My blogger friend Thingy mentioned reading and enjoying Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63 awhile back.  I’d never read any books by him, so I decided to give it a try.  I’ll try not to spoil it here, but it’s about time-travel and the unintended side-effects thereof.

It’s quite good, all in all.  You can tell he made an effort to research the styles and vernacular of the 1960s, and he also does a pretty good job of presenting  both the good and the bad aspects of that era.  There was also a lot of the hint-don’t-tell kind of cosmic horror in certain parts that I really liked.

The ending was a bit weaker though still good.  Again, without giving away too much, there was a part of it that reminded of the book A Clockwork Orange, and that felt kind of cliched.  The ending was… I guess, “bittersweet” is probably the best word for it.

I might analyze it more in-depth later, but for now, I just want to recommend reading it.

Poster for stage version of “It Can’t Happen Here”.

My previous post set me thinking about various alternate history and dystopian future fiction where real places and countries are depicted.  I think the authors of the Tea Party Insurrection article referenced in the last post should have presented it as a short story or novella or something instead; it might have been less controversial that way.

I thought about the 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis.  It was a “what-if” kind of book based on the idea of a Fascist takeover of the United States government.  The dictator who rises to power in the novel was based on the Louisiana Governor and U.S. Senator Huey Long, who tried to challenge Franklin Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination.  Many accused him of harboring dictatorial ambitions and of creating a cult of personality.

I admit I haven’t read the whole book, just the first chapter or so.  I found the writing style irritating.  The satire was very heavy-handed, to the point of making Ayn Rand look subtle in comparison.  Also, the characters’ names were so comical as to make the whole thing ridiculous.  The dictator is named “Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip”, for example.  I’m sorry, but in my opinion someone named “Buzz Windrip” wouldn’t get elected mayor of Podunk, let alone President.  (No offense to the mayor of Podunk.)

But that said, it was a pretty interesting concept for a story, although I suppose Huey Long and his supporters were not huge fans of it, any more than the Tea Party are fans of the Benson and Weber article.   But I can’t find much evidence to suggest it was very controversial at the time.  Not surprising; like I mentioned the other day, Marxist philosophy cropped up in the middle of a major Hollywood movie at the height of the Red Scare, and nobody cared.  I think Benson and Weber’s article would have been less upsetting and offensive as a work of fiction than as a creepily matter-of-fact strategy paper.

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.

As I’ve said several times, I don’t think Romney will win the election, because he isn’t as likeable and charismatic as Obama.  But people ask: “he could win, though, right?  There’s a chance?  There is not, as John McLaughlin might say, ‘absolute metaphysical certitude’ of his defeat?”

Is there a precedent for the charismatic, gifted orator being beaten by the boring but wealthy guy?  Why yes, yes there is.  In 1896 William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan despite Bryan being a brilliant and popular speaker.

President William McKinley

McKinley represented the business interests of the city and Bryan represented the poor farmers—the populists.  Bryan embarked on a tour of the country; McKinley stayed on his front porch and let the people come to him.  Bryan was youthful and exciting, McKinley had more money.  Indeed, McKinley’s campaign created the modern form of campaign finance: convincing businesses to give you money by telling them your opponent will be bad for them.

Case in point: you want to hear some class warfare?  Here’s the end of Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech:

It is the issue of 1776 over again. Our ancestors, when but three millions in number, had the courage to declare their political independence of every other nation; shall we, their descendants, when we have grown to seventy millions, declare that we are less independent than our forefathers? No, my friends, that will never be the verdict of our people. Therefore, we care not upon what lines the battle is fought. If they say bimetallism is good, but that we cannot have it until other nations help us, we reply that, instead of having a gold standard because England has, we will restore bimetallism, and then let England have bimetallism because the United States has it. If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

William Jennings Bryan in 1896

Wow!  It sounds like Pat Robertson speaking on behalf of Occupy Wall Street!  This sort of thing was what enabled the Mckinley campaign to convince business that it was worth their while to give lots of money to the cause of preventing Bryan’s election.  And, evidently, it worked.  As the chart here shows, 1896 had by far the most campaign spending of any campaign in history as a percentage of GDP.

