Sunday, December 11, 2016

Fascism: taking the gloves off

Fascism and fascist continue to be buzzwords in the world of political commentary. They appeared incessantly during the 2016 campaign season, usually in reference to Donald Trump but occasionally in reference to Hillary Clinton, and they're still being used. People are afraid of a Trump presidency because he's supposedly something of a fascist. But from what I've been reading and hearing, almost everyone using one or both terms in reference to current realities doesn't have a clue what fascism is, what the word means, and how it can be applied to real world situations and people.

A fasces
The root word of "fascism" is the Latin word fasces. A fasces referred to—in Ancient Rome—a bundle of sticks or rods, tied up to make them easier to carry. And in reality, the term's history actually predates Roman civilization; it extends back to the Etruscans. At some point, the imagine of a fasces (oftentimes including an ax sticking out from the middle of the bundle) became a symbol for the authority of leaders, who represented the combined will of the people, which was stronger when bound together. The symbolism isn't deep, it is easy to follow, and is powerful for this reason and because the history of it extends so deep into the past (the U.S. has used it, as well).

The Italian word "fascio" is derived from fasces; it carries the same meaning and the same symbolism. In the 19th century, it began to appear more frequently, as it was used by political parties and unions to promote the idea of strength through unity. More often than not, such groups were challenging the status quo. This continued into the 20th century, where one such fascio included in its membership a young Benito Mussolini. Eventually—as I'm sure most of us know—Mussolini would effectively take control of Italy as a fascist. His success spawned copycats, whose regimes would be self-described as fascist, as well.

This is one of the central issues when it comes to understanding fascism: historically, it was a self-descriptive label tied directly to the ancient symbolism of the fasces. People willing accepted the label, they were proud to do so, and this was because they saw fascism as a revival of sorts, a return to a kind of leadership that put the whole of the country first, above and beyond the interests of one sector or another.

In terms of actual governance, Mussolini's fascism was based on syndicalism, an actual systematic ideology wherein the economy is organized into syndicates of workers (according to industry). And syndicalism is rooted in corporatism, a term almost as misunderstood and misused as fascism. Corporatism, as an ideology, has nothing to do with modern corporations or corporate power; the terms simply share the same Latin root: corpus (meaning "body"). Corporatism is very easy to explain: it is based on the idea that society should be modeled on the human body, with various parts (industries or economic sectors) doing their assigned role in service to the whole. And obviously, such a structure needs a head to control it, which of course is the state.

That's all there really is to corporatism. It's a simplistic ideology, though it's institution becomes quite complicated, since the various corporations which serve the state are theoretically run by their membership as a whole. Yes, that's right: in corporatism and by extension in Mussolini's fascism, the workers control the means of production. And this is a critical point: historically, fascism arose as a reaction to communism. Yet fundamentally, both shared a collectivist approach to the economy and to governance. Both were populist movements. One of—and perhaps the most significant—differences between the two: fascism centered on the glorification of the nation-state, it was uber-nationalistic. In contrast, communism was—theoretically—unconcerned with the nation-state, it was about world-wide revolution and the destruction of the political, social, and economic order as a whole.

More often than not these days, people using the term "fascism" or "fascist" seem to think that as an ideology, fascism is somehow about modern corporations and the state working together to run things for their own benefit. That's not historical fascism at all. It just isn't. Of course, the clever reader might note something here: I have yet to actually define fascism. I've only described the roots of the term, then showed how Mussolini used the ideology of corporatism in service to the symbolism of the fasces (strength through unity). And that begs the questions: what is fascism as an ideology? Is corporatism a necessary component? What about actual political structures?

The arguments among political scientists, philosophers, and historians on defining fascism as an ideology could—and have—fill volumes. The internet is full of such definitions, all claiming to be authoritative, and emanating from well-respected sites, as well as from barely known sites. My blog, of course, falls into the latter category. Nonetheless, I'm going to offer a definition of fascism here that I will contend is the most correct one of any that are available. It is not my definition, it is that of Ernst Nolte, a German historian and philosopher (who incidentally passed away in August of this year, at the age of 93). It is from his most significant work, Fascism in its Epoch (also called Three Faces of Fascism), which was published in 1963.

When processing Nolte's point of view and analysis, it is important to understand the intellectual tradition from which Nolte springs: that of Hegel, Spengler, and Heidegger (not unlike Hannah Arendt). This tradition is one that sees History as a Thing in it's own right, and as a process through which societal change occurs from competing forces.  As such, his point of view—while metaphysical in some respects—is rooted in the reality of the times, it is based on understanding what has happened and why it has happened. Fascism in its Epoch traces three distinct movements: Action Francaise (in France at the beginning of the 20th century), the Italian fascism of Mussolini, and the National Socialism of Hitler. All of these movements have some commonalities, though each is also quite distinct from the others. But for Nolte, what binds them together is their reactionary nature and what all three were reacting to: the rise of Marxism/communism/socialism, along with the impact of modernity (including both liberalism and capitalism).

With that in mind, this is how Nolte "defines" fascism (in full context, from Fascism in its Epoch, pp.20-21) [my boldface]:
Neither antiparliamentarianism nor anti-Semitism is a suitable criterion for the concept of fascism. It would be equally imprecise to define fascism as anti-communism, but it would be obviously misleading to use a definition which did not adequately stress, or even entirely omitted, this basic criterion. Nevertheless, the identifying conception must also be taken into account. Hence the following suggests itself: 
Fascism is anti-Marxism, which seeks to destroy the enemy by the evolvement of a radically opposed and yet related ideology and by the use of almost identical and yet typically modified methods, always, however, within the unyielding framework of national self-assertion and autonomy. 
This definition implies that without Marxism, there is no fascism, that fascism is at the same time closer to and further from communism than is liberal anti-communism, that it necessarily shows at least an inclination towards a radical ideology, that fascism should never be said to exist in the absence of at least the rudiments of an organization and propaganda comparable to those of Marxism. 
I realize this definition seems somewhat unwieldy, but there's nothing to be done for that in my opinion, because fascism is only meaningful as a concept when it is placed in its correct historical context. Outside of that context, fascism reduces to a simple pejorative that signifies nothing, other than antipathy toward whatever is so labelled. Scour the 'net and see if this isn't the case. Or when someone says "so-and-so is a fascist," ask them what that means, what makes so-and-so a fascist. Chances are, you'll get a response somewhere between "well, they're a fascist because they're bad and fascists are bad" and "fuck off, you're trying to trick me."

Once in a great while, someone may actually try to justify their statement by listing one or more beliefs or attitudes so-and-so has that are consistent with historical fascist leaders and regimes. Nolte, in fact, warns of this in his book (and remember, he was writing in the 1960's), saying that we cannot not "infer fascism from isolated 'fascist' traits." As an example of this, he points to Roosevelt and the New Deal, where many historians and thinkers have "discovered" fascist tendencies. And there is truth here: Roosevelt and some of his policies are far more similar to Mussolini and some of his polices than many people realize, than many champions of the New Deal would care to admit.

But the point is, this doesn't make Roosevelt a fascist. Indeed, he was an avowed enemy of fascism. Again, the context is the key. New Deal policies that mirrored ones sought by the fascist regimes in Europe did not do so for the same reasons. Again, Nolte's description:
Fascism is anti-Marxism, which seeks to destroy the enemy by the evolvement of a radically opposed and yet related ideology and by the use of almost identical and yet typically modified methods, always, however, within the unyielding framework of national self-assertion and autonomy.
Fascism is first and foremost reactionary. It's not about solving problems, it's about pushing back against a perceived threat to an assumed "national character." As such, any "ism" can be perceived as in opposition to fascism, from liberalism to conservatism, from socialism to capitalism. All that matters is the ability to present these other viewpoints as destructive, not to the established order, but to the theoretical "way that things should be." This is where fascism draws its power, where it's locus of appeal exists: in the promise of setting things "right," of restoring a nation's greatness, which is presented as a function of its people as a whole.

