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.

My mention of Ayn Rand in my post about The Jungle and Patrick Prescott’s comment about it set me thinking: what if Ayn Rand’s efforts to ridicule socialism went further than anyone realized?  What if the style of her books, with their interminable preaching and sprawling, momentum-killing speeches detailing various points of philosophy and economics, were meant as a deliberate counterpoint to socialist novels that did the same thing?

Look at some of the covers of Rand’s books, especially this edition of Atlas Shrugged, and notice how much it looks like Soviet propaganda art.  The structure and marketing of these books was ironically basing itself off of socialism’s propaganda.

Even Rand’s “fan club” called itself “the Collective”–again, a joke, since they were a collective of radical individualists.  They were always mocking socialist ideas and terms, so why not in the very style of the books themselves? And, most interesting of all, what if the increasingly totalitarian bent of “The Collective” was just an elaborate satire on how socialism itself went from being a theory-based social movement to a fanatical, quasi-religious cult based on the worship of idols like Marx and Lenin.

Maybe Rand was pretending to be as much of a zealot as the collectivists she hated.  Maybe she was the Sacha Baron Cohen of her time, deliberately playing a certain role to reveal something about her audience.  Like Orwell’s Animal Farm, she was showing how the principles of an idealistic revolution give way to less rational behavior in the end.


Maybe there’s something about the name “Sinclair”.  Last year, I blogged about Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, and mentioned how terribly unsubtle its political commentary is.  I just finished reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and it has much the same problem.

Upton Sinclair did not like the meat-packing industry. And so he wrote this book to explain why it–and ultimately the entire capitalist system–was corrupt and evil.  The book tells the story of a Lithuanian family who comes to America and finds work in the Chicago meat-packing industry.  Every single horrible thing that you can imagine happening then proceeds to happen, and so, through soul-crushing poverty, crime and death, the family breaks up.

The main character is the family patriarch, Jurgis Rudkus, who goes from being an honest working man beaten down by the cruel meat industry to a cynical and selfish criminal to finding the light of socialism, which he then espouses with religious zeal.

I have to admit, though it is about as heavy-handed as it could have been, it nevertheless succeeds somewhat in making you feel sorry for the characters by sheer force of repetition.  Sinclair had this irritating habit of writing something along the lines of: “Jurgis went home that night, little knowing that something unbelievably horrible was about to happen.”  This kind of kills the suspense, and is dramatically a dreadful device, but it beats you over the head with it so much it sometimes works anyway.

The irony is that though the book is famous for its depiction of the disgusting practices of the meat-packing industry, that was really just a bit of extra detail Sinclair included. His real point was much broader; it was that the workers were oppressed by the bosses.  So, he actually accomplished the extremely rare feat of writing a novel that accomplished social change, but it was not the change he wanted. (It wouldn’t shock me if the reason the book is famous for the parts about the food production processes is because those bits are closer to the beginning, and most people quit reading after that.)

Sinclair wrote this novel for a socialist magazine, and this is where it comes to its central problem: the conflict between being a work of propaganda and a work of art.  There can be propaganda that is also art, but when a person is writing to make a political point, there is a dilemma between portraying things as they are versus how the ideology requires them to be.  So, almost all of the characters in The Jungle are just puppets with which Sinclair makes his political points.

There are vast swaths of the book that don’t really qualify as being part of the story, they are merely long lists itemizing everything that is wrong with meat-packing, or the city of Chicago, or the factories, or whatever.  The last chapter of the book is just a huge lecture on the evils of Capitalism and the virtues of Socialism:

“How is the price of an article determined?”

“The price is the labor it has cost to make and deliver it, and it is determined by the first principles of arithmetic. The million workers in the nation’s wheat fields have worked a hundred days each, and the total product of the labor is a billion bushels, so the value of a bushel of wheat is the tenth part of a farm labor-day. If we employ an arbitrary symbol, and pay, say, five dollars a day for farm work, then the cost of a bushel of wheat is fifty cents.”