So, there is Romney’s blueprint: have more corporate money on his side than Obama and hope that will see him through.  There is some reason to think this could happen, given the Citizens United decision and the rise of so-called “Super-PACS”.  It could, I repeat, could happen.

However, there are lots of reasons why I think 2012 is not 1896:

  • No radio/television/internet in 1896.  These technologies are a force multiplier for charisma.  If they had existed in 1896, Bryan would probably have won.
  • Bryan was not the incumbent President.  Incumbency gives someone an advantage in that they are not only some guy running for President, but actually the President of the United States.  Even if unpopular, the office gives the occupant an automatic degree of authority and respect.
  • Romney isn’t as good at campaigning as McKinley.
  • Obama is more friendly to the business establishment than Bryan was.  Ask around among the disappointed progressives and you’ll see that they can only wish Obama would give a “cross of gold”-style speech.

I’ll allow that there is a slim chance Romney could win, but I still do not think it is likely.

World War I propaganda poster depicting Britannia and Uncle Sam. Image via Wikipedia.

An anonymous Romney adviser has allegedly told the Daily Telegraph that Romney would improve relations with Britain because:

“We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special,” the adviser said of Mr Romney, adding: “The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have”.

What a lot of people are talking about is the racial angle (pardon the pun) of this alleged quote.  One thing to keep in mind is that Obama is in fact partly English on the side of his mother, Ann Dunham.  (Dunham is an English name, for one thing.) But people are thinking this is a not-too-veiled racial attack.  I’d have to say I don’t what else the point of such quote could be, although it should be noted that the Romney campaign is saying this quote is inaccurate.  Well, if so, they should sue the Telegraph for libel.  If they don’t, it might seem like their guy actually said that, and they’re lying to cover it up.

What I really want to talk about, though, is this “special relationship” stuff.  I remember there was a big dust-up back in 2009 about the “special  relationship”, when Obama gave then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown a set of DVDs as a gift.  The Prime Minister had given him a pen-holder made from the HMS Gannet.  This upset a lot of people, but from what I can tell, Brown was treated like this by virtually everyone.  He had that anti-charismatic thing (a lot like Al Gore) that made people dislike him instinctively.  So I don’t think this means Obama doesn’t like Britain.

In practice, the “special relationship” seems to work like this: the British give us their culture–actors and actresses, authors, musicians–and we give them help whenever there’s a world war.  It’s not a bad system, all told.

Seriously, though: the “special relationship” seems to have been heavily emphasized by Winston Churchill, presumably for the purpose of convincing the U.S. to intervene in World War II.  And certainly, since America was founded people who had been British, there’s no doubt the two countries have a lot in common.  However, I don’t know that it is really that “special”.  Diplomatic relationships are usually forged and dismantled based on financial or military interests, not sentimentality.  If–Heaven forbid!–the United States’ relationship with Britain deteriorated, we would no doubt start saying “well, the whole country was founded because of a war with them, after all.”

That’s really the point: a lot of this is contrived stuff for people to argue about that ultimately doesn’t mean very much.  Example:  Romney says he’ll put a bust of Winston Churchill back in the Oval Office if elected.  Big deal.  I admire Churchill, but that really doesn’t matter very much in the scheme of things.  This is all a lot of pointless fighting over symbolism, as far as I’m concerned.

Everyone is talking about the Supreme Court’s ruling on Obamacare.  But I don’t want to talk about that now.  I want to address another controversial 5-4 ruling, one that many said was the last one before this to garner such attention.  James Fallows alluded to it in his hyperbolic-yet-interesting-but-ultimately-irrelevant pre-ruling post: the curious case of Bush v. Gore.

Since I didn’t start blogging until nine years after that decision, I’ve never really talked about it on here.  It’s quite interesting.  What does our go-to source, Wikipedia, tell us? 