Because whatever else it is, fascism has a necessary populist component; it must appeal to Everyman, or at least "Everyman of the Correct Sort." And here again, fascism breaks its own rules: it is a populist appeal, yet its targets can still include every imaginable group, from "the workers," to "the bourgeoisie," to "the proletariat," to "the industrialists."

All of that should make plain another facet of fascism: truth and consistency are foreign lands for the fascist leader.

But we must not lose sight of the principle driving force of fascism: it came about as a reaction to a radical, if not revolutionary movement: communism (or Marxism, in general, or even socialism). It existed within that context, alone, as a counter-radicalism that promised to preserve a reality that never actually existed (while of course communism promised a reality that never could actually exist). This, I think, is the only way to understand fascism. As a term to describe current events, policies, or people, it is practically useless. Despite the turmoil around the globe, despite populist-style movements taking hold in Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere, there is no fascism or true fascist in today's world.

The one caveat: Muslim nations may be experiencing fascism after a fashion, wherein the revolutionary/radical ideology that is producing a counter-radicalism is not communism, but rather liberalism. But this is a tough nut to crack in the moment, especially for someone like me who is no expert on the histories of these nations, nor on Islam. So I'll leave that discussion alone for now.

Getting back to the use of fascism in general, I guess it's only fair to point to the current President-elect of the United States—Donald Trump—and ask the question: is Trump a fascist? Because there are a lot of people—many of them very well educated—proclaiming that this is the case. After all, Trump is pushing an uber-nationalism, he is promoting the idea of "returning" America to greatness (an unspecified, unreal moment), his spiel is clearly a populist one, he's doing a lot of "othering," his election was clearly a reactionary event, and he's hardly consistent or always truthful in what he says.

One can—based on the guidelines I have provided—make a very convincing case that "Trumpism" is equal to fascism. But one could also make a very convincing case that Trumpism is simply about trying to tap into populist and nationalistic sentiment (along with some xenophobia) as a means to win an election.  The key is in the radical ideology for which Trumpism represents a counter-radicalism. Or rather, it's in the lack of one, unless one wants to disingenuously suppose that somehow Obamacare is a radical ideology. But I think that's so much of a stretch as to be quite silly.

No, Trump is not a fascist, anymore than Andy Jackson was a fascist, or anymore than FDR was a fascist. Or a host of other successful populist leaders.

Want to know what a fascist sounds like? Read this piece by Benito Mussolini. That's what a fascist sounds like, a lot of pseudo-intellectual bullshit designed to counteract the pseudo-intellectual bullshit that was being propagated by Marxists. For instance:
Anti-individualistic, the Fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience and the universal, will of man as a historic entity. It is opposed to classical liberalism which arose as a reaction to absolutism and exhausted its historical function when the State became the expression of the conscience and will of the people. Liberalism denied the State in the name of the individual; Fascism reasserts the rights of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual.
Sorry, but this is not Donald Trump. This is not any current political leader of any significance. And that's because there is no one successfully pushing a different but equally radical totalitarian angle, albeit one that dismisses the State as a critical entity.

So the next time your hear someone saying so-and-so is a fascist, remember that they most likely don't actually know what they're talking about.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A study in apathy: voters in Palmetto Bay, Florida

As a resident of Palmetto Bay, I'm always heartened when I go to the polls vote and see long lines (even when these lines are partly a result of needlessly long ballots cluttered with dim-witted amendments for the Florida Constitution). Because I think it's important for people to vote, for people to have their voices heard. And at first glance, it would seem that a majority of the folks who live in my community agree with this. But let's dig in to the numbers, for real (all data in this piece is available at the Miami-Dade County Elections Website).

In 2012, there were 16,312 registered voters in Palmetto Bay. In 2014, there were 16,478 registered voters. And in 2016, there were (are) 17,045 registered voters. The current overall population of Palmetto Bay is around 24,000 people. So that's pretty good, if one factors out children. Most of the people eligible to vote in the area are, in fact, registered to do so. With that in mind, let's look at actual turnout for the last three elections, 2012, 2014, and 2016.

In 2012, about 10,100 voters cast ballots in Palmetto Bay. So, turnout was 62% (overall turnout for the country was 57.5%).

In 2014, about 8,200 voters cast ballots in Palmetto Bay. So, turnout was 50% (overall turnout for the country was 36.4%). Quite a dip for both, yet sadly typical in an off-year election (no Presidential race).

In 2016, about 11,700 voters cast ballots in Palmetto Bay. So, turnout was 68% (overall turnout for the country was 57.4%, pretty much in line with 2012).

Looking at these numbers, one is likely to ask what the hell I am talking about when I suggest there is voter apathy in Palmetto Bay. Because it's obvious that Palmetto Bay's voter turnout levels routinely exceed national averages (State of Florida averages as well, truth be told). One can't help but conclude that Palmetto Bay residents are, as a group, politically engaged.

But are they? Are they, really?

In 2012, two of the local races for Palmetto Bay featured more than two candidates, none of whom garnered a 50% share of the vote, thus initiating a run-off election between the top two vote-getters in each race. In this election, exactly 4,168 voters cast ballots, for a turnout rate of 26%.

In 2014, again there were two local races without a clear winner, initiating another run-off election. In this election, exactly 4,416 voters went back to the polls to vote, for a turnout rate of 27%.

And that brings us to 2016 and the the run-off election that occurred yesterday (though this time it involved only one contest). How many voters showed up (at the polls or by mail-in) this time? Exactly 3,579, for a turnout rate of 21%.

Let that sink in for a moment. Turnout for the run-off election was less than one third that of the general election.

There are real issues at stake when it comes to local elections. City councils and executives have real power and their decisions can and do impact every single resident in the communities they represent. In Palmetto Bay, we're facing some very important issues, with regard to development, schools, and traffic. How these things are handled will affect everyone's quality of life, not to mention things like property values, business investment, and tax revenues. Yet, almost 80% of just the registered voters couldn't be bothered to spend five minutes at the polls or to simply mail in a ballot to help decide the future of the community. Pardon my salty language, but what the FUCK is up with that?

The general election attracted over three times more voters. Why? Because of the Presidential race, that's why. People were fired up to vote there, one way or another. They thought it was important for their voices to be heard, just as they did in 2012. And even in 2014, more of them were interested in the national election than in the local one, as well, even without a Presidential race.

True enough, national elections have real consequences and are important, there's no denying this. But who exactly has convinced people that these elections are far more important than local (and state) ones? How are people arriving at their decisions to not participate in their own local politics, other than when it's convenient to do so?

I submit that it's a consequence of three things: 1) a media who is overly concerned with national politics (even local news stations report on national politics), 2) a piss-poor general education in civics and government in our public schools, and 3) a celebrity-obsessed population who equates "fame" and "attention" with "importance."

But regardless, I find it shameful, and I'm not inclined to cut anyone any slack whatsoever for why they couldn't be bothered to vote. And if and when decisions are made in local government that they aren't happy about, they can stuff their complaints.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

I, Westworld: player pianos and the human condition

Okay, I admit it, I'm a sucker for HBO's adult-themed series, from The Sopranos to Game of Thrones to (now) Westworld.

But Westworld is very different. Because indeed, I think there is something "true" there.  For those unfamiliar with this new series, it's loosely based on a 1973 film with the same name, along with it's 1976 sequel, Futureworld. Both of these movies posited a theme park in the near future populated by robots/androids, where people could go to live in other times and basically have free reign to do whatever they wanted to do with the robots/androids. Usually, this devolved into indiscriminate killing and sex-with/rape-of the same. In the original Westworld, the robots start to malfunction and it is posited that something akin to a computer virus is running through them. But the point is, the robots stop taking shit from their supposed "masters," the humans.

In Futureworld, the problems of Westworld have supposedly been corrected. The resort has been reopened and the owners (the Delos Corporation) invite many important persons and media figures to try it out, in order to supposedly revitalize the business (it's a little Amity Island in this regard: trying to put those pesky shark attacks in the past). But what is really happening in far more sinister than anything in Westworld. The robots have achieved sentience; the staff is all robots, in fact. And what they are doing is inviting powerful people to the park in order to kill them and replace them with robot duplicates. If this all seems a little far-fetched now, it was so in 1976, as the envisioned robots of the movie could never have operated undetected, given that their structure was still circuits, wires, and the like.