“You say ‘for farm work,'” said Mr. Maynard. “Then labor is not to be paid alike?”

“Manifestly not, since some work is easy and some hard, and we should have millions of rural mail carriers, and no coal miners. Of course the wages may be left the same, and the hours varied; one or the other will have to be varied continually, according as a greater or less number of workers is needed in any particular industry. That is precisely what is done at present, except that the transfer of the workers is accomplished blindly and imperfectly, by rumors and advertisements, instead of instantly and completely, by a universal government bulletin.”

That’s just a bit of it–to give you the flavor.  It reminded me of Ayn Rand’s writing, and almost made me wonder if her books are better once you are familiar with clumsily-written socialist propaganda.  Perhaps her sledgehammer approach to philosophical writing was intended as a parody.

There are a ton of obvious questions Sinclair fails to answer in the concluding chapters.  Given the benefit of hindsight, the “Socialism is Our Salvation” message of the book is truly ironic.  Just in the above passage, you may ask “how exactly will this ‘universal government bulletin’ work?” Or perhaps, if you’re after the big game, you might wonder “if price is determined by labor, wouldn’t that mean something produced with more labor–that is, less efficiently–be more valuable than the same good produced with less labor?”

Ok, that second one is unfair.  I’m criticizing Sinclair for repeating Marx’s mistake.  But if we just stick to the problems with this as a novel, it’s still pretty bad to end your book with a series of “Marty Stu” characters giving speeches.  This Socialist F.A.Q. in the last chapter made me think of a quote from Marx–Groucho, that is.  In one of their movies, there’s a bit where Chico is asking and answering his own rhetorical questions and then asks Groucho, “Now so far I’m right?”.  Groucho responds: “It’s pretty hard to be wrong  when you keep answering yourself.”

Now, don’t misunderstand me–I’m sure a lot of the criticisms Sinclair made of the meat industry were quite valid.  It was just the solutions where he went wrong, I think.  According to Wikipedia, an employee at the publishing company for The Jungle wrote:

One feels that what is at the bottom of his fierceness is not nearly so much desire to help the poor as hatred of the rich.

Doubtless, Sinclair would say that this employee was just slandering him on behalf of the capitalists in order to crush the glorious proletariat uprising. “Now we see the violence inherent in the system!”

Seriously, though, that person was right that Sinclair hated the rich.  He seems to have surprisingly little actual interest in the poor, and besides that, he seems to have had odd little prejudices of his own.  (Especially against the Irish–I think nearly all of the bad characters in the book are explicitly noted to be Irish.)

As a novel, it is pretty poor.  As a work of propaganda, it is also fairly weak, though it did actually set people thinking and inspire them to take action to make changes in society, even if it wasn’t what the author himself had in mind.  It caught the attention of  President Theodore Roosevelt–clearly, it was an effective vehicle for getting a message across.

And if nothing else, it made me glad I’m a vegetarian, even though I’m quite certain the meat industry’s practices have improved over the last century.

A guy I know once told me that he thought Star Trek: The Original Series was a “fascist” TV show.  I asked him to elaborate, and he listed me some reasons:

  • All the heroes are military personnel.
  • All of them belong to a socialist federation
  • They all wear uniforms that signify their rank within the rigid hierarchy.
  • The main hero, Capt. Kirk, is a Carlyle-esque “Great Man” figure. A masculine paragon of excellence, who often triumphs through a Nietzschean casting aside of Spock’s “logic” in favor of genuine emotion.

I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now, but it’s a fascinating argument.  Of course, I made some counterpoints:

  • The Federation is clearly supposed to be a neo-liberal society, built on tolerance and understanding between different groups.  It is more like an idealized version of the United Nations.
  • The Enterprise’s goal is ostensibly exploration and understanding, not conquest.
  • The real “fascist” version of Star Trek was shown in the famous “Mirror, Mirror” episode, in which the war-like crew of the parallel universe Enterprise fit the Fascist bill much better.
  • Besides this, there at least two other episodes where they bump into copies of the original fascists and the most famous of the “modern day” fascists.
  • The show’s values were generally liberal and progressive, as evidenced by the diverse cast and certain moments like Kirk and Uhura’s kiss, which was very controversial at the time.