The Court held that the Equal Protection Clause guarantees to individuals that their ballots cannot be devalued by “later arbitrary and disparate treatment”. Even if the recount was fair in theory, it was unfair in practice. The record, as weighed by the Florida Supreme Court, suggested that different standards were seemingly applied to the recount from ballot to ballot, precinct to precinct, and county to county, even when identical types of ballots and machines were used.

So, Florida screwed up the recount, huh?  What the heck were they doing, counting in Greek numerals?  How can you screw up a simple vote count unless corruption is involved?  Well, whatever.  Then:

The Court stated that the per curiam opinion’s applicability was “limited to the present circumstances, for the problem of equal protection in election processes generally presents many complexities.”

I have read this over and over.  I am no legal expert, but I can read English.  I am going to write, in a separate paragraph, in bold, my reading of this.  If you are a legal expert, please explain to me if I am making mistake in the following paragraph, for I can see no other interpretation.

The Court had to make sure their ruling applied only in that case, because otherwise it could conceivably call into question many other elections in the history of the United States, and future ones as well.  Certainly, every recount was now suspect.  According to their findings, known methods of vote counting may have been unconstitutional.  I mean, if they couldn’t recount votes in a constitutional manner, how could anyone be sure they had counted them right in the first place?

I am not saying the Court was wrong.  I am only saying that if they were right, there existed a possibility that the entire system was fundamentally flawed.  At least that’s how I read it.  Am I wrong?

However, this part was a 7-2 ruling.  The 5-4 ruling was the controversial one, the one that said they couldn’t try a constitutional recount.

Conservatives have been quick to point out that the Court did not decide the election for Bush because, had the recount continued in those counties, Bush would have won anyway.  they cite this New York Times story from 2001:

A close examination of the ballots found that Mr. Bush would have retained a slender margin over Mr. Gore if the Florida court’s order to recount more than 43,000 ballots had not been reversed by the United States Supreme Court.

The story went on to note:

But[…] Mr. Gore might have won if the courts had ordered a full statewide recount of all the rejected ballots.

Please observe that the story is from 2001.  Not 2000.  That means that people only found out what would have happened almost a year later.  The Court making their decision knowing that if they stopped the recount Bush would win, whereas if the recount continued, it was unknown whether he or Gore would win.  Now, we learned after the fact that Bush would have won had they allowed the count in those counties to continue, thus rendering it a moot point, but they did not know that at the time.  We must evaluate their decisions based on the knowledge they possessed when they made the ruling:

  • Stop recount: Bush chance of victory = 100%
  • Continue recount: Bush chance of victory = x, where x < 100%

I think it’s clear what the dominant strategies are in this case for any political partisan, no?

But the Supreme Court is not political!  They are just a machine that ruthlessly interprets the law, not biased in any way, shape or form, right?  They wouldn’t decide an election based on anything other than legal precedent.  That wouldn’t be logical.  What would Vulcan High Command say?

Let’s hear from Justice Scalia on the matter:

There you have it.  They had to do it!  Everyone was laughing at us!

Two Socialists: Benito Mussolini and Oscar Wilde (Images via Wikipedia)

Monica Crowley, conservative pundit, has been going around promoting her new book that calls for a “happy warrior” to unite the Republicans and lead them onward to glory.  Somebody like Ronald Reagan.  (Surprise!)

In a book-promoting interview with the Daily Caller, she accuses President Obama of carrying out “economic fascism”.  This is a rather ingenious accusation, because it allows her to associate Obama with fascism by citing a characteristic of fascism that was not a distinguishing feature of it.  It is the old Jonah Goldberg maneuver, only more brazen than Goldberg usually is.

