Archive for the ‘ essays ’ Category

Regolith and Aquifers: Terraforming Mars with Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is a monumental sci-fi classic.

It’s also kind of a slog.

With no central narrative arc beyond the ongoing political, economic, and ecological evolution of human settlement on Mars and a rotating cast of narrators whose lives on the red planet range from the mundane–hydrologists, yay!–to the, well, also mundane–desert nomads driving around rovers, yay!–the colossal 700,00o+ word opus never quite aspires to page-turner status.

Reading it, you come away feeling qualified to join NASA as a geologist should we ever get our collective shit together and actually settle a second planet.

And that is what the book is ultimately about: getting our shit together as Homo sapiens…well, rather as Homo martial. Throughout the novels, Robinson evidences his exhaustive and expansive research by dwelling on the minutiae of Martian geology and climate. It’s an ultimately fascinating kind of Utopianism tied to the reworking of the surface of Mars as a kind of ur-metaphor for shaping society.

The Mars Trilogy’s politics are based on a what-works practicality set against the tabula rosa of a new world. His characters squabble over the direction of this new society, eventually settling into a new constitution that ingests the best from Earth’s history with a keen understanding of the forces that have threatened human freedom and dignity throughout, whether they be economic injustices or cultural anachronisms.

Robinson offers a way forward beyond the privatization and spiraling inequality that plague post-Liberal Western society and posits a fresh start on Mars as a way that humanity can, as a whole, reinvent itself. A kind of new city upon the hill to replace the worn-out idealizations of America.

The Earth Robinson describes, wracked by ecological catastrophe and ruled by vast, competing trans-national corporations seems oddly prescient of the world we actually face in the twenty-first century (the last book, Blue Mars, was published in 1996). So many of his characters are ultimately scientists that the entire enterprise could be characterized as a scientific remaking of society–society remade as science. Empirical. Pragmatic. Testable. Open.

Given the retreat into ignorance so on display in contemporary American society–where people dismiss science as “fake news” and apparently flat Earthers are an actual thing–it’s a particularly appealing utopia to gaze at longingly. Robinson’s ultimate theory is that as society progresses, the new paradigms always come into conflict with the old, and indeed whole eras of history are defined by such tensions.

In his hypothesized future, capitalism as a transitional mode between feudalism and democracy gives way to new, more just economic modalities. It seems reasonable to believe that we have reached or are nearly reaching the useful limits of capitalism. Yes, it has created great wealth, but after being co-opted by regimes like today’s China,  it can no longer claim to be the channel into a broader liberalism of Fukuyamian promises and globally it is more and more a driver of extreme inequality–enough to rival any past aristocratic systems.

What, then, beyond it? Robinson’s Mars safeguards the commons, denying private ownership of land or resources and allows competitive economics and markets to be driven by co-ops, banishing the massive trans-nat corporations to Earth where they slowly wither.

It’s a lot to hope for, but in the book, one of the powerful forces that helps the Martians establish their independence and protect their special society is a giant corporation called Praxis, led by an polarizing visionary CEO who believes the world order of and by corporations must give way to something better. He aids the Martians in their search for that better something. Robinson seemed to be anticipating the era of the tech paragons of the Internet age like Jobs, Bezos, Zuckerberg…

Did I mention that Elon Musk wants to go to Mars?

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Yeah, Guns Again…

This morning I read two reasonable pieces at the National Review.

First was a piece by Kevin Williamson thoroughly excoriating the lunatic, paranoiac wing of the American Right so eager to dismiss the significance of mass shootings that they embrace conspiracy theories about “crisis actors” and school massacres as false flag operations aimed at stripping gun rights. It’s a reassurance that the Earth is not flat recently echoed by Marco Rubio who, in the hot seat from angry teenagers, has nevertheless taken the bare minimum steps required by human decency and denounced suggestions that these children were anything other than survivors of a gruesome atrocity.

The second piece was a very interesting analysis of the political divide on guns from David French. In it, French paints a picture of an America starkly divided. On one side, French quotes his colleague Williams to characterize the leftists who see gun culture as “an atavistic enthusiasm for rural primitives and right-wing militia nuts, a hobby that must be tolerated — if only barely — because of some vestigial 18th-century political compromise,” who are met on the other side by individualists who are “repulsed by the notion that personal security should depend almost completely on the government…[seeing] progressive peers as soft and unmanly.”

French worries that this divide, over such a flash point issue, could “break” America and he seems to earnestly worry over the widening divide as “geographic differences create cultural differences, and cultural differences hasten ever-greater geographic change.”