Naturally, I think my argument stands up better.  However, my friend’s idea is still kind of interesting.  After all, despite that “peace and understanding” stuff, the Federation did find itself at war with those swarthy foreigners, the Klingons, awfully frequently.  (I think it’s significant that they changed this for The Next  Generation.)

What was the deal with the Federation?  Were they just a bunch of nice guys, or was something more sinister at work?  Does upholding the virtues of tolerance, inclusiveness and diversity except for the primitive and brutal “Others” still get you into the Tolerant Liberal Club, or does it put you in the Conquering Empire with Good P.R. Club?

Somewhere—I can’t find the exact quote, sorry—the radical libertarian Albert Jay Nock wrote that the people who opposed fascism and also supported a “league of nations” seemed to be saying that a drop of something was deadly poison, but a gallon of it was a miracle elixir.  What, Nock’s thinking went, was one-world government, a “league of nations”, if not authoritarian nationalism writ large?

Of course, Nock was wrong, at least in the case of the Earth.  For if there were a “one-world government” modeled on the United States, with each country being functionally equivalent to a State,  it would have no “Other” to make into its enemy.  It would not, as far as I can see, have the ultimate hallmark of a fascist nation: the racial or at a heritage-based class system.  This does not at all mean a one world government is a good thing, but it is not fascist.

But in Star Trek the Federation did not encompass all known sentient life in the universe, although it did seem that its doors were open to all who would join.   There were other systems of government and life-forms.  The Federation was just trying to… triumph over them.  Fascism!

There is an old quote I’ve seen attributed, probably incorrectly, to Huey Long: “When Fascism comes to America, it will be called anti-Fascism!”  I suppose you could say that is what the Federation has done, since they are committed to freedom and tolerance… and will destroy anyone who isn’t.

The new Star Trek movie Into Darkness especially seemed to accentuate the fascistic element of the series.  The grey uniforms the cadets at Starfleet wear (especially the hats), and the warmongering admiral make it seem like it’s on its way to being the Evil Empire.

I saw the original Star Trek episode “The Cloud Minders” last night.  It’s about a city in the clouds populated by artists and thinkers who devote themselves to their pursuit of beauty.  It sounds pretty awesome at first, but it comes out in the episode that the reason they are able to do this is because they have a population of people who are effectively slaves doing all the hard work for them.

The plot resolution in this episode was confusing–it was one of the weaker episodes, in my opinion–but it was certainly an interesting concept. It reminded me of the Oscar Wilde essay in which he laid out his scheme for fixing the world:

The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.

Wilde wrote that in 1891, and poverty and class-inequality have still not been abolished despite massive advances in technology. Of course, the people in the Star Trek episode had even less technology than was available in Wilde’s time, let alone what they ought to have in the 23rd century.  The slave people in the episode were mining some mineral by hand. How they had created a floating city with powerful anti-gravity technology but not yet invented the shovel, I don’t know.  Perhaps it was a make-work project.

But it’s still an interesting idea, inconsistencies aside.  Wilde knew it took work to build civilization, and that somebody had to do the unpleasant bits.  He was hoping to put that job off on machines, since it’s not cruel to make them do it.

This leads to another point.  Last week, Ross Douthat wrote a column in the NYT entitled “A World Without Work”,  where he claims that it’s no longer as vital for people to work because of the nation’s great wealth.  As he writes “the decline in work-force participation is actually being made possible by material progress.”

Douthat is worried that this, though, because he fears that the very absence of having to work, being freed from the daily toil, will be harmful to people’s well-being.  It’s possible. Perhaps the very material security which is supposed to be the catalyst for civilization could instead bring about its stagnation, making people into idle dilettantes, who do nothing but write about science-fiction shows and generally have their heads in the clouds.

