over a period of more than 20 years, were devoted to the Republican effort to discredit and indict the Clintons. And after all that effort the only thing anyone was able to find either of them guilty of was lying about having sex. Now, I don't think that the Clintons were entirely honest, but given the Republican's visceral hatred of them as well as the ideological drive of the Republican Party, I am certain that if there was any clear evidence of a crime, several indictments would have come down, even if those indictments had not led to guilty verdicts.

The thing that is most remarkable about recent events in Washington is that more suspicion and chaos surrounds Donald Trump's presidency after only a few weeks in office than surrounded the Clinton's over their whole political careers. The reason I think the comparison with the Clintons is interesting is not because I have any desire to defend them, but because the rightwing continues to be so vociferous in their attack on them for things that, when compared with Trump, make them look like a sweet retired church couple. Unlike the Clintons who often had a hostile congress to face, Trump has a bunch of sycophants who are desperate to either do his bidding or shelter him from prosecution so that they can use him to enact their despicable agenda.

Even before he came to office, Trump (unlike either of the Clintons) had a long history of legal misdeeds as well as bankruptcies used to shield him from his economic corruption. But the US is a deeply corrupt nation (both economically and politically), and I have little doubt that if Trump weren't so blatantly and offensively racist, misogynist, and just plain nasty, his present predicament would be considerably less dire. The rich (mostly white men) of Congress and the media are willing to overlook all sorts of malfeasance by their peers, as long as everyone plays nice.

But given how much bad-blood Trump has built up over the years, his malfeasance (much of which would otherwise fly under the radar) makes continual waves in the public sphere. The trail of Russian money and connections to Trump is actually shocking and beyond suspicious. And what makes it all more suspicious is the fact that Trump's dogged refusal to release his tax returns (which, if he had no Russian ties, would clear up much of his present problem) makes him look more than a little dodgy. Now, if you couple the known fact that the Russians were meddling in last year's elections, (something which they have been actively doing, like the US, for decades all over the globe) with the already known and suspected ties that a number of Trump's minions have had with Russia, it is really difficult not to draw conclusions about Trump's corruption. Now, I really think that people should keep in mind that if any type of collusion existed between the Trump campaign and the Russians, this is a scandal that would make Watergate look like a case of mistaken shoplifting of a Snickers Bar. Watergate was a relatively simple petty crime, breaking into an opponent's office to find clues about the political campaign. Here we are talking about collusion with a foreign, hostile and undemocratic power, to undermine a whole election. And in some senses we already know that collusion existed given that Trump had the gall to publicly call on the Russians to intervene by hacking computers in the US. Many people seem to forget that Trump's public request for Russia to hack emails in the US was a de facto criminal act on Trump's part.

I don't know what will happen over the next months and years. For all I know, the US system is so corrupt that Trump will continue to be able to hide behind the shield of government and limp from one scandal to another all the while enriching himself to the tune of tens of millions of dollars (which he has already made by charging the US government for him vacationing every weekend at his own country club). Perhaps the evidence will become too overwhelming even for his Republican lapdogs and Trump will face a real investigation and maybe even impeachment or prison (though that seems profoundly unlikely to me). But whatever happens, what the Trump debacle should remind all of us is that there is one standard for the rich, and one for all the rest of us and that wealthy white men can do almost anything and get away with it time after time.

As a small postscript, more signs of Trump's corruption have emerged in the past few days. This bizarre scandal is brought to you hear by the always interesting Rachael Maddow, and could be one of the big reasons that Trump is so afraid of any investigations. Having the president involved in this kind of thing has really reduced the US to a Banana Republic.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Smoke and Mirrors of the Right. . . .