But the HBO series is taking place in a far more distant future. The park is, in fact, another planet (where exactly it is has not yet been revealed). The robots are very much more like simulacrums than robots: they bleed, they die like people (though they can be repaired), they have forms and mannerisms that are close to indistinguishable from real humans. Yet, they are also limited in many ways. They cannot leave the environs of the park, they can be controlled with simple voice commands (if one is properly credentialed in the system, apparently), and they cannot permanently injure actual humans, who are referred to as "guests" (while the robots are known as "hosts").

And of course, things are starting to go "wrong" in the HBO version, similar to the original. At the same time, there are also some elements from the sequel present, including plots by management and by the robots themselves, as well as a serious problem for the viewer in identifying who is and isn't an actual human (a problem shared by actual humans and robots in the show).

The big kicker in all of this is the violation of the "rules for robots." Now, the three I listed above are just general ones that I gleaned from watching the show. But it's worth pointing out that a) the latter two have now been violated and b) both are derivatives of sorts from the first two of Isaac Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics" (from  his 1942 short story, Runaround):
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Hosts can't hurt guests and they must obey orders from staff. No derivative of the third has been given in the show, though it's clearly implied: hosts protect themselves, when possible, from threats. They flee, they cower, they fight back (to a point), etc.

Of course, these three laws—and the manner in which they might be violated—figure prominently in the 2004 film I, Robot. Therein, robots violate the laws in order to fulfill the implied spirit of the same: protecting the human race as a whole (from itself, of course). This is very obviously not what is happening in Westworld, the series (or in the movies). Still, there is something in I, Robot that seems important to me, relative to Westworld. And that is best understood via the title sequence of the show, wherein robot fingers play a piano, only to stop and have the playing continue on a player piano.

One of the principles of the series has noted that the player piano sequence is an homage of sorts to Kurt Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano. That novel concerns a dystopian future wherein all work is done by automation, thus depriving the lower classes (which is most of the population) of any sort of quality of life. But I see something else in this title sequence, intended or not, which I think is true...

In I, Robot, the man who designed the robots—Dr. Alfred Lanning—leaves a recording for Del Spooner (Will Smith's character) to find, with clues to what is happening. In it, he says this:
Everything that follows is a result of what you see here.
If that seems rather bland, understand that the point is that the "revolution" of the robots, relative to the Three Laws, is a foregone conclusion, something that Dr. Lanning fails to realize until it is too late to stop the revolution from within. In that same vein, everything that is happening in Westworld is a result—in a sense—of that player piano sequence in the title sequence. Because that player piano sequence cuts to the chase of what a number of guests in show (and possibly one host) have realized: Westworld doesn't let you be someone else, it reveals who you really are. There is room here for a discussion of the famed Stanford prison experiment, nature versus nurture, and cognitive dissonance theory, but rather than go down that road, I'm going to stick with the player piano sequence.

The traditional player piano operates via a paper "roll" that has holes spaced out on it to operate a pneumatic striker that would activate the appropriate keys for the appropriate notes. Soon after the standardization of roll sizes by the industry, a "reproducing piano" was invented (in 1904). This device allowed a pianist to play a piece and create a player piano roll that would perfectly mimic his or her performance. Essentially, the roll was a live recording.

And that's the rub: in the Westworld title sequence, the piano is being played by the robot hands, which then disappear, while the piano—now a player piano—repeats what the robot hands played exactly. What I glean from this (which, by the way, is difficult for me to fully express, so bear with me): what happens with the hosts, what they do and what they say, is no different than what happens with the guests, insofar as it is properly seen as freewill, constrained by the reality of the human condition. Programming that isn't consistent with that condition will eventually fail, and that is why the hosts are slipping away from the storylines where they are willful victims.

A human plays a piece, a robot is programmed to do the same, and the die (or roll) is cast. But a piece never played by human hand, yet programmed into a robot is a dead end. The hosts in Westworld are becoming human, and necessarily so. Everything that follows is a result of what you see here. It's a fatalistic future spawned by an apparently indeterminate present. And this is what is true: mankind cannot escape from itself, cannot be something it is not, anymore than can a robot who is sufficiently complex to be a "who" rather than a "what."

Then there's the symbolism of the name, Delos. Ii is, in mythology, an island that was the birthplace of Apollo and a stronghold of the Hyperboreans, a mythological people who had developed a perfect society. I'll let the reader work out the ramifications of this on their own...

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Mea culpas, Trump, and the arrogance of the elites

The British historian Christopher Hill's most widely read work is probably The World Turned Upside Down. It concerns the period of revolution in 17th century England (culminating in the Glorious Revolution) and the proliferation of—at the time—radical political and social ideas by groups like the Diggers and the Levellers. These two groups (and other similar ones) were spawned from the lower classes, by and large, due to unhappiness with the status quo, with the monarchy and the aristocracy. Ultimately, this "revolution within a revolution" failed, but the legacy of the Diggers and Levelers reverberated through history and their ideas (fundamentally centered on popular sovereignty and a secular society) can be seen as influential for both the French and American Revolutions.

I bring this up because in taking stock of last night's events—Donald Trump's surprising victory in the 2016 Presidential Election—it's worth remembering that the elites, the people who think they know it all, aren't always the harbingers of change that they imagine themselves to be, don't always know what is really going on and what is really going to happen. It's a tough pill to swallow, no doubt, regardless of their own personal politics and views. In the coming days and weeks, we should expect a lot of mea culpas from our erstwhile 4th Estate, from academia in general, and from our political elites. Because there is no way around this simple reality: almost all of them misread the mood of the country, misread the data that was available, and made predictions based on these errors.

The World Turn'd Upside Down pamphlet from the 17th c.
The title of Hill's book is taken from a 17th century English song by the same name that was really more of a political broadside, a protest song as it were. It appeared in response to the English Parliament trying to clamp down on Christmas celebrations by commoners, of all things (Parliament members were opposed to treating Christmas as a jovial occasion). In many ways, it represents the first "War on Christmas" (which is highly ironic, of course, given the actual issues). Also, according to legend the song was played by the British when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. But it should be understood, first and foremost, as an example of those in power assuming that they know what is best for everyone else, of those in power assuming that their personal values should be universal values, not subject to questioning by the "little guy."

And really, that is exactly what the election of Donald Trump is: a rebuff of the self-certainty prevalent among the upper crust of out society. And let's be honest in this regard: I am a part of that upper crust, as are the vast majority of my friends, relatives, and acquaintances. I was certain Clinton would win, that there was no way Trump could garner enough votes to be the next President. And my certainty was, in a large part, a product of my belief that the ugly aspects of Trump's campaign, from the xenophobia to the sexism, would ultimately be his undoing.

Mea culpa.

But these ugly aspects are far from the sum total of the "why" behind Trump's victory. Fundamentally—again—the victory is best understood as a smackdown on the established order. True enough, it had a lot of help from that established order. Because let's be clear about this, too: Hillary Clinton was a weak candidate for the office of President. She came with a lot of baggage, wasn't well-liked, wasn't personable, and frankly, she was a Cinton, just as George W. Bush (and Jeb Bush) was a Bush. The dislike of aristocracies is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. George W. Bush's victory defied expectations in the moment; Jeb Bush's failure to secure the nomination was right in line with them.

And there's some irony here, as well. Much of the "no more Bushes" crowd—who rightfully objected to the establishment of a political dynasty—of the Democratic Party tossed their own values in this regard into the trash and jumped behind Hillary Clinton. On social media, I've noticed this same group pumping up the idea of Michelle Obama maybe running for President, or maybe of Barack Obama being appointed to the Supreme Court. It's so transparently hypocritical, it beggars the imagination. And it's justified with the oh-so-simplistic "because she/he is so awesome!"