(Hat tip to Freddie DeBoer for the Douthat article.)

In the trailer for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”.

This movie really surprised me.  It was made in 1948, around the time of what is called the “Second Red Scare“, when concern about communist infiltration was very high.  Given that, the content of the movie is astounding.

Fred Dobbs (Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are unemployed guys looking for work.  They convince an old prospector named Howard (Walter Huston) to help them on an expedition for gold in the Sierra Madre mountains.  The first remarkable thing about the movie is a speech given by Howard in his first scene:

Howard: Say, answer me this one, will you? Why is gold worth some twenty bucks an ounce?
Flophouse Bum: I don’t know. Because it’s scarce.
Howard: A thousand men, say, go searchin’ for gold. After six months, one of them’s lucky: one out of a thousand. His find represents not only his own labor, but that of nine hundred and ninety-nine others to boot. That’s six thousand months, five hundred years, scramblin’ over a mountain, goin’ hungry and thirsty. An ounce of gold, mister, is worth what it is because of the human labor that went into the findin’ and the gettin’ of it.
Flophouse Bum: I never thought of it just like that.
Howard: Well, there’s no other explanation, mister. Gold itself ain’t good for nothing except making jewelry with and gold teeth.

What’s so remarkable about that, you wonder?  Well, what Howard is describing there is what is known as a Labor Theory of Value–the value of something is determined by the labor put forth to get it.  This is an economic idea that is commonly associated with a fellow named Karl Marx.  And it’s a response to the claim that gold’s value derives from its scarcity–a major component of non-Marxian, liberal economics.

Also in the trailer for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”

So, about twenty minutes into the movie, we have gotten a lecture on Marxian economics.  This is all the more interesting because the rest of the movie is devoted to proving over and over that greed for wealth corrupts people–specifically, Dobbs.  Howard repeatedly predicts that the gold will drive men to madness, and does it ever.

Dobbs’s inevitable corruption is fun to watch–that Bogart guy was a pretty good actor, you know that?–and Walter Huston  is excellent, even though his role is fairly predictable.  He is, essentially, an infallible sage, and normally those characters are pretty dull, but Huston imbues him with personality.  What is not clear to me is why he bothered to come along, since he believes almost from the outset that the expedition will be a disaster, and it proves to be exactly that.

It was odd to me that the movie’s most famous, yet often mis-quoted, line: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges” was spoken by a rather poorly-acted, bandit character.  I thought his character was pretty weak.  In fact, I felt that the bandits had too big a role in the film, when all they really needed to do was show up at the end when Dobbs’s luck runs out.

I keep coming back to the economic “moral” of the movie, though.  It’s a very socialist message, what with the capitalist who desires to earn for himself being depicted as either a monster or a buffoon, and the character who opens up describing the labor theory of value depicted as a wise and thoughtful figure.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking: “Well, this is it– Mysterious Man has finally gone completely crazy and is now seeing communist conspiracies everywhere.  He must have been listening to Glenn Beck too much, and he just lost his tenuous grip on reality.”

1950s anti-communist pamphlet

To be clear, I’m not saying I think this movie was some kind of evil communist-Hollywood indoctrination plot.  It was based on a book by a mysterious German called “B. Traven“, who was apparently a socialist.  Well, when your movie is based on a book by a German socialist, you can’t be surprised if some German socialism creeps in.  I doubt John Huston wanted to make Marxist propaganda; he just wanted to make a Western, and the book he adapted it from had some Marxist propaganda in it.

What surprises me is that, despite how popular accusing people in Hollywood of communism was at the time, the film wasn’t banned or censored, and John Huston wasn’t hauled up before the H.U.A.C. to explain himself.  I’m not saying any of that should have happened, I’m just saying it’s weird that the film apparently got released without any censorship or controversy, which is kind of amazing given the zeitgeist.

