I’ve been writing a long post about politics. It’s detailed, and wide-ranging, and it criticizes everybody in politics for various things, and I think it’s pretty much guaranteed to make lots of people mad.

I’ve been down this road before, though. I’ve written many, many posts like that over the years. Looking back, I’m not sure there was much point in it. I espouse my views, and in the best case scenario, the people who agree say “Yeah” and move on. The people who disagree keep on disagreeing. I don’t think anyone does anything different as a result of reading political blog posts. 

The other day, I jokingly said on Twitter:

I wrote that after watching yet another politician bemoaning the state of the country, for what felt like the millionth time. You could make same joke could about political blog posts, though. There are so many of them written every day. You’d think if things could be fixed by blogging, it would have happened already.

Longtime readers may have noticed I’ve dialed back the political posts a lot over the last couple years. It’s ticked up a bit again recently but it’s nothing like it used to be. Politics was nearly all I posted about back in, say, 2011. But lately, I’ve shifted to posting more about writing, entertainment, and criticism.

That’s not an accident. Those subjects produce far more rewarding and engaging discussions than political blogging does. And for a simple reason: people enjoy it more. Pat Prescott, my fellow blogger and longtime reader, can probably comment on this, since he’s been with me since the days when the blog was heavily political.

I used to enjoy writing about politics. Or I thought I did, at least. But at some point, once I realized I wasn’t really changing anything by writing about it, I started to lose my zest for it. 

The funny thing is, most people are way more open to new ideas, creative reinterpretations, and even harsh critiques, when it comes to the world of fiction and entertainment than they are when it comes to real-life politics. I include myself in that. There are people who lose themselves in the political intricacies of totally fictional worlds while holding the most simplistic and unexamined views of the world they live in. I mean, there are probably people who could tell you they understand both sides of the Geth/Quarian conflict, but couldn’t do anything beyond parrot the talking points of their preferred real-life political party.

That sounds kind of harsh, but I don’t actually mean it to put people down. People like what they like, and wishing they liked other things is like wishing we all had wings and could fly. 

Life is too short for petty, futile political disputes. If 2016 did nothing else, it taught us that you can spend your entire career studying politics and still get everything totally wrong. 

That’s why I decided it was time to shift my focus to things that were more rewarding, both for me and for my readers. Things like book reviews, and art, and writing fiction. (Now admittedly, I did put some allegorical references to my politics in The Directorate. I figured that way I could say a few things in a way that was entertaining rather than stridently preachy.)

Clausewitz said that war is the continuation of politics by other means, and there’s no doubt that politics is inherently combative. Which means everyone tends to be in fight mode when talking politics. Sometimes that’s appropriate, but it makes collaboration nearly impossible. I sometimes think that asking for cooperation in modern politics is almost an oxymoron.

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Scene from “Dr. Strangelove” (1964)

If you can get people out of the political sphere, however, you’ll usually find a lot of room for communicating, making deals, and exchanging knowledge that is useful to everyone involved. 

As a result of the shift from political blogging to topics like writing, I’ve met all kinds of wonderful writers and readers. And in many cases, I have an idea of their political leanings from following them on social media. I have readers and authors with widely diverging views—and I’ve learned plenty from each of them, especially the ones I disagree with.  

So it might be that that the key to improving political discourse is… not to engage in it so much. It’s easy to hate people when you know nothing about them other than their politics—but if you’ve already met through some other common interest, it becomes much easier to see their side of things.

I know I’ve said this before, but you can get a pretty decent overview of how government works by watching the BBC sitcom Yes, Minister. The series is premised on the conflict between the naïve, attention-seeking British Cabinet minister James Hacker and the cynical, experienced civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby. Most episodes follow this formula:

  1. Hacker comes up with some well-meaning but often-ill-considered policy reform to fix a problem.
  2. Sir Humphrey uses cunning, bureaucratic jargon, and his connections in the Civil Service to prevent any changes being made to government policy.
  3. Sir Humphrey explains to Hacker why things are better off staying as they are.

Because it was a sitcom, Hacker sometimes wins—usually by using Sir Humphrey’s own tactics against him. But the basic dynamic is what’s key here: the approval-seeking politician who wants to change everything vs. the entrenched bureaucracy that wants to keep things as they are until they can retire and collect a pension.

The thing is, it’s possible to cast either side’s motivations as good or bad: the politicians could be called heroes trying to do the work of the people, or attention-craving narcissists trying to get famous. The bureaucrats could be called lazy do-nothings stubbornly resisting change, or intelligent and competent administrators unwilling to bow to the fashions of the moment.

This is the same dynamic that’s at work when you hear people talk about the “Deep State”. It gets dismissed as a conspiracy theory, but that’s largely because of the terminology:  “Deep State” sounds a lot more sinister and intimidating than the more accurate label, “the permanent bureaucracy”. The former makes you think of shadowy figures in Deus Ex-style Illuminati conference rooms holding secret meetings. The latter evokes some balding pencil-pushers.

We citizens tend to think of “government” as the politicians we elect every couple of years. But they are only the tip of the iceberg—the real government consists of people working in various agencies to carry out policy. These people are, for the most part, not politicians at all, but simply technicians trying to keep the machine of bureaucracy running. And they don’t run for office.

Technically, these people work for the politicians. But that’s only in a nominal sense—in practice, someone who has decades of experience working at a Federal agency knows a lot more about the nitty-gritty details of governance than a newly-elected politician. 

Canny politicians know how to work the system to their advantage. For example, in the book Angler, Barton Gellman describes how then-Vice-President Dick Cheney contacted a relatively low-ranking official in the Department of the Interior in order to implement a change to government environmental policy.

Cheney had worked in government since 1969, and had a thorough knowledge of who did what, and which strings to pull in order to advance his agenda. Love him or hate him, he was an excellent example of someone who thoroughly understood the bureaucracy.

But most politicians aren’t like Cheney.  For one thing, he started out as a congressman from uncompetitive and tiny Wyoming, and didn’t have to spend a lot of time campaigning. Other politicians don’t have that luxury. They rely on other people to handle the bureaucracy for them. Besides, many of the politicians are in it because they love crowds and applause and power and prestige. The bit where you iron out the policy details is boring. 