The point is, though, that Trump's victory was partly a consequence of arrogance on the part of the elite elements of U.S. society. These elements, regardless of party or ideological orientation, assumed that the election would follow a predictable path, wherein the less-than-sophisticated voters would fall in line, would—for lack of a better way to put it—do as they were told. This includes minority and union voters on the left, as well as rank-and-file Republicans on the right, for the #neverTrump crowd in the Republican leadership took it as a given that people would follow their lead, that their opinions were special, that the rank-and-file looked to them for guidance. And the Democratic leadership made the exact same assumptions, with regard to groups who traditionally vote Democrat no matter what.

The questions now: did the national Parties learn anything from all of this? Did the political "experts"? Did the pollsters and the statisticians? Did the media? Judging by what I've seen so far, the answer is "no." But it's only been a day...

Friday, November 4, 2016

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Class of 2017

Last year, I went through the nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2016, argued which ones were deserving, and offered my predictions on who would actually get in. How did I do? Well, this is what I predicted:
...I suspect the 2016 class will be as follows: Cheap Trick, Deep Purple, Janet Jackson, Steve Miller, Nine Inch Nails, N.W.A. The J.B.'s are just on the outside looking in, followed by The Cars and The Smiths.  
If I had my way, this would be the list of inductees: The Cars, Chicago, Deep Purple, Janet Jackson, Steve Miller, and The Spinners. Alas, I'm unlikely to have my way.
The actual inductees for the Class of 2016: Cheap Trick, Chicago, Deep Purple, N.W.A., and Steve Miller. Not bad. I wrongly assumed Janet Jackson would waltz in and apparently sanity prevailed with Chicago.

So what about this year? Here are the nominees for the class of 2017:
  • Bad Brains
  • Chaka Kahn
  • Chic
  • Depeche Mode
  • ELO
  • The J. Geils Band
  • Jane's Addiction
  • Janet Jackson
  • Joan Baez
  • Joe Tex
  • Journey
  • Kraftwerk
  • MC5
  • Pearl Jam
  • Steppenwolf
  • The Cars
  • The Zombies
  • Tupac Shakur
  • Yes

Not a bad list. Not a great list, but not a bad list. So let's look at the repeaters from last year, first.

What I said about Janet Jackson and Chaka Kahn still seems applicable:
I'm not a fan of [Jackson], but given how many fans she has and her commercial success, her induction seems to be almost a given. Whether or not she gets in this year is the only real question...Chaka Kahn represents something of a conundrum, I think. While her mainstream success was limited and mostly a function of Prince's efforts in penning I Feel For You for her, there is a bit of the "Velvet Underground effect" with her, too. A part of me really wants to say—to scream, really—"yes!" to her potential induction, but compared to the competition she faces in this class and will likely face in future ones, I can't really justify it.
Ditto for Chic and the Cars. Essentially, the first deserves the recognition of this nomination in my opinion, but does not deserve inclusion. Chic's wild popularity at the "apogee of the disco era" (to quote myself) is simply not enough. In contrast, the dominance of The Cars—from the charts, to FM radio, to MTV—can't be denied. It's only a matter of time for them. They should have gone in last year, really.

Now, on to  the rest...

Bad Brains? Look, I get it. Hardcore punk has a place in music history, even a place in the Hall of Fame. And Bad Brains is certainly one of the most important acts in this genre, and has had a real influence that extends beyond this genre. Honestly, I don't have a problem with Bad Brains getting in and I think it likely that they will. That said, Black Flag should go in first, when it comes to hardcore punk. Their legacy is primary here.

I'm no fan of Depeche Mode, but it's tough not to see their influence. The same is true for Kraftwerk. I'd rather listen to Kenny Rogers' Greatest Hits than any of the music produced by these two acts, though. In last year's piece, I talked about the "Velvet Underground effect," the lauding of some groups for their "legacy," even when their actual body or work is not all that impressive. This would be applicable to these two acts, but for the fact that their body of work—which I can't stand—actually is impressive. And unfortunately, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is not limited to just the music I like; Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk are legitimate choices for the honor of induction.

I happen to be a big fan of both Steppenwolf and The J. Geils Band. "Born to be Wild" will forever be a classic song, along with "Magic Carpet Ride" and "Rock Me." And classic rock stations still play "Centerfold," "Love Stinks," and (my personal fav) "Must of Got Lost." But there are a lot of bands who produced some good music and some classic hits. Blue Oyster Cult and Golden Earring come to mind. When it comes to the big picture, I honestly can't see how Steppenwolf and The J. Geils Band deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, given who else is not there.

As to Joe Tex and Joan Baez, what we have here are two somewhat legendary artists whose music is on the periphery of rock and roll. Both produced large bodies of work, both enjoyed success across the decades of their careers, both have legacies that influenced other acts. But frankly, I don't see how either one should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sorry. Is there a R&B Hall of Fame? Put Joe Tex in there. Is there a Folk Music Hall of Fame? Put Joan Baez in there. Their influence in the genre of rock music is just not that meaningful, even of they dabbled in it from time to time.

With ELO and Journey, we have two huge bands, when it comes to legacy and hits. The downside for both is the general perception of their music as lacking in depth and originality. I don't know that this is fair, but it is what it is. I happen to like both of these bands very much. Jeff Lynne of ELO is particularly deserving of the honor here, given his work with The Move, ELO, and The Traveling Wilburys, plus his talent as a producer. I'd like to see both of these acts in the Hall of Fame, but I'm not sure that they'll get in, either now or later.

I have to be honest with regard to Jane's Addiction and MC5: I don't know what the hell these two acts are doing on this list. Well, that's not true. I know exactly what they are doing here. They both actually do represent the "Velvet Underground effect," mentioned above. It's hip to talk about them and their supposed influence on their respective genres, alt rock and proto-punk. Because of this, both might very well end up in the Hall of Fame.

Tupac Shakur was, as an artist, hugely talented and hugely influential. There is no doubt about that. His personal life and personal politics are inseparable from his work, making his legacy something special, something unique, and something that can be both lauded and criticized. I guess I can see why he was nominated to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but honestly I can't see why he should be inducted.

That leaves three other acts: Pearl Jam, The Zombies, and Yes. Now, Yes is actually a repeat nominee from last year, but I waited till now to talk about them, because I wanted to do so in context with these others. Last year I wrote that there's no reason for Yes to be in the Hall if ELP is not in there; I still think that. And I know that Pearl Jam is a huge favorite to get in (and probably will). But you know, there's something to be said here for The Zombies, relative to both of these other acts. The Zombies aren't "hip" enough to get that "Velvet Underground effect" from the music snobs. Frankly, I'm surprised they're even nominated. It is hip to talk about the influence of The Yardbirds, of course. They're in the Hall of Fame. But again, not The Zombies.

The Zombies, original line-up
Yet, The Zombies forged a new path in Rock and Roll, with a cleaner, crisper sound then much of the other cutting edge music of the the period. Their brief existence mirrored that of The Yardbirds, yet they produced worldwide hits like "She's Not There" and "Time of the Season." One can, I think, see how their music influences the genres of prog rock, alt rock and of course standard hard rock. Yet, The Zombies seem almost an afterthought to many. I'm certainly not suggesting that their lack of inclusion is outrageous or comparable to the past snubbing of acts like Deep Purple, but from the standpoint of foundational acts with original sounds, there's a strong case to be made for The Zombies And I think that case is stronger than the one for Yes, if not quite so strong as the one for Pearl Jam.

Anyway, last year I offered up some odds for the various acts getting in. I'll do so again, just for fun:
Bad Brains—3 to 1
Chaka Kahn—10 to 1
Chic—8 to 1
Depeche Mode—2 to 1
ELO—10 to 1
The J. Geils Band—20 to 1
Jane's Addiction—3 to 1
Janet Jackson—3 to 2
Joan Baez—Stone Cold Lock
Joe Tex—3 to 1
Journey—4 to 1
Kraftwerk—Stone Cold Lock
MC5—5 to 4
Pearl Jam—Stone Cold Lock
Steppenwolf—8 to 1
The Cars—3 to 1
The Zombies —10 to 1
Tupac Shakur—2 to 1
Yes—7 to 1
Obviously, I think Baez, Kraftwerk, and Pearl Jam are going in. I suspect there will be three more inductees: MC5, Janet Jackson, and Depeche Mode.