It is true that the fascists did indeed believe in regulating the economy, and intervening in markets and yes–they even believed in doing it to benefit the poor, so long as “the poor” were of the approved nationality and/or race.  All this is true.  But it is not the hallmark of fascism; the hallmark of fascism is ultra-nationalism and, in the case of the Nazis especially, violent racism.  The economic policies of the fascists are just that–economic policies.  They are by no means unique to fascists, nor does belief in them necessarily imply belief  in their other tenets.

There are kinds of socialism: national socialism, aka fascism, aka Nazism.  And then there is international socialism.  The two are very different.  And then there is the artistic, peaceful socialism, like that described by Oscar Wilde.  And moreover, there are all sorts of economic policies that involve government intervening in the economy for one reason or another, and fascism is but one of them.

Saying Obama’s policies are “economic fascism” is like saying he is a “Nazi tie-wearer”.  It is true that he wears ties.  And it is true that Nazis wore ties.  And yet that is not the tell-tale characteristic of a Nazi, so it is merely an insult, not an analysis.

Here we observe one of the dangers of academic tenure…

The short version, if you don’t have time to watch the video, is like this: evidently having nothing better to do, Roberto Unger, a former professor of President Obama’s, has concluded that same President Obama must be defeated. This defeat will, so he says, “allow the voice of democratic prophecy to speak once again in American life.”

Obviously, the good professor knows this will not happen under President Romney.  But the defeat of Obama is necessary to allow for true progressivism to return, he believes.

Let us look at history, shall we?  From 1968 until 1992, the Republicans won every Presidential election but one.  The Democrats finally got Clinton in ’92, but this was largely through the “New Democrat” strategy of adopting many laissez-faire Republican economic policies.  In other words, the Democrats accomplished their victory only by becoming much more like the Republicans on economic issues.  Not exactly what Prof. Unger is looking for.

Cast back a bit further, and we find the shoe on the other foot: From 1932 until 1952, the Republicans did not win a Presidential election. When they finally did win, it was with Dwight Eisenhower, a war hero and a man so friendly to the New Deal that Republican extremists suspected him of communism.  Clearly, the Republicans had to capitulate a good deal to the Democrats on economic policy.

In recent times, there are two instances where a party lost an election and four years later returned with a more extreme candidate: 1964 and 1980.  Goldwater was more extreme than Nixon, and he was crushed.  Reagan was more extreme than Ford, and he won handily.  So, it’s kind of a mixed bag.  (Not, of course, if you factor in charisma; then it is all quite explicable.)

The record is pretty clear: parties rarely favor their more radical economic policies in the wake of sound defeats.  They do just the opposite, trying to emulate and subsume elements of the winning party’s policies.  This is especially true for Democrats.  I therefore judge Prof. Unger’s plan a bad one.

(Video via Huffington Post.  Also check out this post about Prof. Unger at The Reaction.)

Image via Wikipedia

“Gentlemen, this is a football.”  Thus did the famous coach Vince Lombardi supposedly begin every first team meeting of the season, while holding up same.   The point being, you always start off with the basics. However, I don’t know about the AIFA; some of their players might be seeing a football for the first time.

The other day, somebody got to this blog by searching for the terms “how would max weber view american football”. I don’t know if he was even thinking of the same Max Weber I’m so fond of, but regardless, I thought to myself: “Heck, I would like to read that article.”  So, here is a cursory attempt at writing it.

Of course, it’s hard to figure out the answer without a Ouija board and some arcane black magic.  And even then, it would probably only be something simplistic like “the competitiveness reflects the Protestant ethic” or “the Browns are 6 and 10 this year, best case.”

I’m not too familiar with his most famous writings about religion; I’ve mostly studied Weber’s contributions to political thought. Long-time readers probably remember his three types of authority:

  1. Charismatic authority
  2. Traditional authority
  3. Legal authority

Well, I suppose he’d think that coaches like Rex Ryan and players like Tim Tebow have charismatic authority, whereas coaches like Belichick and players like Ray Lewis rely on a sort of traditional authority–they have enjoyed a lot of success, so people are supposed to automatically respect them.  The equivalent to Legal authority is, well, the referees and the commissioner. (As the Saints are discovering.)