This creates a disconnect: the people nominally in charge of governing are on a track that’s entirely separate from those who actually handle the day-to-day business of implementing government policies. So it’s true: there are people in government who ignore what the elected officials say, and keep doing what they’ve been doing. Whether you think these people are heroes or villains depends largely on your opinion of the government’s overall performance over the long-term—say, the last half-decade.

The biggest problem in American politics is not the Republicans. It’s not the Democrats, either. It’s not even Donald Trump, the man who broke and domesticated the former in order to run roughshod over the latter.

No, all these things are mere symptoms of the disease. But what is the disease? We have to understand the affliction before we can cure the body politic.

The disease is nothing less than a fundamental breakdown in human communication itself. It takes time to analyze something and appreciate all the nuances of a given issue. And people don’t have time for that. They would rather pass judgment immediately than take the time to think things through.

Indeed, people who even attempt to think about things in-depth are automatically condemned as traitors by their own side. Pointing out nuances or subtleties is never something zealots are interested in, and in today’s climate, you’re either a zealot or you’re intimidated into silence by the zealots. “The best lack all conviction,” etc.

Back in the ’90s, there was an extremely popular business book by Stephen Covey called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Like all self-help books for business types, it contained its share of platitudes and buzzwords, but there was also some very sound advice. The part I remember most was habit number 5: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

This is extremely good advice, and it’s something that seems to be rarely heeded these days. Certainly not in the world of online political debate, where humanity seems to have regressed to its most primitive societal constructs: small villages of like-minded individuals who venture out only to engage in raids against rival tribes.

Pamphlets

There is some historical precedent that we can use to guide us in understanding how social media has changed communication. In the late 1500s, the spread of the printing press made it easier for people to create and distribute  pamphlets. These were used to attack or defend certain people, ideas, nations, religions etc., much as social media is today. As Wikipedia helpfully summarizes: “In addition, pamphlets were also used for romantic fiction, autobiography, scurrilous personal abuse, and social criticism.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The most famous pamphlet in history is probably Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which advocated for the independence of the American colonies and attacked the British monarchy. This was pretty late in the pamphlet game, though. The real high point of pamphlets-as-propaganda seems to have been in the 1600s, when they played a major role in fomenting and prolonging the English Civil War.

Governments gradually adapted and shut down such publications, mostly by use of copyright and libel laws. It’s possible that down the road, the same thing will happen with social media. However, this is not a great solution, since it could very easily turn into a totalitarian dystopia where all speech is controlled. Paradoxically, history suggests that nothing clears the path for rigid totalitarian control so smoothly as anarchic mob rule. I suspect the internet is no exception to this pattern.

Besides the role of laws and censors in reducing the relevance of pamphlets, there was also a change in social norms. Now they are ignored or seen as the hallmark of political fringe elements. If somebody gives you a printed pamphlet about their cause, it makes them seem slightly kooky. These days, if you want to be seen as legitimate, you have to have a website and a Twitter account, or at least a blog.

It’s possible that with time, social media as we currently know it will fall out of favor, and be replaced with something else.  It’s already skewing away from the written word and towards pictures: in 2004, blogs were all the rage. By 2010, it was Twitter. Now it’s moving towards things like Instagram, which by design is meant for pictures, not words.

In a way, I think this is a good thing. People who like fashion (and by fashion, I don’t just mean clothes, but everything, from movies to political views, that is seen as fashionable)  can have their site, and people who don’t care about fashion—that is, people who do care about substance—can stay on their stodgy old blogs and have real discussions.

Charisma

The internet isn’t the only issue, though. The rise of mass-media, which acts as a force-multiplier for charismatic leaders, has been gradually paving the way for this for decades.

I’ve talked about this at length in other posts, but I want to briefly make some points about the role of charisma, because it’s the single most important force there is in modern politics. Televised political events, debates, ads, and so on were the equivalent of atomic energy as far as revolutionizing politics, and charisma is the reason why.

The average person does not have the time to understand all the issues they are voting on. It’s hard enough to hold a job, raise a family, take vacations and live a normal, healthy life without having to also be an expert on the multiple dimensions of policy that they are electing officials to manage.

A person naturally looks for shortcuts to make the decision easier. This has been true certainly throughout U.S. history, and probably the history of all democracies. Once mass communication technology became widespread, politicians were quick to leverage it to their advantage, just as those in an earlier era used bribes and grift.

It will always be easier to vote for the candidate who “seems like a better person” than it is to study and fully understand all the potential policy implications of a candidate’s platform. I would say that no one person can fully understand all the different spheres of policy that the president, for example, can affect. People dedicate their entire careers to understanding just one of them.

People vote for the person they like better. And what determines whether you like someone or not has very little to do with a rational weighing and measuring of objective facts, and a great deal to do with hardwired human instincts combined with subconscious associations based on your past experiences.

Thus, politicians try all kinds of tricks to associate themselves with things that people like–they seek the endorsements of movie stars, championship-winning athletes, other popular politicians, etc. They try to prove that they are “just regular folks” like the voters. But that only helps with the subconscious association part of the equation. The instinct part was decided centuries before, as people developed their instincts to survive in a very different world than the one we live in now.

Here’s an example: the fundamental thought-process underlying sexism is that, in our primitive mind, we think of men as stronger than women because men, on average, have greater upper-body strength, and in ancient times, that was important because you wanted your leader to be able to climb, or carry heavy animal carcasses, or win a physical fight.

Of course, that’s irrelevant to the present day for two reasons: first, the strength gap between men and women is narrowing, and second, because the modern day leader doesn’t need to do any of that–but the hardwired instincts in the average human brain don’t know that.

Charisma is about appealing to our instincts; our so-called “lizard brains“. And we voters are all too happy to let them appeal to us this way; because it’s much easier than the fundamentally impossible task of learning about all the issues.

The way mass media has changed politics has been a gradual shift. It started with small things, like Kennedy beating Nixon by knowing he needed to use makeup in televised debates. A half-century later, a reality TV star won the Presidency.