“Reck·on·ing: an itemized bill or statement of a sum due.”

That is the second definition at The Free Dictionary for the word “reckoning”. A dark bit of irony, given the fate of the game Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning 

I’d been seeing ads for it on game sites and in stores for awhile, but I never paid any attention to them, because the whole fantasy/medieval setting has never done much for me. I’m still recovering from forcing myself through Neverwinter Nights 2.

But today, I saw that 38 Studios, the company that made it, is folding. It’s getting a lot of publicity because it was founded by Curt Schilling, a baseball player so famous that even I have heard of him. I’ll have more on the business aspects of this in a minute, but first a little more about the game itself.

Also of note to me was that the game’s lore was created by R.A. Salvatore. I’ve only read one book by him, the novelization of Attack of the Clones. I thought it was pretty bad, to be honest, but I know he’s a very widely-acclaimed fantasy author.

The plot of Kingdoms of Amalur sounded…. Well, let me show, not tell. From the Wikipedia page for Kingdoms:

“Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning” follows the story of a mortal known as the “Fateless One”, who having died before the game’s outset, is revived in the experimental Well of Souls by the gnomish scientist Fomorous Hugues. The first and only success of the experiment, the Fateless One must escape the facility when it comes under attack… Having escaped the facility, the Fateless One – having no memory of his life before his death – learns of the intriacies [sic] of the world he has returned to by the Fateweaver Agarth…

For comparison, here’s a bit of the plot summary for Planescape: Torment a famous and almost universally beloved RPG from 1999:

“Planescape: Torment”‘s protagonist is “The Nameless One,” an immortal being who, if killed, will wake up later, sometimes with complete amnesia…

The game’s story begins when The Nameless One wakes up in a mortuary. He is immediately approached by a floating skull, Morte, who offers advice on how to escape…

Well, I guess it’s a nice tip of the hat to Torment… that’s good, I suppose. Not breaking a lot of new ground, though. Regardless, the general reception of the game was good, but not great.

Apparently, though, it needed to be great, because 38 Studios ran out of money and laid off all their employees. That’s sad. It’s always a shame when people lose their jobs.

And this is where the story gets really bad. Back in 2010, Rhode Island loaned the company $75 million dollars to move there, on the idea that it would generate “jobs” and “tax revenues”. The Governor of Rhode island is not at all happy about the situation, and Schilling has apparently run out of money to put into the company.

Another aspect to the whole thing is that Schilling is known for his support of Republican politicians. It seems, as Brian McGrory notes, rather hypocritical that a Republican should be taking money from the government to support his business. Doesn’t quite square with the whole “free market” thing, and all that. But then, I don’t know what kind of Republican Schilling is. Perhaps he has no deep philosophical or ideological ties to them; he merely recognizes–correctly–that as a wealthy person it is to his financial advantage for them to win.

What concerns me more is the black eye it gives to video gaming companies as business ventures–people will think twice before investing in a game company with the specter of it being “the next 38 Studios” hanging over it. I mean, if one that is backed by a wealthy celebrity and produces a reasonably well-liked game can’t succeed; that’s going to give everyone pause.

Two good pieces on Slate today; one about sociologist/philosopher William Graham Sumner and one about apocalyptic campaign ads. I’ll tackle the latter first.

It’s a good list, but I disagree with the claim that “when candidates get desperate, they try to scare you.” Was Nixon really desperate in 1968, or Johnson in 1964? Scaring people is always an effective tactic, whether they’re desperate or not. All attack ads either try to frighten or ridicule, and those that ridicule usually carry an undercurrent of frightening, as the idea of such a buffoon as the target of the ad taking office is scary by implication.

By the way, it didn’t make the list, but in my opinion the best political attack ad ever is this one, from Nixon’s 1968 campaign against Hubert Humphrey:

That ad is purely visceral. There’s not even any language in it until the very end, which is as it should be. The effective advertisement must appeal to instincts and base, gut feelings, not sophisticated reasoning. Trippy and weird as it is, this ad is psychologically effective.