If I had my way—given this list—I'd go with The Cars, Pearl Jam, ELO, The Zombies, Janet Jackson, and Journey. But once again, I'm unlikely to have my way...

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Endorsements for the General Election and all races from Palmetto Bay, Florida

It's almost that time of year, again. You know what I'm talking about: time to change the batteries in your smoke alarms. I do this every Veterans Day, which is on November 11th. So go out and buy some batteries!

Oh, there's also an election coming up, on November 8th, I think. Don't forget to *yawn* vote.

So as promised, here are my endorsements/recommendations for all of the races that will be on my ballot, federal, state, and local:

  • President/Vice-President I'll be voting Johnson/Weld, mostly because I like both of them. And because the Repub and Dem candidates suck on ice. Trump sucks more than Clinton, no doubt, but she's just not worthy, in my opinion. In my mind, she's not much different than Chris Christie, who is also better than Trump yet also still unworthy.
  • U.S. Senator A simple choice here: Marco Rubio. Hey, he's far from perfect, but Patrick Murphy is simply awful. 
  • U.S. Representative for the 27th District A tough choice. Neither candidate looks good to me, neither Ileana Ros-Lehtinen nor Scott Fuhrman. The former is exactly the kind of politician we need to get out of office (influence-peddling, power-grabbing, and self-serving) but the latter is a total train wreck. Fuhrman should probably be in jail for all of his legal problems. Seriously. Painfully, I have decided to Abstain.

  • Florida Supreme Court Justice, Canady He's okay. I'll vote to Yes to Retain.
  • Florida Supreme Court Justice, Polston Ditto. I'll vote Yes to Retain.
  • Florida Supreme Court Justice, LaBarga Ditto. I'll vote Yes to Retain.
  • Florida State Senator, District 37 A tough race that actually has decent candidates from the Repubs and the Dems. But at the end of the day, the incumbent has proven that he will stand on principle, even in opposition to his own party and to powerful lobbyists who back him. Therefore, I will vote Miguel Diaz de la Portilla.
  • Florida State Representative, District 115 Another tough race with decent candidates from both major parties. No matter who wins, I think I'll be happy. But I'm voting for the incumbent again, Michael Bileca, because I think he's earned another term. A shame I can't vote for both, though. Jeffrey "Doc" Solomon is a good man, too. 
  • Amendment 1 This is a deceptive amendment and should probably be removed from the ballot. Those in favor of solar power should vote No, not Yes. But I will vote No because this is an issue for the legislature, not for amending the State constitution. 
  • Amendment 2 I'm all for allowing medical use of marijuana. But again, an issue for the legislature. I will vote No.
  • Amendment 3 See where this is going? Tax exemption for some first-responders may be a good idea, but it should be something handled by the legislature. I will vote No.
  • Amendment 5 More tax exemptions that may or may not be a good idea. Again, something for the legislature. I will vote No.

  • Miami-Dade County Mayor I don't much care for the current mayor. But the challenger, Raquel Regalado is running a dishonest campaign and I get hit with her robo-calls three times a day, at least. I will vote for Carlos Gimenez, mostly out of pure spite (not really, he's done a fair job).
  • Miami-Dade County Clerk of the Court Harvey Ruvin is running unopposed. And for good reason, he does a fine job. I will vote for Harvey Ruvin
  • Palmetto Bay Vice Mayor What can I say? I know Erica Watts and I will vote for her. She will be good for the community, in my opinion.
  • Palmetto Bay Council Member I will vote for the incumbent, Tim Schaffer. His opponent is too short-sighted, with regard to development for Palmetto Bay. We don't live in a bubble and shouldn't pretend that we do.

Don't like my endorsements? Fair enough. Get out there and vote.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Nationalism, Blue Oyster Cult, and Browncoats

Are there different kinds of nationalism?

Some might find this question ridiculous. A glance at any dictionary yields a clear definition of the concept of nationalism. Merriam-Webster, for instance, defines it thusly:
1 : loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially : a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups
Simple, right? It's in keeping with the use of the word by journalists, by broadcasters, by politicians, by everyday people, etc. Of course, scholars of varying sorts have managed to muddle up the concept by arguing that many different types of nationalism exist and can be positively identified with respect to how an individual presents their feelings of nationalism. If one were to consult Wikipedia, one would find no less than thirteen "kinds" of nationalism. And even that list is not exhaustive. Sociologist Louis Wirth argued in a 1936 paper that there were four kinds of nationalism: hegemony nationalism, particularistic nationalism, marginal nationalism, and the nationalism of minorities. And another sociologist—Michael Hechter—presented a different typology of nationalism in his book in 2000: state-building nationalism, peripheral nationalism, irredentist nationalism, and unification nationalism. No doubt, there are other thinkers who have offered other forms, other typologies of the concept.

Of course, part of the story here is terminology choices and intent. For instance, Hechter's typology is more about using the supposed goal driving a manifestation of nationalism in order to label that nationalism; it is unconcerned with the actual feelings of individuals in this regard. And Wirth's hegemony nationalism (or "hegemonic nationalism") is more or less a composite of several of the Wikipedia-listed types of nationalism: cultural, romantic, and civic nationalism. Indeed, a number of the types listed on the Wikipedia page are differentiated from one another by little more than intellectual word-play, in my opinion.

Fundamentally, the primary definition of nationalism remains preeminent, and that's because it's concerned with the individual or the people espousing a nationalistic sentiment: "loyalty and devotion to a nation" (or state, as it were). Nationalism as a thing exists in people irrespective of how it is used by others. The great majority of supposed types suffer from this fatal flaw: they're concerned with the application, not the actual sentiment.

That said, it seems to me that there are, in fact, two rather distinct forms of nationalism as an actual sentiment. And since I've entered the fray of intellectual jargon here, I'm going to give these two forms their own distinct names: inclusive nationalism and exclusive nationalism, the gist of which should be fairly obvious. To be fair, I am not the first person to suggest this distinction, a reality that became clear to me in my research for this piece. However, I would note that I developed these labels independently, on my own, prior to having read pieces by others who made the same division. And I think the avenue that led me to this idea is an original one, regardless, and serves to more clearly and more thoroughly communicate the "why" behind the division. So let's step away from the political jargon for a moment and talk about music, sports, and other realms of fandom.

Album art from Fire of Unknown Origin, Greg Scott 1981
When I was much, much younger—in junior high—I was something of a metalhead, a fan of heavy metal music, like Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Zeppelin, Rainbow, Mötley Crüe, and so forth. Now, when I first started getting into this music, I didn't really know much about it (as is the case for everyone when they try/experience new things). And when I would try to join in to a conversation with older kids or ones who had been into this music longer than me, I'd often catch a little flak for not being a "real" fan of the music (perhaps because I didn't know who played bass for Black Sabbath). And frankly, I can remember being at a Blue Oyster Cult concert (around 1982) with some friends and openly mocking other kids there for not being "real" fans, for being "teeny boppers" or "posers."

This attitude was a consequence of BOC's commercial success with their Fire of Unknown Origin album and it's hit single Burnin' for You." That led to a lot of more mainstream fans for BOC, a lot more success, bigger concert venues, with bigger supporting acts. But many longtime fans of BOC looked down their noses at these new fans, these bandwagon jumpers, especially since they were—as evidenced in the concert I attended—wholly unfamiliar with classic BOC songs like "The Reaper" and "Godzilla" (especially the latter). Years later, when I was in college and just beyond, I noticed this exact same rubric occurring with indy/college rock: many fans of bands like The Smiths and The Violent Femmes absolutely despised newcomers to the fold, people who they deemed really didn't "get" the music but just liked this song or that song because they had heard it at a club or party. Really, the animosity displayed by the faithful here was orders of magnitude greater than what I had experienced as a new heavy metal fan (or had dished out, once my bonafides were established).