Trump

I’ve tried to avoid talking about Trump too much on this blog, partially because it’s nearly impossible to get away from news about him as it is, and partially because the mere mention of his name tends to bring out strong negative emotions in people–both his detractors, who become enraged, and his supporters, who viciously attack his detractors. It’s unproductive.

But there is no way of writing about this subject without discussing him. Trump’s entire PR strategy depends on appeals to deep, instinctual feelings. Tribalism, nostalgia, fear of the unknown, etc.–Trump taps into all of these things in order to galvanize his supporters. And he largely relies on TV and social media to do it.

Of course, he isn’t the first politician to do this. All of them try, to some extent. Trump is just better at it. His competitors in 2016 felt like they had to keep at least one foot planted in the world of policy. But they were living in the past. In the new system of politics, being a reality TV host is far better training than service in government or the military.

This is where the charisma-infused cult-style politics, with mass media acting as a catalyst, combine to create an extremely potent brew that tells voters to revert to their most basic urges, and do what is easy and comes naturally.

Taking the time to understand others does not fit into that equation. Nor does analyzing policies and examining complicated issues with ambiguities and shades of grey. Ironically, in this regard as well, modern technology has once again just made it easier for people to revert to the ancient practice of following the tribal chieftain.

Solution?

The human tendency to fall in line behind a charismatic leader and the acceleration of technologies that gratify our desire for easy answers and acceptance by our tribe have combined to make politics poisonous. 

Is there a way out?

For a lot of people, I think the answer is no. Many people have no interest in thoughtful debates or analysis; they just want to say their piece and have instant agreement. Trying to debate such people is a waste of time for everyone. It just makes both sides mad.

One of the most common pieces of advice for dealing with a toxic relationship is simply to leave it. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the hardest pieces of advice to follow, because usually people feel some strong urge, be it guilt, money, fear, or something else, that tells them to stay in the relationship. 

The same dynamic is at work most political arguments. In the majority of debates, no minds will be changed, and all that will happen is that people will get angry. That’s practically the definition of toxic. And yet, to just quit arguing altogether seems wrong. It feels like giving up on your own beliefs. After all, if you don’t argue for your own beliefs, who will?

You should stand up for your beliefs, absolutely. In that regard, it’s actually OK to follow the crowd and just put your opinion out there. Say what you think and why you think it’s true. Instead of reacting to someone who you think is wrong, just say what you think is right. That’s what’s really important anyway. After all, there are a theoretically infinite number of wrong ideas in the world; right ideas are a far more limited and therefore valuable commodity.

“But won’t that in itself lead to group think and insularity?” you ask. “Isn’t this how the dreaded ‘epistemic closure’ begins?”

I agree that it certainly sounds like it could, but it’s going to take a lot to prevent like-minded people from flocking together. As we’ve seen, technology and human nature are both pushing us strongly towards doing that. We can’t fight that trend; nor would we even necessarily want to, as like-minded people grouping together can produce great things. But we can and do want to mitigate the trend of different groups getting into protracted and pointless fights with each other.

The key part is that when people try to argue with you—and inevitably, they will–you will have to use your judgment as to how best to handle them. I don’t want to offer too much advice on this, as there are lots of possible angles from which they might attack, from the most childish insults to actual threats to strong, well-reasoned arguments. Each one requires a specific response.

That said, here are two key things to keep in mind: first, every argument feels like a personal attack, whether it is or not.  And in fact, almost none of them are; even the ones that are designed to seem like it. The natural instinct is to strike back immediately (I’ve been guilty of this) but it’s better to take a little time to ask yourself “Is this worth responding to?” Often, it isn’t. If it is, it probably means that somewhere, it contains a nugget of useful or interesting information. Address that, and disregard the chaff.

The second thing is that the vast majority of arguments online are all formulaic lines that the arguers themselves didn’t originate. They just got them from some source of pre-made arguments for their side. If you read an online political debate as a neutral observer, you’ll realize that it’s not organic—it’s a choreographed dance where each side unwittingly follows the pattern their party has set down for them. It’s an understatement to say both sides do this—all sides do this. Most people don’t know how to argue, so they look to others (often charismatic leaders) to show them how.

Don’t be like most people. Focus on having something new to say, both in your original statement and your counter-arguments. You can quote others as supporting evidence, but your central point should be your own. After all, if somebody else already said it, why should you say it again?

This method has two good results, which act as antibodies to the disease that’s killing communication. One is that if you strive to create something original, whatever ideas you come up with are likely to be well-thought-out and robust, because you’ll have to work hard to think of them. And the second benefit is that to a degree it protects you against the charismatic leaders who are trying to cajole you into echoing them.

Ultimately, political debates will be settled by the test of which ones have the most success in the real world. So don’t worry about trying to correct people who are wrong, unless they signal that they’re open to correction. Wrongness is its own punishment, in the end. Focus on getting your own ideas right, engage with the people who have something useful to contribute, and ignore the others.

51fQAjMRx9L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_This book gives a comprehensive and thorough history of the United States government’s plans for surviving a nuclear war. The book spans the Atomic Age, with detailed information from the Truman through Obama administrations, with occasional references to the comparatively primitive security measures under earlier presidents.

There are a number of interesting stories in the book, from the day that President Truman practically shut down Washington as he stepped out to go to the bank to the total chaos and confusion that reigned on 9/11, when the emergency procedures were implemented rather haphazardly.

For all the programs aimed at “continuity of government”, the ultimate conclusion of Presidents, generals, CEOs, and bureaucrats throughout the decades seems to invariably have been that in the event of a nuclear attack, the United States as we know it would cease to exist, and survivors—if any—would live under martial law at best for a considerable length of time.

And yet, the preparation proceeds anyway, as the government tries to figure out a way to survive the unsurvivable. In one memorable section, Graff discusses a secret bunker at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, complete with underground chambers for the House and Senate to convene, all maintained without the knowledge of even the CEO of the resort himself.

Throughout the book, I repeatedly thought of this exchange from the British political sitcom Yes, Minister:

Sir Humphrey: There has to be somewhere to carry on government, even if everything else stops.