If you view this video of Michael Moore appearing on CNN, you can see some of the confusion concerning what the Trump phenomenon really means. In this video Moore refers to Trump and his cadre as "economic nationalists." But then moments later he insists that they are trying to "deconstruct" or dismantle the government, and then he says that they are "anarchists." Now, it doesn't take a degree in political science to understand that these two positions are mutually exclusive, and I am sure that if Mr. Moore stopped and thought about it for a moment, he would realize the absurdity of the statement. However, it is easy to get caught up in the polemics of anti-Trump, and I thoroughly understand where Moore is coming from

However, what Moore's statement demonstrates is a general confusion concerning contemporary rightwing politics. It is confusing because the rightwing, as many commentators are beginning to observe (even many who are traditionally on the right), seem not to be a coherent ideology anymore, if it ever was. In Canada we saw this confusion begin to make its very public debut during the Harper years. The Harper government was continually flying off in every direction. One day they were using a pseudo-libertarian narrative and the next they were consolidating their power in secretive and nefarious ways. They continually talked about fiscal conservatism and ran deficit after deficit. They told voters that they were going to bring more prosperity to the nation but they made no serious investments in infrastructure, alternative energy, or the growth of new economic opportunities. They pretended to be interested in Canadian economic interests but they were eager to sell the whole country to foreign interests.

The confusion of rightwing ideology is not really that complicated. It derives in large part from the abject failure of the Neo-Liberal economic model that they have been pursuing for the last forty years or so. As it becomes clear that it is no longer credible to suggest that giving everything to the rich and corporations is somehow magically going to result in generalized prosperity, the right doesn't know where to turn. They need a diversion, a smokescreen that will allow them to continue to pursue their goals of wealth for wealthy. Thus the right begins to attempt to portray themselves as economic nationalists on the one had, and they begin to use traditional fear of immigrants and racialized groups on the other.

But of course, this veneer is far to thin to fool anyone who is paying attention. There is nothing "economically nationalistic" about Trump. Economic nationalists don't create lines of clothing that are all made overseas. Trump and his associates have always been devoted followers of Neo-Liberal economics. The entire narrative of "make America great again" is nothing but a political lie intended to garner the support of those who have suffered from 40 years of policies that they have, in fact, been supporting. Trump will, of course, make various gestures that suggest that he is standing up for American workers, but it will all be a smokescreen for the further sell-off of the US economy to big banks and foreign interests. In the meantime they will follow their real interests of weakening the government and selling off the economy to the highest bidder. And the way that they will attempt to maintain their populist following will be to continually whip up fear and anxiety concerning immigrants, refugees, racialized people, and foreign groups and nations.

In other words, when commentators like Andrew Coyne (a long supporter of the right in Canada) say that they right has lost it coherent ideological stance, at one level he is simply wrong. The right is after the same things it has always been after: more wealth for the rich, less wealth for the rest, and keeping average people ignorant, poor, and precarious so that they can't fight back. The only thing that is confused or confusing about the new-right is that they are scrambling for a way to reframe their same old goals, and while they are doing that it can seem contradictory and disorganized.

The irony in all of this is, of course, that Liberals in Canada, and the Democrats in the US, have been doing fine for a long time pursuing the exact same economic agenda as the right, but doing it while pretending to be concerned with the average people. The problem for the right is that the Liberals and the Democrats (and this goes for many other centrist parties in Europe) have paid at least a minimal lip-service to the interests of the working-class and so have not (up until now) suffered from the same apparent public contradiction. In other words, what has made the right so ferociously anti-centrist in the past couple of decades is not that the centrists aren't pursuing a Neo-Liberal agenda, rather its because the centrists have not destroyed the prosperity and power of the working and middles classes fast enough! In other words, in most Western democracies for the past forty years we have had a main rightwing party and a main ultra-rightwing party.

All you need in Countries like the US, Canada, Britain, and France, is enough people who are fooled by the smokescreens of a fake economic nationalism and a very real racist agenda, and the new-right will take us where they have always wanted; a place where a small group of rich people have almost all the wealth, the rest have nothing, and they blame racialized people for all their problems.

Michael Moore would do well to stop buying the fake economic nationalism of the Trump Administration and start talking about the real agenda.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Trump: from Cry-Baby populist to Paragon of the Establishment . .. .