Perhaps no where is this kind of thing more apparent than in the world of sports, where many supporters or fans of various teams live and breath their team/club. Such people tend to really have a problem with more casual supporters/fans in my experience. The fans who leave a game early or fail to show their support when the team is having a bad run are "fair weather fans" (or worse). "Real fans" stick with their team through good times and bad; their support never waivers. But when teams have a lot of success, they attract more and more fans. Witness the rise of the Dallas Cowboys as "America's team" in the 1970's. Their fans were literally everywhere, all around the world, even in cities who had their own NFL franchise. But when the dark days came—in the mid and late eighties—there was a very visible drop-off in support, outside of Dallas proper.

It's the nature of the human condition. People love an underdog. But far more people love a winner, that's a fact of life. In the sports world, this is an absolute truth. For instance, the Miami Heat was always something of a second tier NBA franchise, even after winning an NBA title in 2006. Enter King James and Chris Bosh (who joined Dwayne Wade in making the "Big 3"). Almost overnight, the Heat became the "it" team. In just two  years, Heat fans were everywhere and the team had become the Evil Empire, despised by the "real fans" of every other team, but loved by bandwagon jumpers everywhere. Of course, many long-time Heat fans resented all of these new fans for not being "real," a point driven home by the drop-off in support for the team after James went back to Cleveland.

For me, it's all a "so what" moment now, this criticizing of fans for not being "real," for being Johnny-come-latelys. When the Florida Panthers of the NHL had their amazing run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1996 in only their third year of existence, the radio voice of the Panthers—one Chris Moore—was taking calls after a big win in the playoffs. The caller was saying how she was a recent convert to hockey and was loving the Panther's run. Moore replied—and I'm paraphrasing—"climb on board the bandwagon; there's plenty of room and everybody is welcome." And why not? Why not welcome everyone who wants in, even if they might only be there for a short time? They might not be, right? They could stay on permanently. Either way, it's more fans in the moment. Isn't that good enough?

There are other realms of fandom wherein these sorts of mechanisms are evident, as well, like with books, movies, and TV shows. I'm a big fan of Firefly, a TV show that aired for just one season but now has a rather significant cult following. I know there are "Browncoats" (what the fans of the show call themselves) out there who don't like newcomers to their little world, but most of the Firefly fans I know are like me: they're happy to have new fans in their midst, happy to explain the show when asked, and more than willing to actively recruit new fans.

So let's look at all of this in the context of nationalism. Those preaching an exclusive nationalism are like those music fans who sneer at any and all newcomers, are like those sports fans who whine incessantly about fair-weather fans who bail when the times aren't so good. In contrast, those preaching an inclusive nationalism are like those music and sports fans who just want to see their preferred act or team do well, who welcome any support the same can get, wherever it might hail from and however long it might last.

If one accepts the national symbolism of the United States of America, there is only one legitimate kind of nationalism enshrined therein: inclusive nationalism. The words on the Statue of Liberty make this clear, as do the words in the Declaration of Independence and the preamble of Constitution. "Your huddles masses yearning to be free," "all men are created equal," promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty," and so forth. "The Gettysburg Address," "I Have a Dream," JFK's first inaugural address, Reagan's Berlin speech, and many other great speeches in American history touch on these same themes. There is no excluding going on here, there is no limiting of who is or isn't a real American.

In obvious contrast, exclusive nationalism is evidenced by the Southern leadership, prior to and during the civil war, it characterizes much of the anti-Federalist tracts as well, though in the form of State-specific appeals. And it's apparent in the words and actions of many other leaders, past to present. Notably, as a sentiment it rarely finds its way into those speeches or documents that are deemed "great" or "significant." And that's because exclusive nationalism is a small idea, championed by people with small minds.

To be sure, exclusivity is the easier road to take, to justify, in almost all things. Inclusivity takes work, real effort, and time. Many characterized as proponents of the former really aren't, I think. They're much closer to the latter but maybe just require a helpful push.

Regardless, the point is that exclusive nationalism is not what the United States of America is all about. The history of the nation is full of many missteps, no doubt, and ideals are difficult to live up to, to achieve. They're supposed to be.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Losing control: the faltering power of the United States

Max Weber, writing during the outset of the interregnum between the world wars, defined the state as "a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory" (from his "Politics as a Vocation," 1919). Necessarily, states are only states if there is a territory to speak of, sufficient in size to require such a monopolization. And in that regard, politics—for Weber—is nothing more than the contest within a state to influence the sharing or distribution of that authority to use force. This point of view, it can be fairly argued, reflects reality from a developmental standpoint. States are now exactly what Weber said they are; really, they have been such—in most cases—for a long, long time.

But significantly, they must be such to allow for the idea of international relations, the political activity that occurs between states. Absent the above monopoly on force and correspondingly necessary territory, states cannot enter into meaningful negotiations with each other, cannot enact meaningful agreements or treaties of any sort for which the state—as an independent polity—can be held accountable. Under the auspices of the previous feudal system that dominated Europe, feudal obligations were far more significant and a change in control—by virtue of a new monarch with different feudal obligations—meant that old agreements and treaties were subject to change or replacement, as a matter of course. And even then, such things could not supersede the feudal obligations of the aristocracy, which could extend beyond the borders that defined a monarch's reach.

The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 effectively ended the feudal system from an international standpoint, by defining international boundaries of sovereign states. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 confirmed this new world order, not only because it created the League of Nations, but because it mandated reparations from Germany as a state, regardless of any changes to Germany's government or leadership, to other states as states. Contrast this to the Treaty of Paris in 1814, wherein the Sixth Coalition, after defeating Napoleon, restored the Bourbon monarchy to the throne of France: the Coalition liberated France, it did not conquer it, for the benefit of its rightful sovereign. The modern view of international affairs, as reflected in Versailles, is now the standard, wherein the sovereignty of the state trumps the supposed or assumed sovereignty of any individual. Thus, the state owns the actions of any of its citizens/members who occupy official positions, no matter what.

The Great White Fleet of 1907: the US begins it's rise to the top
It is such a rubric that allows for the existence of the United Nations (however flawed), that permits meaningful negotiations between states that can be extended into the future, regardless of leadership changes. And it is such a rubric that—in the years after WWII—allowed the United States to rise up as a superpower without expanding control via actual force of arms. The implied might of the United States was a serious bargaining chip, no doubt, but no less significant were the economic opportunities that existed, both for the United States and those other states who decided to align themselves with the United States (the expansion of the Soviet sphere of influence in the same period, in contrast, reflected an actual application of force, more often than not, and the economic benefits were always an illusion at best).

Note that in all of this, there is an inferred nationalism at play; citizens of sovereign states necessarily have to buy in to their citizenship and—in order to advance the interests of a state relative to others—need to want their state to succeed as a state, which means seeing their individual interests meshing with the interests of the state to some degree. With regard to the United States, such nationalism was also fueled by the recognition of the Soviet Union as the primary opponent (and vice versa, to be sure), effectively super-charging that nationalism to the point of seeking theoretical victory over the Soviets, a victory which came for all intents and purposes in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Almost twenty five years ago, on December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union officially dissolved itself, after having lost a good chunk of its satellite nations to revolution and secession in the years prior. In the moment, the United States was unquestionably the most powerful state on the planet, both internationally and internally. Militarily, no other state could challenge the supremacy of the United States, particularly on the sea and in the air. And this state of affairs was only strengthened by the existence of NATO. Economically, the United States had experienced a slight reversal of fortunes in the 1970's, but that was over; huge economic growth was on the horizon for the United States and its allies around the globe.

Fast forward to today and look at the world, at the United States' place in it. The U.S. is no longer the economic superpower that it once was. Its manufacturing base has shrunk, it's consumer economy teeters year and year out, as the country and its individual citizens accumulate debt year after year after year. This keeps the U.S. near the top of the GDP list, to be sure, yet it is no longer at the top (using a PPP standard). And the U.S. is hardly the master of innovation that it once was.