Minister Hacker: Why?

Sir Humphrey: Well, government doesn’t stop just because the country’s been destroyed!

That really summarizes the absurdity of the whole enterprise. The book’s subtitle, “The story of the U.S. government’s secret plan to save itself–while the rest of us die” is a bit unnecessarily hysterical and sinister-sounding, (they can’t really be expected to save everyone, can they?) but it does underscore the inescapable problem of attempting to preserve a way of life that can’t exist in the unimaginably horrible new world that would be created after the bombs went off.

Graff did a lot of research for this book, but too often sacrificed readability in the interest of being thorough. There are plenty of paragraphs that bog down in the alphabet soup of government programs, plans and agency acronyms. (This is perhaps inevitable to some degree—the government loves acronyms.) Even more confusingly, information is sometimes poorly organized, and occasionally repeated in different sections. Once or twice this caused me to think I had accidentally gone back to a section I’d already read.

 

There’s also at least one flat-out error: on page 278 of the Kindle version, Graff asserts that “Reagan was the first president shot in nearly a century.” This is obviously not true, and probably the result of some kind of copy/paste error. That’s one that anybody would know is wrong, but it made me wonder what other, less-apparent-but-equally-serious errors the editors might have missed.

So, should you read it? A lot of the negative reviews say things like “I could have gotten all this from Wikipedia”. Which is true, but also raises the question, “Then why didn’t you?” A journalist like Graff isn’t required to discover new information—compiling and correlating existing information into one convenient book is also useful. 

Unfortunately, Raven Rock isn’t as convenient as it could have been. A bit more editing and condensing would have improved the book a great deal. As it is, though, there’s a wealth of information for those willing to slog through and find out what secret projects the government has been spending our taxes on in the hopes of surviving Armageddon.

MV5BMTUzMTM0MDc3OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDI1NjM0NTM@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_A couple years ago, I read the Jonathan Safran Foer book upon which this film is based, and at the time I wrote that it made me feel very glad to have been a vegetarian all these years.

Well, the movie also does that, and then some. It’s one thing to read about how the proverbial sausage gets made. Seeing it is stomach-churning. A word to the wise: skip the snacks before this one, or make sure you eat them all during the previews.

But Eating Animals isn’t just a glimpse into the sickening nature of the meat industry. It’s partly that, for sure, but it also explores alternatives, interviewing organic farmers and animal welfare advocates who offer other, less horrifying systems for farming.

One of the key points that the film and the book raise is the way that modern farming has corrupted the biology of the animals. What we think of as “normal” chickens aren’t where the meat comes from—instead, meat chickens are bred to be morbidly obese, barely able to walk once they reach adulthood. (I’ve seen these first-hand; it’s incredibly sad.)

And it gets worse: because modern animal farming conditions are so horrible, the animals need to be pumped full of antibiotics just to survive to adulthood. And those antibiotics end up in the meat that people eat, and in turn cause antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” to breed. 

This is really the big takeaway from Eating Animals: the modern farming system is hurting humans too. Whether it’s dumping animal waste in cesspools that drain into rivers or allowing pus from diseased cows to seep into milk, the problems with the present-day meat industry aren’t simply related to animal welfare, but ours as well.

As a film, it works pretty well, though it is a bit disjointed as it hops back and forth to tell the stories of various farmers and activists. For the most part, it’s done in a straightforward interview style, although there was one cut from a KFC commercial to the interior of a corporate chicken farm that had a darkly ironic tone worthy of a Michael Moore film.

The film makes a number of strong points about the ties between the meat industry and the U.S. government charged with regulating it. As with so many things, the lobbying interests are able to control the bureaucrats who are supposed to regulate them. 

This brings me to one question that the film never fully answered: the role of government regulation. The general theme of the film is that the huge, centralized nature of the meat industry is responsible for most of the appalling practices. (In the film, Christopher Leonard from something called “New America” likens the meat industry’s structure to the Soviet Politburo) The better alternative, the film implies, is local, organic farming—in other words, farming as it was prior to 1960 or so.

The problem here is that it would be hard for the government to regulate such small, decentralized outfits, which in turn runs the risk of food produced in a non-standardized fashion, which could very easily become contaminated. Say what you want about the current system, but it at least hasn’t caused a major pandemic yet. That might be due to pure luck, but still, I would have liked to see more of an explanation of how, exactly, the FDA or the USDA or whatever is supposed to regulate a nation of small, independent organic farmers.

This, by the way, is one of the less obvious points about political economy that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats like to acknowledge: that government and big business need each other. Government needs big business because it’s too hard to regulate (or raise money from) small business. Big business needs government because it can lay a foundation for it to maintain its monopolies or oligopolies. 

Eating Animals makes a strong case that the current, horrible system of factory farming has developed as a result of deals and organizational hierarchies devised by huge organizations, but from there, it doesn’t address how we’re supposed to get back to the “old” style of farming. After all, the fundamental factors that caused organic farming to vanish in the last half-century are still present. How do we change that?    

By the end, the film suggests that nature will change things for us—perhaps in the form of a pandemic or severe global climate change. In the meantime, the best we can do is try to think long and hard about our food choices, and choose options that are healthier and less destructive.

Watching Eating Animals was a surprising experience for me personally because of how close to home it hit—much of the film is shot in the rural Midwest, and the farms and fields look like the ones I remember from my childhood. Many of those interviewed could have been my neighbors. And, most disturbingly, some of the footage of animal cruelty came from a farm in Plain City, Ohio; a mere 20 minutes from where I grew up. (You can read about the case here—be warned; there are some disturbing pictures.) The horrible consequences of modern farming are all around; it’s just that few people bother looking for them.

After seeing an early sequence in the film showing aerial footage of cesspools outside pig farms, I decided to check online and see if they really looked like that. Sure enough, if you go on Google maps and look at the satellite images, you can see the pink-tinted pools outside the long, grey buildings that house the pigs. They’re all over the place in North Carolina.