Populist movements in Western democracies generally don't last long. Instead they usually morph quickly into their own version of the establishment. I think that the reason for the short lived populist aspect of a political movement is reasonably simple. Populist movements are expressions of anger, discontent, and fear rather than expressions of principle. When there is a welling up of fear and discontent, the conmen and shysters come out of the woodwork to take advantage of it because conmen look for easy marks, and when it comes to politics in particular, angry fearful people are easy prey. When these emotions take hold of people, they don't think straight. Instead, they look for people who sooth them, who provide easy answers to complex problems and make them feel like everything is going to be ok. Thus the followers of populist conmen are fervent in their belief and passionate in their commitment to their saviour. As a result of this combination of fervency and fear and anger motivated passion, populist leaders can basically do anything they want and their support will stay relatively steady for some time, as long as they keep spouting their simple, soothing message. In this regard, Trump's now infamous observation that it wouldn't hurt his popularity if went out on 5th Ave. and shot someone, is ominously revealing. The most diehard followers of a populist leader have zero interest in facts, and shockingly little interest in the actions of their leaders. This is because such followers are being feed the political equivalent of soma which puts them in a sort of trance, And as long as their leader proclaims the right trigger phrases, espousing simple ideas about how everything is going to be fixed and all the "bad stuff" and "bad hombres" will expunged, nothing else really matters.

Ironically, this is where populist movements tend to come unstuck. When a populist leader gets swept up in the adulation, even if their intentions were initially good (which they seldom are), they realize that they don't have to do any of the things that their followers want, or they only have to make minimal, often cosmetic efforts to maintain the drug-like trance in which they have put their followers. The problem is, of course, since most populist leaders are primarily interested in enriching themselves and their social/ideological allies at the highest level, they quickly become the establishment that they swept to power to oppose. Thus things don't really change, at least not for the better, and often for the worse. And when this happens, the soma trance wears off just enough people for the populist movement to lose its momentum and things become unstuck. One of the problems, of course, is that populist movements often leave in their wake a rightwing political establishment that can last for years.

This is precisely the scenario that played out in Canada. The populist movement known as the "Reform Party" swept into Ottawa with all sorts of populist promises, feeding off socially conservative ideas and white-privilege fears. The "Reformers" said that they wouldn't take the rich Parliamentary pensions, that they would allow all sorts of free votes in the House of Commons, they insisted that their leader would live in the luxurious housing due an opposition leader or a Prime Minster, and that they would enact legislation based upon its social popularity not based upon some niche interest group. All those commitments lasted about five minutes once the Reform leaders found themselves in the luxurious and complex world of actual legislative politics. But as the Reform movement burned, from the ashes was born an establishment party that enhanced and magnified the very things that people who supported the movement had rebelled against in the first place. So we were left with a party that was less interested in transparency than any government in history, ruled for a very small percentage of the population, was comically dishonest, lined their pockets and the pockets of friends like never before, and was more intrusively sinister than ever in people's personal lives.

 The reason that a political movement that started out of anger and claimed to be interested in more responsive and open government could quickly turn into its opposite is because of what we have come to know as "cry-baby conservatism."
Playing the victim is a integral part of modern day conservative parties and movements. Leaders like Harper and Trump continually harp on this idea that the establishment and the media is all against them and that they have to be mean and secretive and dictatorial because otherwise their opponents will win. And the cry-baby conservatives use this simple political strategy to consolidate their power and create a political machine that is often actively acting in ways that are contrary to their stated beliefs and those of their followers. Thus conservative followers in Canada barely noticed the irony when Conservative government cabinet members railed against the elites while at the same time riding in limousines to work. Similarly in the US we have a billionaire president with billionaire cabinet members who cry out against the establishment and have already instituted laws that will make them richer and the average person significantly poorer.

What is clear is that as the Trump movement progresses, the idea of "draining the swamp" and changing the political establishment will feature less and less in the Trumpian narrative. More and more of the Trump followers will accept the idea that the Trump government has to create their own establishment, their own "swamp" if you will, in order to overcome all those "liberal" and media forces that are arrayed against them. Thus people will accept much greater corruption and criminality, than they witnessed in those they initially sought to replace. As I said at the beginning, this is because the followers of leaders like Trump, are not motivated by a principled stance for better, more responsible, democratic, and transparent government. Rather, they are whipped up by anger and fear of a changing world.