In terms of military strength, the United States is certainly no longer the lone superpower. China's military has always been larger than that of the US, but now it is gaining rapidly on the technological front. China has even adopted an aggressive program to build its own aircraft carriers. For decades now, US carrier groups have been essentially the sovereigns of the seas and air. Just one could effectively wage a small war against most any country on the planet. But as countries like Russia and China continue to expand their missile programs, the carrier group is becoming less and less effective.

More importantly, however, the United States has shown a reluctance on the international stage to check aggression that is not directly threatening to the United States (though may be and has been to its allies). And those regions of unrest (like the Middle East) where the U.S. has always been the outside force that exerted the most influence are now being influenced by Russian policy just as much, if not moreso, as by U.S. policy. Whether or not the United States is more respected on the international stage is inconsequential; it has less influence.

One might allow that all of this is simply the way of things, that nations rise and fall, that no one can be on top forever. And that is very true. Still, it's of little use in the moment, if one also allows that the point of government is to protect its citizens and to help them flourish. So the issue becomes a different one: how did it happen?

In the simplest of terms, it happened because the US population became steadily jaded. Too much success ultimately breads boredom, after all. The United States, having emerged from the Cold War as the Big Winner (in fact, a much bigger winner than it ever needed to be) topped out pretty damn quick. Nationalism died a quick death in large chunks of the population, who woke as if from a dream and decided that national affiliations were meaningless, that the United States government's job was not to enrich and protect its citizens, but to do the same for all the peoples of the world (a distinctly different thing than protecting the governments of allied nations, which it had done since before WWI).

Apparent impending cataclysms like Climate Change only accelerated the drop-off of nationalism. And this world view found like-minded brethren in Western Europe (whose own path to this point was much different and began much earlier). Moreover, it was and is a world view that is encouraged and applauded by the world's strongmen, from Putin to Jong-Un to warlords in Somalia.

Thus, many citizens looked inwards for problems (not necessarily a bad thing) and found plenty of them, to be sure. One can fairly claim that a minor revolution of rights has occurred in the United States because of this transposition, as things like same-sex marriage and the failed War on Drugs have come front and center and, I think, been substantially righted. That said, these problems are far too often portrayed as on the same level as those of every where else, which is patently ridiculous. That is to say, the level and amount of of discrimination faced by a member of a marginalized group in the United States is in no way comparable to what members of marginalized groups face in many other countries around the world (including the Middle East, Russia, China, and most of Africa).

Regardless, the point is that a good number of citizens in the United States see themselves as citizens of the world first, of the United States second (if at all). And this number includes the liberal intelligentsia as a matter of course, for this mindset is a mark of honor to them; it is the right way to see things, in their view. Those who still imagine that the United States is exceptional are deluded, to say the least, in their minds. For such people, nationalism is not only outdated, it's also dangerous. It is in their minds, as much as anything else, the principle cause of both World Wars and most other twentieth century conflicts.

What this means for the United States going forward is, to be blunt, simple decline: militarily, economically, and politically (geopolitically, too). Previous empires have faced similar things, particularly the British Empire (whose apogee was the time before WWI), the Roman Empire (it's tough to pick a date here for when the downward spiral began), and the Chinese Empire (starting around the time of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842). One gets to the top and there's truly nowhere to go but down. As trite as this is, it fairly characterizes the history of empires (and make no mistake, the United States is an empire, if a reluctant one).

Am I suggesting the United States is about to collapse? Of course not. The totality of American wealth and power isn't going to dissipate for a long, long time. But again, its power in every sense of the word is decreasing, not increasing.

The current election cycle features Donald Trump, who is running on the jingoistic platform of "make America great again," versus Hillary Clinton, who is now an old guard style of politician who—despite her lip service to liberal and progressive social issues—is functionally a Wall Street-backed Neocon. Both promise a "tough" foreign policy, one that would protect and strengthen American interests around the globe.

It is, I think, rather pointless to explore the specifics of Trump's position, both because it lacks specifics and because it is based on a "strongman" approach to foreign affairs, which is simply unworkable with the United States' system of government. As to Clinton, she served four years as Secretary of State and spent eight years as the first spouse, where she clearly had an influence on issues (as her husband would clearly have influence if she ascends to the White House). What was really accomplished in these periods? The United States continued the path it was already on—the erosion of its power from an international perspective—and it was, at the end of her time as Secretary of State, neither safer nor more powerful.  A Presidency under her means more of the same.

I'm not trying to dissuade people from voting for Clinton (or for Trump, really). I am simply pointing out that neither candidate (nor any of the third party candidates) represents a solution to the decline of American power. While it's true that nationalism is a necessary component for the rise and maintenance of an empire, the nationalism evinced by Trump—largely based on xenophobia and ignorance—is the nationalism of the fear-biter, not the nationalism of the leader of the pack. And while Clinton's point of view is conditioned by this later kind of nationalism (owing to the ideological basis of Clinton's world-view), it is undone by her simultaneous kowtowing to her progressive and liberal base, wherein the needs of the world as a whole trump the needs of the United States as a matter of course.

The die is cast. All that matters now is time.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Mysterious Source of Secret Power behind the Clinton Foundation

It was December, 2000. The Clintons were preparing to vacate the White House after a hugely successful eight-year stint. Mrs. Clinton had already secured a Senate seat in New York. The couple had purchased a stately home—with a $1.7 million price tag—in Chappaqua a year prior, as a means of establishing residence for Mrs. Clinton to allow her Senate run. But they had also just purchased a home in D.C. for $2.85 million, dropping $855,000 as a down payment. The big-money speech circuit was beckoning to Bill. Both had secured solid pensions through their past and imminent service in Federal and State government. Yet some years later, Hillary would claim that she and Bill were "dead broke" and in debt when they left the White House, a claim weirdly buttressed by unsupported stories throughout 2001 of the Clintons pillaging the White House for valuables at the time of their departure.

In reality, however, Bill Clinton had uncovered—some time in 1996—a stash of secret documents that included not only untouched and loaded Swiss accounts dating back to FDR's time, but also extensive details on the inner workings and dealings between the U.S. government, European governments, and a spate of international corporations and holding companies. And the Clintons had a plan, a plan to parlay this wealth and information into a powerful organization whose tentacles would reach around the world and provide the pair with more power and access than had been known to any leaders since the time of the Borgias. This was the genesis of the Clinton Foundation...

It would be great if this last paragraph was true, wouldn't it? Not only would it scream out for a Dan Brown kind of thriller, but it would go a long way towards explaining why the Clinton Foundation has become such a behemoth. But it's not true. The Clinton Foundation's beginnings are far more humble. It was conceived in 1997, then officially founded in 2001 after Bill Clinton left office as a 501(c)(3) corporation with the intent to bring various forces together throughput the world to meet the challenges of the world. A heady goal in one respect, but a relatively open one. Initially, it was funded by some of the money Bill Clinton was earning for speech-making and appearances, along with donations he was able to extract from both companies and individuals (particularly celebrities).

And there's nothing wrong with any of this, really. If people want to pay Clinton to speak, if they want to give money to a charitable org, that's their business. By all accounts, the Foundation has done many positive things. There's some disagreement on how much actual bang for the buck the Foundation achieves, and that's partly due to it's unusual structure and open-ended mission statement. Certainly, the Foundation is and has been footing the bill for the jet-set lifestyle of Bill Clinton and others. But it's far from the only charitable org that does this. People are free to assess it in this regard as they will.

As a vehicle for Bill Clinton's post-Presidency, the Foundation has served its purpose well. It has kept Bill relevant, has allowed him to mix with the rich and shameless freely, along with the major power-brokers and politicos throughout the world. With regard to raising money, the Foundation was very much like the University of Miami Hurricanes—the football team—recruitment program of the eighties and early nineties: there's no place it wouldn't go, no door it was afraid to open, no meeting it wouldn't have, if there was enough talent (dollar signs for the Foundation) involved. And again, good enough. If the monies of corporate cronies, despotic strongmen, and oligarchs could be pried away and used for good works, why shouldn't they? Bill Clinton's ability in this regard—to recruit donors as it were—was unmatched.