Of course, most people know, in some vague, abstract sense, that the way their meat got made was not pretty, and frankly, most of them would just as soon remain ignorant of the details. When I recommend this movie to my meat-eating friends, most of them react by saying “I’d rather not know.” Some of them go a step further and try to justify eating meat as a hard-nosed “just-the-way-of-the-world” realism that only naïve idealists ignore. And some of them say simply “I have to eat meat.” (They assert this without ever having tried to do otherwise.)

Eating Animals isn’t arguing that everyone should abandon meat altogether. (I might argue for that—but then, I’m awfully fond of cheese and eggs, so I can’t claim total innocence in this.) But it is arguing that we need to think long and hard about the way we get our meat, and whether this system is one that can continue indefinitely without causing massive, deadly problems. And to do that, we first need to be willing to confront the current reality. There may be some nasty things in the world that are best left unexamined—the comments sections on most news articles come to mind—but this isn’t one of them.

Chances are that most people who voluntarily go to see Eating Animals are people who have read the book or who are already aware of the problem of factory farming. And that’s well and good, but it isn’t enough, because the film is most effective as a form of aversion therapy to make people reconsider what they eat. So I not only recommend that you go see it, but drag some of your carnivorous family and/or friends along as well. Say you’ll treat them to dinner afterwards—and then see if they don’t suddenly become interested in organic or vegan food.

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Image via Wikipedia

[I saw this film a couple years ago, but never posted a review. I will do so now, for no particular reason. 🙂 ]

I don’t feel fully qualified to review this film, because it’s in Hebrew, which I don’t speak. So I can’t comment on the actors’ delivery of their lines, or even on the script, since I’m basing it off of English subtitles that may not reflect the full meaning.

Even more significantly, Hebrew etymology itself is an important concept in the film, and I can’t be sure to what extent I grasped the word play that goes on. At one point, the narrator alludes to the fact that the Hebrew word for childlessness is related to the word for darkness, which is related to the word for forgetting. This leads me to suspect the title has more meaning in the original. (The film is based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by Israeli author Amos Oz, from which this passage is adapted.)

All that said, I’m going to do my best to review what I can, and let you know when I think my opinions might be colored by my ignorance of the language.

The film is told from the perspective of the young Amos Oz (Amir Tessler) and chronicles his experience growing up in what was then British Mandatory Palestine, which over the course of the film is partitioned by a U.N. Resolution and then falls into civil war.

This political element is mostly shown through glimpses and murmurs in the background, since Amos is a young child, and what he perceives first and foremost are incidents in his own family. His father Arieh (Gilad Kanana) and mother Fania (Natalie Portman, who also directed the film and wrote the screenplay) are his main influences. Both are well-educated and, in their own ways, teach him about language and storytelling. His father, a scholarly and bookish man, frequently lectures him about Hebrew words and their interrelated meanings.

Fania is a more romantic type than her husband, and early sequences show her fantasies as a girl growing up in Europe. envisioning Israel as the “land of milk and honey”, to be settled by heroic pioneers. In keeping with her imaginative nature, she tells young Amos stories—some fanciful and fairytale-like, others more depressing and realistic, such as the story from her childhood of a Polish army officer who committed suicide as she watched.

Amos also overhears things he shouldn’t—such as Fania’s mother berating her, causing the younger woman to slap her own face in shame, or Fania telling another grim tale of her youth in Europe: a woman who committed suicide by locking herself in a shed and setting it on fire.

The film shows these scenes, as imagined by young Amos, and you can’t help feeling these aren’t healthy for a child to hear. At the same time, even if you didn’t realize that Oz grows up to be a writer, it becomes very clear in watching the film that this is his calling—everything in his upbringing leads him towards it.

Gradually, as the film wears on and political upheaval takes its toll, Fania begins to succumb to depression. It’s a grim decline, as we see her slowly wasting away, but the film does a good job capturing the pain and frustration seeing a loved one with a mental health disorder brings upon a family. (Even more heart-wrenching is the fact that the doctors prescribe sleeping pills and other depressants—at the time, proper treatment for such disorders was not widely available.)

Fania goes away to her sisters’ home in Tel Aviv, and there overdoses on sleeping pills. In the closing moments of the film, we see Amos as a young man, meeting with his father at a kibbutz. Finally, we see an elderly Amos writing the word “mother” in Hebrew.

The overall film is haunting and evocative, with a gorgeous soundtrack by Nicholas Britell that captures the gloomy mood of Jerusalem, which Oz at one point likens to a black widow.

I did have some issues with the cinematography. It has that washed-out gray/green palette that is way, way overused in films these days—especially those set in the past. I would have preferred to see it in the normal range of colors.

However, while this was a drawback, I did think it very successfully communicated one thing about Jerusalem: its age. Throughout the film, but especially in the shots of the winding, narrow streets that Amos and his family traverse through the city, I could practically feel the weight of all the accumulated history of this ancient place. The film conveyed the mystical power of its setting, and gave a sense of why it is so important to so many.

Again, I don’t want to comment too much on the acting, since I was reading subtitles rather than listening to the speech, but it seemed very good indeed. Tessler is the standout—he had to carry the immense burden of seeming wise beyond his years while still behaving like a normal child, rather than The Boy Who Is Destined To Become A Famous Writer. And he manages it splendidly from what I can tell.

Small moments, like the sequence in which Arieh is celebrating that all five copies of his new book have been purchased, and Amos later sees all five, still in their wrapping paper, at the house of an author Arieh knows (either a friend or relative; I couldn’t tell which), are what stick in my mind. The man simply closes the shelf lid over the books and gives Amos a look that says “we will not speak of this”, without uttering a word.

I went to this film expecting it to be a downer—I knew that it ended with Fania falling into depression and ultimately committing suicide—and for a large part of the second half, it did feel excruciatingly bleak. Watching someone sit silently in the dark, overcome with psychological torment, while her family members suffer in impotent grief, while perhaps true to life, is not a pleasant cinematic experience, and that’s how the film trends for some time. I was ready to write it off as an interesting picture that drowns in mental anguish in the second half.

And then something amazing happened.