Of course, as the populist aspect of the Trump phenomenon wanes, many will come out of the political trance and realize that they have been had and this may result in a significant shift in a different political direction. Either way, the populist movement will be dead. The only question is, will it leave in its wake a political establishment that is able to hold on to power for a while or will it, with its criminality and corruption, undermine the delusional state that brought it to power in the first place, thus causing a kind of counter rebellion?

Friday, February 10, 2017

The White House Inc. (a division of Trump Enterprises) . . .

I think that one of the most fascinating aspects of the Trump presidency thus far is the general confusion that is generated by the blurring of lines between the private and the public (or one might say "strictly" political) aspects of the Trump White House. I think that many mainstream politicos (in both parties) assumed to some degree that once Trump took the oath of office, his tendency to blur those lines, which had been one of the most marked aspects of Trump the campaigner, would abate someone and that the Americans would still have a so-called "commander in chief." Not only has this abatement not occurred but the lines between the personal aspects of Trump and his family (and his minions) has become almost inextricable from the office of the president.

This blurring of lines has been on full display in the last few days, particularly in the fallout from the decision by Nordstrom, an up-market retail chain, to stop selling Ivanka Trump's line of clothing and accessories. This decision incensed the president, and what incenses the president must necessarily anger his minions too. Thus on Thursday morning, presidential advisor and spokes-demon Kellyanne Conway, appeared on Fox News and as she spoke with reporters about the Nordstrom decision she took a moment to explicitly and shamelessly plug Ivanka's clothing line, telling Americans to "Go buy Ivanka's stuff." Well, this little plug is a clear violation of the US Code of Federal Regulations (Specifically 2365.702) which states that "An employee shall not use his public office for private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service of enterprise." Ms. Conway's endorsement, one might even say promotion, of Ivanka Trump's products is such a gross violation of a fairly simple CFR code that it seems almost comical if it weren't so terribly sordid.

The lines of personal and political blurred further when Donald Trump himself used Twitter to disparage Nordstrom for its business decision. Trump had Tweeted on Wednesday morning, telling us that his "daughter Ivanka has been treated unfairly" by Nordstrom, and that she is "a great person." This Tweet is arguably also a violation of the same CFR code, though a more ambiguous one. What is most startling, however, is the degree to which this has already become the new normal. The idea of a President using personal time and presidential power to publicly argue about a business decision that financially impacts his daughter is totally amazing. And the silence on the part of congressional Republicans is deafening in this regard. If President Obama had issued such a Tweet concerning a family member of his, the impeachment hearing would have already begun.

But specific ethics code violations and impeachment issues aside, this blurring of the lines of the political and the personal at the very top of the US government should be deeply troubling to anyone. Of course, politicians (particularly executive one) are able to routinely enrich their friends and associates through public appointments. This phenomenon is so rife that even in the most tightly controlled democracies it seems almost impossible to stop. And after politicians leave elected office they commonly enrich themselves through things like paid speaking engagements etc. However, with the Trump administration the US has now entered the realm of the "banana republic" or modern autocratic nations like Russia in which wildly unqualified political donors are rewarded with federal cabinet positions, the President's children have found their way into the highest level international meetings, the President continues to have his hand in business processes directly affected by government decisions, the President is attempting to delegitimize other branches of government, and he and his minions are actually using their positions to directly promote the financial interests of the Trump family. And and troubling as these facts are, they don't even touch upon the way that the Trump administration has made lying a matter of course. And we are not talking about traditional political "spin" here, we are talking about simple, readily verifiable, falsehoods. The cult of personality that has so defined the autocracies and dictatorships of the past century has truly come to roust in Washington.

And if the US (and the rest of us) survives the Trump era intact, it seems clear that democracy has been severely (if not mortally) wounded in the process. Once the line between personal and public interests has become so blurred is very hard to see clearly again.