On to the second piece, about William Sumner. His anti-socialist, “leave the rich people alone” philosophy sounds to me pretty similar to the ideas of his contemporary, Herbert Spencer. And it seems that Sumner was who coined the phrase “the Forgotten Man”, which, as my readers will know, has formed the theme of many a ham-fisted Jon McNaughton painting.

So, I skimmed some of the Sumner essay “What Social Classes Owe to Each Other” that the Slate article talks about. I confess, I could only skim because it was quite dull; most of the ideas in it are old hat by now, but it’s important to remember that they must have seemed novel at the time.

Sumner begins the essay by complaining:

We constantly read and hear discussions of social topics in which the existence of social classes is assumed as a simple fact. “The poor,” “the weak,” “the laborers,” are expressions which are used as if they had exact and well-understood definition. Discussions are made to bear upon the assumed rights, wrongs, and misfortunes of certain social classes…

He does not like the phrase “the poor man” one bit:

There is no possible definition of “a poor man.”.. The “poor man” is an elastic term, under which any number of social fallacies may be hidden.

And then:

There is an old ecclesiastical prejudice in favor of the poor and against the rich.  In days when men acted by ecclesiastical rules these prejudices produced waste of capital, and helped mightily to replunge Europe into barbarism. The prejudices are not yet dead, but they survive in our society as ludicrous contradictions and inconsistencies. One thing must be granted to the rich: they are good-natured. Perhaps they do not recognize themselves, for a rich man is even harder to define than a poor one. It is not uncommon to hear a clergyman utter from the pulpit all the old prejudice in favor of the poor and against the rich, while asking the rich to do something for the poor; and the rich comply, without apparently having their feelings hurt at all by the invidious comparison.

Well, if I were rich, people could denounce me as much and as viciously as they damn well-pleased and I wouldn’t complain.

But beyond that, it’s like Paul Graham wrote:

Most philosophical debates are not merely afflicted by but driven by confusions over words. Do we have free will? Depends what you mean by “free.” Do abstract ideas exist? Depends what you mean by “exist.

Same problem here. Sumner gets bogged down trying to define things, or show that they can’t be defined, in order to make some point; and it all becomes nearly meaningless.

I’ll try to read more of this essay, but right now my eyes are glazed over. Sumner’s writing is like Ayn Rand’s without any of the animating passion.

Conservative painter Jon McNaughton, whose painting The Forgotten Man I blogged about before, has a new piece out entitled One Country Under Socialism. You can see it here. It depicts a sinister-looking President Obama holding a burning U.S. Constitution.

As a painting, I personally think this one is poorer than his previous efforts. Setting aside my political disagreements with him, this one seems pretty unambitious to me.  What’s really interesting about this piece to me is the article he posted on his blog about the painting, wherein he says:

Our federal government has been moving in the direction of socialism for over one hundred years.  Many presidents and politicians have compromised the Constitution as we have given away our freedoms under the guise of entitlements and government intervention.

“Over one hundred years”, eh? That’s interesting; as that puts us at least back in 1912, when Taft was President. Well, no doubt McNaughton thinks the corporate income tax was a step towards socialism, so that’s one thing. Even more interesting is his next claim:

In the history of the world, never has there been a recorded example where Socialism has led to the betterment of the human condition or improved the liberty of the people.

Well, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan: “are you better off than you were 100 years ago?” If we have been trending that way this past century, than surely the remarkable progress of the U.S. is something of a point in Socialism’s favor.

Ah, but what a simplistic argument! Maybe all this has happened in spite of our Socialist tendencies.

But what is this socialism, anyway? Again, McNaughton has an answer:

Socialism uses the illusion of offering fairness and justice for everyone by redistributing the wealth of the nation; picking and choosing winners and losers.