I want to write about it, because I haven’t seen many others address it—but I also hate to spoil it. So I’ll make a deal with you: if you haven’t seen the movie, but think you might want to, stop reading now and watch it. Pay particular attention to the scenes of Fania’s stories—the drowning woman, the woman in the shed, the Polish officer. Then come back and read the rest of this. If you’ve already seen it, or just don’t care to but read this far and want to know it all, read on.

(more…)

220px-Far_Cry_5_boxshot
I’m not reviewing this game. I’m reviewing the reviews of it.

I haven’t played it. I probably won’t play it. I haven’t played a Far Cry game in years. You can read my thoughts on Far Cry 2 here. My sense is that not much has changed about the series since then.

For those who don’t know: Far Cry 5 is set in Montana, and the plot involves a doomsday cult of survivalist “preppers”. I don’t know much beyond that, but I gather it follows the standard Far Cry formula of a big open world for the player to run around in, getting in gunfights and blowing stuff up.

The marketing for the game has hyped the political aspects of the plot, and generated lots of controversy as a result.

The reviews I’ve read, however, have almost all complained that the game doesn’t have any real political message, saying things like “it plays it too safe” and “doesn’t want to offend people”. I get the sense a lot of people are disappointed in Ubisoft for not dialing the political commentary up to 11.

I admit, once I learned it was going to be just another open-world mayhem thing, with no major political message, I also lost interest in it. But I can’t blame Ubisoft for making that decision. If you think about it, they hardly had a choice.

Far Cry games are about people in extreme environments, fighting to survive against hordes of enemies with a vast array of deadly weapons. There is no clear morality in the world of Far Cry, save the Law of the Jungle. So if you play these games, it means you want to role-play surviving in a savage world of death and destruction.

Survivalists, doomsday preppers, and militia types are doing the same thing. They’re just acting out this fantasy, as opposed to playing a virtual simulation of it. In gaming lingo, they’re Live-Action Role-Playing, or “LARP-ing”.

So Ubisoft couldn’t go full bore political satire against survivalist/militia-types without also attacking their target audience. For those saying that Far Cry 5 should attack people who fetishize wilderness survival and military hardware: Who exactly do you think is buying this $60 simulation of over-the-top violence and destruction?

Is it possible for a game to criticize its audience? Yes, I have seen it done once: Spec Ops: The Line presented itself as a standard-issue military shooter, only to turn everything on its head and morph into a mind-bending satire of the genre that forced the player to question why they play these things at all.

But Spec Ops was not a huge money-maker, and Ubisoft is not going to alienate a huge portion of its audience for the sake of making a clever satire. The majority of audiences do not want to be satirized. They want to be entertained. It would be kind of like writing a detective novel where the detective fails to catch the killer specifically because he spends too much time reading detective novels.

“Form ever follows function” wrote the architect Louis Sullivan, and it’s a good principle for design in any medium. Because if you try to make a game whose function (satire of gun-loving survivalists) is directly opposed to its form (a simulation of gun-loving survivalism), the customers who want the form are going to be upset, and the customers who want the function probably aren’t going to buy it in the first place.

The_Death_of_Stalin
A truly great poster! (via Wikipedia)

What a crazy idea, to make a comedy about the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. But there is something about the absurdity of the overly-bureaucratized communist mass-murder machine that lends itself to dark humor—the petty logistical concerns and office politics familiar to white-collar workers everywhere, combined with the matters of life and death that concern a government, particularly a totalitarian one.

The film definitely plays this weird juxtaposition to the hilt right from the opening scene, in which Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) calls the manager of a concert broadcast live over the radio to demand a recording of it. When the manager learns there is no recording, he frantically tries to reassemble the orchestra to perform it again. The piano player, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) initially refuses, but ultimately gives in when bribed. After the performance is finished, she places an insulting note to the dictator inside the record sleeve.

Intercut with this are scenes of Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of Stalin’s secret police, dispatching his men to seize people from their homes and torture them in secret prisons. Beria holds immense power in the government, and when Stalin dies—on reading the note Maria has written—Beria is the first into his office, hastily removing important documents before other members of the Central Committee, including Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), arrive.

They are reluctant to pronounce him dead, and even the doctors hastily assembled to examine him are hesitant to give their assessment. When they finally do, the Committee proceeds with Georgy Malenkov nominally in charge, but with all of the Committee members, Khrushchev and Beria in particular, jockeying for power.

Stalin’s children, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), arrive for their father’s funeral. Vasily repeatedly launches into drunken rages, attacks guards and makes wild threats. Beria keeps Khrushchev busy dealing with these matters while he moves to consolidate his power by putting the city under the control of the secret police, increases his popularity by pausing arrests, and seizes control of the train system, preventing people from entering the city.

Beria also reveals that he has the note that Maria wrote to Stalin. She is an acquaintance of Khrushchev’s, and Beria uses this to threaten Khrushchev, implying that he will use the note to incriminate both of them should Khrushchev try to cross him.

In frustration, Khrushchev orders that trains to Moscow resume running, causing people to enter the city and be shot by Beria’s secret police. The Committee argues over whether Beria or his lower-level officers should be blamed for this.

Meanwhile, Marshal Georgy Zhukov arrives in Moscow, annoyed to find his army confined to barracks. Khrushchev secretly strikes a deal with Zhukov to help him remove Beria from power during Stalin’s funeral.  Zhukov agrees, on the condition that Khrushchev has the support of the entire Committee, which Krushchev manages to secure by bluffing that he has Malenkov’s backing.

At a Committee meeting after the funeral, Khrushchev signals Zhukov and his men to storm the room and arrest Beria. After much badgering from Khrushchev, Malenkov reluctantly signs off on the summary trial and execution of Beria.

The film ends with Khrushchev watching Maria play at a concert while Leonid Brezhnev (Gerald Lepkowski) looks ominously over his shoulder.

It’s an odd movie, with scenes of slapstick comedy (the Committee members awkwardly transporting Stalin’s body from the floor to his bed) mixed with more subtle satire, as in the sequences depicting Committee meetings, and one unforgettable scene in which Khrushchev and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) are speaking contemptuously of Molotov’s presumed-dead wife Polina, who was arrested as a traitor to the Party, only to change their tone mid-sentence to singing her praises as Beria appears with her in tow, having released her from prison to secure Molotov’s loyalty.