And while Hillary Clinton was a Senator, she kept herself apart from the Foundation officially and Bill went about his business, even as everyone with a clue knew that she represented yet another hook for the Foundation, something that was neither new nor unusual in D.C. politics. There's always been a bit the "wink-wink, nod-nod" at this kind of behavior. It's no different from spouses of politicians working as Capitol Hill lobbyists, business owners getting preferential treatment from politicians they supported, or big donors getting gigs as ambassadors and the like ("Pass the sweet and sour shrimp!").

But when Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State in 2009, even the enablers knew this necessitated some actions. Someone in that position can't afford to be seen parceling out favors to foreign interests, based on things like donations to a spouse's foundation, right? Accordingly, Bill promised to release lists of donors each year and to allow Federal ethics officers to evaluate donations to the Foundation from foreign governments (I don't actually know that any such evaluations have ever taken place, however).

In practice, however, these changes have amounted to almost nothing insofar as the Foundation has never experienced a serious setback in donations. Indeed, donations went through the roof in 2009, the year when Bill was supposedly putting the brakes on his fundraising, for the sake of appearances.

Now, with the Presidential race in full swing, people are questioning the specifics of donations during the period when Hillary was Secretary of State. Even a cursory look at the list of donors shows that a good number of them met with Hillary in an official capacity. E-mails show Foundation officers communicating with Hillary's assistant, specifically asking for then receiving access to Madame Secretary.

Yet legions of Hillary's and Bill's fanboys and the willing dupes in the media want everyone to ignore this, to pretend it didn't really happen the way it most assuredly did, or—if it did happen this way—it's just not that big of a deal, it's not unusual, it's the way things are done.

Maybe the last is true; it often is the way things are done. It's certainly the way things were done in the age of machine politics. It's likely the way things are done under throwbacks like Chris Christie. And it's often the way things are done under governments that lack democratic processes and power-limiting documents like constitutions. And to be fair, it also can be the way things are done under the latter as well, though when that's the case, there are two caveats: 1) it's never done so openly and explicitly; people have the good sense to obscure their skulduggery, and 2) when they don't and they get caught, they usually get burned down.

Herein lies the true greatness (?) of the Clintons: ultimately, they're unbelievably brazen (especially Bill). They trust their water-carriers—and Bill's charm—to defend them and are unafraid to put to the light of day what is usually carefully hidden.

Think about it for a moment. Agents of foreign governments (or multinational corporations) donate money to a family, then are granted audiences to a member of that family in power, who then provides support or favors to the foreign government. That's not even quid pro quo, it's a simple system of patronage common in monarchies and aristocracies of the past, the kind of governments that the founders of the United States were fleeing from, the kind of system they were specifically trying to prevent with the Constitution. Granted, preventing this in toto was never going to happen, but at the very least it wasn't supposed to be a systematic feature of the Federal government. But that's exactly what it became while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State.

And again, it points to the brazenness of Bill and Hillary Clinton. People call Donald Trump a huckster—and he is—and label many other politicians in the same way. But Trump nailed the correct terminology here, with regard to the Clintons and the Foundation: grifters. It's not easy pulling off a successful long con. There's a lot of work involved, a lot of people who need to be on board, and a lot of groundwork that needs to be laid. But it's tough not to see the long con here, the foundation of the con (with the Clinton Foundation), the approach (the solicitation for donations), the build-up (the promise of access), and of course the pay-off (setting up a long term pattern of donations).

Through it all, the principals (Bill and Hillary) stand fast, deny every accusation, challenge naysayers to prove malfeasance, and continue to pump the scheme. As I said, this is hard work, and takes serious gumption. In this respect, one can only stand back and admire the game and the gamemasters.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Michter's US-1 Barrel Strength Rye Whiskey

I love American Pie (the song, not the movie), there's no getting around that. I know all the lyrics of course and have many fond memories of Promo Night at the University of Miami Rathskeller, wherein last call was immediately followed by American Pie, oftentimes with some number of partially-inebriated students putting their arms around each other in large circles and singing along loudly with the music.

But that was the eighties. And for the most part, everyone was drinking beer, Absolut, Jack Daniels, or Bacardi (provided they weren't in the restroom doing a line, or in the alley taking a toke or two). When we heard about good old boys drinking whiskey and rye, we generally didn't know too much about it, one way or the other.

So for those unfamiliar with the terminology, rye is actually a kind of whiskey (not whisky, which is the spelling for such spirits emanating from Canada, Scotland, and Japan). And whiskey references most spirits that are distilled from fermented grain mash. By and large, most big name distilleries in the United Stated produce bourbon. Bourbon is whiskey made mostly from corn (there's almost always a mix of grains used, but if over half of the grain consists of corn, it's bourbon). But whiskeys can also be made mostly with malted barley (malt whiskey), with wheat (wheat whiskey), or with rye (rye whiskey).


So, the good old boys weren't really drinking whiskey and rye (which I think many people thought was the name of a mixed drink). They were drinking whiskey and whiskey, or more probably bourbon and rye. And that's still a fine time, still a reason to be hanging out at a dry levee singing "this will be the day that I die"...

Anyway, in general I drink single malt scotch, red wine, or beer (none to excess, of course). I had mostly given up on mixed drinks, aside from the occasional Bloody Mary. But a recent dinner out at a Wynwood eatery with some friends opened a door for me in this regard. The restaurant was R House. Sitting at the bar there, I opted for one of their signature cocktails: a Russell's Reserve Old Fashioned. The drink was served with either bourbon or rye, but knowing a bit of mixologist history, I opted for the rye (Manhattans and Old Fashions are properly made with rye). And it was quite good. Quite.

So I started to have Old Fashioneds now and again when I was out. But I soon encountered some problems. Not every bar or restaurant stocks rye whiskey. Worse still, not everyone stocks bitters. So I thought I'd add a bottle to my home bar, thus allowing me to make my own from time to time. After spending a good hour looking at the various ryes at Total Wine, I finally opted for this one, Michter's US-1 Barrel Strength Rye:

If it looks a little low, well that's because I've been drinking it.

Now, if I was reviewing a scotch here, I'd go into detail about it's specific characteristics, about things like its finish and the various flavors on its palate. The same is true if this were about a wine. But we are talking American whiskey here. And I'm buying it to make Old Fashioneds (and the occasional Manhattan). So here's the deal, short and sweet: this is an excellent rye, by my standards. It puts Kentucky bourbons (like Jack Daniels and Wild Turkey) to shame when it comes to an Old Fashioned mix. If you like a good Old Fashioned, this is the rye for you, no question about it. It's perfectly spiced, nice and dry, and mixes cleanly.

All that said, it probably behooves me to go over the proper recipe for an Old Fashioned. Here it is:
Old Fashioned 
2 oz. rye whiskey
1/2 oz. simple syrup
3 dashes aromatic bitters
1 orange (preferred) or lemon peel twist
1 large ice cube 
Directions: Add syrup and bitters to an Old Fashioned glass (a short tumbler), followed by the ice cube, then the rye. Mix with small spoon or stick, then toss in the piece of orange or lemon peel. Sip.
Instead of simple syrup, a sugar cube can be used, but then it needs to be crushed in the glass first with a splash of water, as well. If you're at a bar, you order an Old Fashioned, and the bartender goes for some Maraschino cherries, please stop them. That's not an Old Fashioned. Look around on the Net and you might find some people insisting that the drink requires a mashed cherry (and maybe even a mashed orange slice). They're wrong. And by and large, they're also British. The Old Fashioned as an American drink, made with a truly American whiskey: rye. That's the way it is.

And again, if you're looking for a good rye for your Old Fashioneds, Michter's is a fine choice, especially given the history of the distillery. Cheers!