“Redistributing the wealth of the nation”. I see. Well, then, McNaughton is understating the sheer staying power of Socialism in this country.

As I’ve said before: if a State collects taxes to provide for defense, law enforcement and a legal system, then it has already admitted that it is necessary to redistribute the wealth of its citizens for the greater good. The rest is mere detail–a question of what actually serves the greater good and what doesn’t.

This allows for all manner of variation, but, at the end of the day, is really still about socialism. Most governments in history have been socialistic by this definition, because taxation of any kind amounts to redistributing wealth. And taxation has been done for rather a long time. Think of the Biblical phrase “Render unto Caesar”, for example.

The point is that redistribution of wealth is what the State does. After that, it is all merely a question how much wealth the State shall direct and to what ends. under the McNaughton definition, all States are Socialist.

In a way, Conservatives these days sometimes seem to attack the State merely for being the State. The libertarian Albert Jay Nock wrote in the 1930s in Our Enemy, the State that “the invariable characteristic of the State is the economic exploitation of one class by another”, and gave a long history of the State which demonstrated its tendency to transfer wealth. Nock may have been a paranoid anti-government kook, but at least he understood what he was opposing, unlike today’s paranoid anti-government kooks, who think they are only opposing an ideology.

President Obama–the same President Obama who is allegedly engaging in “class warfare” and supposedly out to tax “job-creators”–has announced a plan to “lower the corporate tax rate from 35% to 28%.” Read all about it.

One thing to keep in mind before arguing about what this plan means is that it is a plan that is being proposed. Meaning that if anything ever does come of it, it will probably be completely different than it is now, once all the different interests have hashed it out.

But, just for fun, let’s talk about it. Apparently, idea is that in exchange for these tax cuts, “corporations would have to give up dozens of loopholes and subsidies that they now enjoy. Corporations with overseas operations would also face a minimum tax on their foreign earnings“, according to the Associated Press article.

Okay, but here’s the thing: ultimately whether it comes under the label “taxes”, “loopholes”, “subsidies” or what have you, there is ultimately only one question: do the corporations get more money as a result of this plan or less? I’d like to see some sort of estimated balance sheet that gives some idea whether corporations, if treated as a monolith, win or lose from this plan. I won’t hold my breath, though, because it’s going to be virtually impossible to get good reporting on that.

More to the point, even if you somehow did find that out, we would then have to drill down into the details of which corporations will lose and which will win, and then try to figure out if they’re the right ones. Which is always a gamble, because it’s basically the same problem as trying to pick winners. And then of course, as the AP article points out it is unlikely that any of this will happen in an election year, and thus, even assuming Obama does get re-elected, it’s unknown what the Congress will look like next year.

This is why the idea of getting rid of the whole tax code appeals to people. It appealed to me, in my Libertarian days, until I realized that since taxes in some form are necessary to run a government, there would have to be new one installed, and in the course of installing it, all the same problems would immediately recur.

While we’re on the topic, why is Obama doing this, if such a class-warrior he is? Is he just as beholden to the corporate interests as his Republican opponents. I don’t know, but I know some Democrats who are going to think so.

Long-time readers might remember when I asked the question “was Theodore Roosevelt a socialist?” I said at the time that I thought T.R. “was merely a pragmatist, and found that the easiest way to thwart radical socialism was to allow for moderate socialism.” The same argument could apply here, if we ask “is Obama out to aid the corporations?”* Well, yes, but not as much as the Republicans are. The easiest way to thwart radical corporate tax cuts is to allow for moderate ones.


*I did not ask “is Obama a Capitalist?” for reasons which are long and complicated. The short version is that, in my view, very few people can actually be said to be “capitalist”, as almost all countries, governments, and corporations engage in some scheme of artificial wealth redistribution, which, according to some Republicans makes them “socialist”. By their definition, almost everything short of anarchy is socialism. Also, of course, helping corporations isn’t quite the same as being a capitalist, but it’s not being a socialist either.