The humor throughout is very, very dark: for example, there is a running gag in the scenes in the secret police prisons where we repeatedly hear prisoners off-screen exclaiming “Long Live Comrade Stalin!” followed by a gunshot.

But in addition to the sometimes over-the-top satire, the plot is that of a very tight and coherent political thriller, as Khrushchev and Beria joust for power. I went in expecting it to paint all the Soviet elites as villains in equal measure—and they certainly all do some nasty things—but in my opinion the film pretty firmly sides with Khrushchev as the hero and Beria as the villain. The former is depicted as vulgar and a bit corrupt, but reasonably well-meaning. (He reminded me, in both looks and manner, of a Don Rickles character.) It’s impossible not to root for him over Beria, who, besides all his other crimes as head of the secret police, is a sexual predator of the most evil sort. It is altogether fitting and satisfying that the most graphically violent death in the film is Beria’s execution.

As you might expect, the film is very controversial, and was banned in Russia and former Soviet States. A member of the Russian Culture Ministry stated: “The film desecrates our historical symbols — the Soviet hymn, orders and medals, and Marshal Zhukov is portrayed as an idiot.”

I can’t speak to the hymn, the orders, or the medals, but I will say that while Zhukov is certainly a caricature (he’s played by Jason Isaacs, whose hammy acting  works much better here than in Harry Potter), for me, he was one of the most sympathetic characters in the film, after Khrushchev and Maria.

I would like to see a historian specializing in Soviet history do a thorough examination of what is and isn’t accurate in this movie. This article mentions some inaccuracies—notably, that Beria’s downfall was more protracted than the hasty arrest and execution depicted in the film. But that’s the sort of change that can be excused for the sake of the drama. I don’t know much about the Soviet Union post-World War II, but on cursory scanning of Wikipedia entries about the people and events depicted, I was surprised (and quite often disturbed) to learn how much of it was accurate.

Of course, the mark of a really good work of historical fiction is that it’s not just about the time period depicted, but that it contains observations about human nature that are relevant to the present-day. This is why, for example, the historical dramas of Shakespeare are still read and performed today.

So does The Death of Stalin contain any interesting lessons beneath the caricatures of historical enemies of Western capitalism and farcical depictions of Soviet state ceremonies? It’s hard to say. Maybe there is something about the dehumanizing effect that power has upon both those who wield it and those upon whom they exercise it. But that has been pretty well picked-over by people like George Orwell. The absurdity of bureaucrats administering lethal force? Joseph Heller covered that. So I’m not sure this picture brings anything new to the table in that regard.

Would I recommend seeing it? I don’t know. If you’re a Soviet history buff, it might be interesting to see what they got right and what they got wrong. If you like your comedy extremely black, then it might be worth a watch. But if you prefer uplifting cinema, or if you don’t like violence, or if you are offended by swearing, or–above all else– if one of your relatives worked for the Soviet Secret Police, then you should probably skip it.

“’You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.’”Charles Dickens. Our Mutual Friend. 1865

Ernest (angrily): “When you come to think of it, it’s extremely injudicious to admit into a conspiracy every pudding-headed baboon who presents himself!”—W.S Gilbert. The Grand Duke. 1896

220px-Fire_and_Fury_Michael_WolffI love politics. And I love unreliable narrator stories. So reading Fire and Fury was like a dream come true for me—not only are all of the book’s subjects unreliable narrators, presenting contradictory views and advocating mutually exclusive objectives, but the author himself is a sketchy character with questionable ethics and suspect motives. I’ve not witnessed such a kaleidoscope of political and journalistic deception since the movie Jackie.

But while the Kennedy administration was retroactively known as “Camelot”, the present one would be more accurately branded with another three-syllable word beginning with “c”. Forgive me if I shock you, but such vivid language is often employed by the President and his staffers in this book, especially Steve Bannon–certain quotes from whom helped drive sales of the book as well as end Bannon’s career at Breitbart.

For the first part of this review, I’m going to write as though everything the author reports is true, and provide analysis based on that. After that, I’ll discuss some of the weird things that cast doubt on Wolff’s account.

The central thread running through the book, which spans from Election Day in November 2016 to sometime in early Autumn of 2017, is the struggle for power between two factions: The President’s self-described “nationalist” strategist Steve Bannon on one side, and his adviser/daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared (“Jarvanka”, in the Bannon side’s terminology) on the other.

Behind most of the strange day-to-day details, the gossipy infighting, and Machiavellian backstabbing, this is the driving force of the whole drama, even more than the President’s fixation on what the mainstream news outlets are saying about him.

Most of the bizarre occurrences that we remember from the first year of this administration were the results of proxy wars between Bannon and the President’s daughter and son-in-law. For example, the infamous ten-day tenure of Anthony Scaramucci as White House Communications director was a move by Ivanka’s side against Bannon’s. The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement was a victory by the Bannon side against Ivanka’s.

Bannon is motivated by resentment against the permanent government in Washington, which, in the Bannon version of history, has sold out the interests of the United States to foreign powers, and become a corrupt network of out-of-touch intellectuals and bureaucrats.

The Ivanka side’s motives are a little less clear. Preservation of their family business combined with horror at the President allying with a man so closely tied to the openly racist “alt-right” movement seem to be the main ones. (Cynical observers might say that it’s really their horror at what being associated with the alt-right does to the family brand.)

The mainstream Republicans—represented for most of the book by then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus–are mostly offstage, and only intermittently have contact with the President, who does not like to be bored by the complicated business of hammering out legislation. He prefers to watch television and gossip with other businessmen about his problems.

While Bannon sees the world as a clash of civilizations, his boss sees it as a clash of personalities—in particular, media personalities, like himself. To him, politics is just the New York business scene writ large; and the political press just an expanded version of the New York tabloids, to which various competing interests leak stories—sometimes “fake news”—to get better deals.

Over all of the gossip, be it Bannon constantly insulting Ivanka or the President’s various complaints about the accommodations or the servants or the press or whatever else is bothering him that day, the book paints the President as an easily-distracted man who changes his mind seemingly every hour, and his staff as a group of people feverishly scrambling to achieve their own goals by trying to curry favor with him.