But this doesn’t tell us anything about the broader social phenomenon of football. Maybe Weber would note the similarity of the sport to religion.  After all, some fans follow it with the same zeal that people follow religions. They even collect artifacts and relics relating to the heroes of the sport.  And then, of course, there’s the ubiquitous Mr. Tebow. (I know I’m breaking my vow here. I’m sorry. But I promise you one thing: you will never see another blogger try as hard not to mention him as I will try the rest of the off-season.)

I once saw an NFL Films show about the Pittsburgh Steelers championship run in 2005.  It started off with this quasi-hymn or chant-like music that sounded religious and very eerie all at once. Imagine “Duel of the Fates“, only way creepier.  It seemed pretty serious for a bunch of football highlights.  But there are people who definitely see football as nearly as important. (Another Lombardi line, of which there are some variations: “All that matters is your God, your family and the Green Bay Packers”.)

Still, Weber studied religions as a way of highlighting differences in cultures and people’s philosophies.  The superficial resemblance of sports fanatics to religious fanatics is obviously more about the features of fanaticism than religion.  So we’re still at a dead end.

Let’s approach this from a different direction: we know that American football, though wildly popular in the United States, is not the number one sport in any other country. Perhaps the reasons for this are tied to “American exceptionalism”.  But this is more Tocqueville than it is Weber. (Where is that Ouija board?) And unfortunately, I cannot find much that Weber had to say about America.

So once again, I am frustrated.  I leave it to you, blogosphere and distinguished commenters, to sort this problem out.  What would Max Weber think of American football?

For a long time, Thomas Edison was held up as a model of American ingenuity, an inspiring figure whose inventions changed life for everyone. But, relatively recently, Nikola Tesla has received more acclaim as the better inventor, and his works are considered to have been unfairly neglected in favor of Edison’s. lately, it seems like Tesla is more popular than Edison. Perhaps it’s just one of those fashions that goes back and forth. (You might even say it “alternates” which one is “current”.)

Freddie DeBoer linked to a comic that exemplifies the lately fashionable Tesla-worship. I agree with Freddie’s reaction; even though I’m disposed to be more sympathetic to Tesla, that comic made me feel kind of uneasy about it, so strident was its tone.

I know I’ve used this quote before in other contexts, and I hate to keep using the same things, but damn it if it isn’t completely appropriate for summing up Edison and Tesla:

“One of them is half-mad–and the other, wholly unscrupulous.”–Claude Rains, as Mr. Dryden in “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Edison was a cutthroat businessman, there can be very little doubt. You don’t enjoy the kind of success he did without pulling some pretty mean stuff, I think. Tesla, meanwhile, was pretty clearly crazy. That was probably why he was such a great innovator.

For an example, it’s not clear to me whether Tesla’s “particle gun” was actually something real or just an idle thought he had. I sometimes think certain people–like the author of the above-mentioned comic–are too quick to credit Tesla with “inventing” stuff when actually it was just stuff he dreamed up in some of his less-rational moments.

Not that he wasn’t a great inventor. I’m just saying he’s a little over-celebrated. Of course, so was Edison when you look at all the rotten things he did, such as electrocuting animals for a PR campaign. I’m sure a lot of the admiration for Tesla comes as a direct result of people hearing in school about how wonderful Edison was.

There’s also an under-current of culture war to it, I think. Consider: the wily, Midwestern-born businessman/showman vs. the misunderstood, introverted immigrant. I don’t know if anyone has ever done a poll to look for correlation between political affiliation and support of Tesla or Edison, but I bet I know how it would come out.

I think part of it is the misrepresentation of Edison–like the author of the comic said, “he didn’t invent the light-bulb, he sold it.” Is that wrong?  Why, people greatly admire Steve Jobs, but if you think about it, a lot of what he did was selling what Jonathan Ive designed. That doesn’t make Jobs a phony; it makes him great at what he did: selling stuff.