And then, of course, there is Russia. Wolff actually takes a semi-sympathetic view to the administration on this point, arguing that they are too disorganized to carry out a massive conspiracy with a foreign government, and that the press has made this conspiracy up out of a few disjointed bits and pieces of evidence that don’t really add up to much.

Curiously, this is also Bannon’s view of the Russia issue, and he repeatedly stresses the facts that (a) the Mueller investigation is all the fault of Ivanka and Jared for urging the firing of FBI Director Comey and (b) that he, Bannon, has no ties to Russia whatsoever, and doesn’t know any Russians and is totally not involved with anything to do with Russia.

Given that Bannon is constantly likening the entire administration to Shakespearean tragedy, perhaps he’d be familiar with the concept of “protesting too much”. It’s true you rarely hear his name in connection with the Russia ties, suggesting he’s either innocent or better at covering his tracks than the rest of them.

And this is where we have to start some meta-analysis of this book. Bannon, like the Shakespearean protagonist he apparently thinks he is, gives lots of soliloquies about a number of subjects. At least, that’s the impression you get from the book. But much as I enjoy imagining Steve Bannon wandering around the White House giving long philosophical speeches to nobody in particular, it seems pretty clear that he was willing to talk to Wolff all the time, more so than anybody else in the administration. Also, the fact that Wolff’s time in the White House ended shortly after Bannon left bolsters the claim that it was Bannon who was giving him all this access.

Why on Earth would Bannon do that? It doesn’t make much sense on the face of it, and when you factor in that Bannon lost his relationship with the President and his job with Breitbart as a result of the book’s publication, it seems even more peculiar.

One possible theory is that this was yet another in a long series of Steve Bannon schemes that had the precise opposite effect of the one intended. Bannon let Wolff in to glorify him and destroy his internal enemies, and wound up destroying his own career instead.

Another possibility is that Wolff tricked Bannon just as he tricked the President, and that the nickname “Sloppy Steve” is as much a comment on Bannon’s ability to keep his mouth shut as it is his style of dress.

Or maybe Bannon invited him in, thinking he would chronicle the glorious success of their first year in power, and when it didn’t turn out that way he forgot to tell him to take a hike.

The most interesting possibility is that Bannon wanted someone to give an account that would absolve him of any involvement with the Russia scandal. Maybe sacrificing his career was worth it to him to get the word out that he was totally not involved with any Russia stuff.

All of this speculation assumes that what Wolff has written is true, and there’s plenty of reason to doubt that as well. Throughout the book, there are snippets of conversation that, upon reflection, seem hard to imagine Wolff obtained any other way than downright espionage. (Assuming he didn’t just make them up.) How does he know, for example, what the President said on the phone in his bed at night? Does Wolff know which of his business associates he called, and interview them? If so, how does he know they are telling the truth?

There’s a chance that the entire thing is made up (although if it were, presumably Bannon would have denied the bits that got him in trouble). I think a big reason Wolff got a free pass from much of the press on checking his accuracy is that he doesn’t report anything contrary to the impression most people have of each member of the administration. Everyone acts pretty much like you’d expect them to, given everything else we have seen of them. So it seems plausible.

Which could mean either that all of them are exactly like they seem on TV, or that Wolff made up a story using the members of the administration as “stock characters” in a drama of his own invention. But I don’t think that’s what he did—at least not for the major players. Because the book doesn’t really have a story worth inventing, other than perhaps the story of Steve Bannon’s rapid and unlikely rise to a position of power, followed by his equally rapid fall after he was undone by his own arrogance. I guess it is rather Shakespearean after all!

Darkest_Hour_poster
This is a really weird poster. It looks like they are all hovering in the sky like Mary Poppins or something.

I’ll skip my usual plot-point-by-plot-point synopsis for this one–I think most readers are already familiar with World War II. Darkest Hour chronicles Winston Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) first days as Prime Minister in May 1940. Hitler’s armies are advancing through France and closing in on British forces at Dunkirk.

The film depicts Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), Churchill’s predecessor as Prime Minister, and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) attempting to force Churchill to negotiate with Hitler. Churchill argues with them repeatedly, as the Nazis draw ever closer to Dunkirk, and the news grows more bleak by the day,

Churchill is on the point of giving in to the calls for negotiations when he makes a spontaneous (and apparently completely invented for the sake of the film) visit to the London Underground, where all the passengers he talks to are strongly in favor of fighting to the bitter end–bricklayers, new mothers, and children all are fiercely opposed to the idea of negotiating.

This is a major over-simplification of how public opinion works. I understand the scene was intended to convey that Churchill was in tune with the spirit of the people, but it just seemed ham-handed and unbelievable, which raises the question of why they bothered to invent the scene at all. Why make something up just to have it be the weakest part of the drama?

His faith in the British fighting spirit restored, Churchill makes his famous “We shall fight on the beaches”  speech to Parliament. The evacuation of Dunkirk he ordered is a success, and the film ends with Churchill receiving overwhelming applause for his resolve.

The plot may be a bit thin, and of course, like all historical dramas, is hampered by the fact that we know what’s going to happen, but the performances of the major roles are all quite solid. Oldman does a terrific job, portraying Churchill as a flawed, temperamental man, capable of brilliant oratory as well as moments of confusion and depression. Kristin Scott Thomas is also very good as Churchill’s wife Clementine, although it seemed at times like the writer and/or director didn’t know what to do with her.

The big problems with the film were immersion-breaking things like the scene in the Underground, or another scene where they are playing a film reel to brief the Prime Minister, and the images displayed are fairly obviously what you get if you ask for “stock footage of Nazis”. (Why would Churchill, at a briefing about Dunkirk, need to see footage of Hitler giving a speech?)

Also, the cinematographer applied that grayish blue washed-out color filter that apparently everything set in England is supposed to have these days. This is far from the only movie to do this, so I don’t mean to single it out, but this desaturation business is getting tiresome. Can’t we just have normal colors?

Still, this is one of those movies that hinges on the performances, and those are certainly good enough to make it enjoyable.