I have no reason to doubt this earnestness or sincerity from French. He sees an America split down the middle by this painful issue. But despite positioning himself in his piece as someone who knows both worlds and can see past the vitriol, what he sees is obviously biased by his position from deep inside his own “red” territory.

Because the facts paint a different picture of just how divided we are on this issue.

The NRA touts a membership of five million. The current U.S. population is over three-hundred twenty million. As the emerging #boycottNRA movement is quickly demonstrating, that’s just not that big a proportion of the population. It’s true that Americans have a lot of guns, but it’s also true that they are not evenly distributed and that despite ownership rates, some surveys suggest that up to 97% of the population supports automatic background checks for all firearm purchases.

French imagines a clean split, but the truth is that the Right in general has already lost the majority, a trend that many conservatives have worried over, even Williams who recently noted that in surrendering urban communities as hopelessly “blue,” the American Right was turning its back on “where the people are.” In any other democracy, the Republican party would already be out of power. We all know Trump won the election while garnering three million fewer votes than Clinton, but Republicans actually won the house with fewer overall votes than Democrats as well. Without gerrymandering–a practice losing in court battle after court battle–Pelosi would be back in as speaker.

French argues, and implicitly defends, the pro-gun view of the world as a legitimate way of “perceiving your role in a nation and a community.” It is, apparently, a fiercely individualistic worldview in which these patriots reject “the sense of dependence [represented by liberals]… at odds with their view of a free citizenry.”

It is also factually ridiculous.

This notion that being a gun owner will make you safer, that it puts your safety in your own hands is factually absurd.

American gun owners: you are not safe because you own a gun.

Your safety, the security of your lifestyle in which you can wake each day and be reasonably confident that you and your family will not be harmed, does not stem from your ownership of a firearm. If you doubt that, I invite you to reflect on the life of a Syrian rebel today. He has a gun. He woke up very much uncertain about his safety and security.

No, you are safe because you live in a stable and secure society, one defined by the rule of law and a tradition of individual sovereignty. Your gun did not keep murderous thugs at bay today. A functioning society, and yes, a functional government, provided that blanket of security.

It is possible that there could arise a moment or two in your life where your gun could be a tool for further guaranteeing that security, true. But statistically, that gun’s presence in your life is more likely to make you less safe. Whether by accident or misuse, that gun–from a strictly statistical point of view–is more likely to kill you or yours than to save you.

That is what all these guns in our society are doing for us as a nation as well. By most estimates we have as many guns as people in this country and so, unsurprisingly, we have more gun crime than any other developed nation. Even as crime rates have fallen in general, gun deaths are still a rough tie with automobile accidents as a cause of death. Then, of course, there is the grim spectacle of mass shootings, which is a uniquely American blight best captured by the Onion’s recurring headline: “No Way to Prevent This, Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.

French is right that there are two views of the world at odds here, but they are not equal. One is informed by facts and by a realistic reckoning with historical and international evidence.

The other is a fantasy.

It is a fantasy to imagine that having a gun makes you safe, that it is a realistic counter to violence in the world. The fantasy hinges on the presupposition that you, law-abiding gun owner, will see whatever nebulous threat you imagine endangers your family before it comes, that you will get off the first shot, that your aim will be truer than whatever criminal element threatens you. The probabilities stack up to the point of absurdity.

Rather than a gun, you are much safer if your community is well policed, if crime is dealt with systemically. Alarm systems are better deterrents to most crime than a gun. There are nonlethal means to defend yourself in close quarters like TASERs and pepper sprays that reduce the chance of accidentally killing your own family members–a grim kind of irony that is twice as likely as killing in self-defense.

The pro-gun worldview French describes is a fantasy.

But you know what, you can have it. Really, keep your guns.

I repeat: Nobody wants to take your guns.

Hillary Clinton didn’t. Obama didn’t. Nobody wants to take your guns.

Every time the NRA has said that someone was coming for your guns, they were lying. Evidence: You still have them. The Democratic majority under Obama in 2008 did exactly nothing to take your guns away. Instead, they just tried to give you health care (those bastards).

Keep your guns. But stop fighting background checks.

We can pinch the gun supply to criminals and crazies alike with a comprehensive system of background checks. Let law enforcement and healthcare providers put temporary holds on gun purchases for domestic abusers and sociopaths alike. Let courts put permanent bars on such purchases. Let’s make it so that gun transactions are documented and controlled like car sales.

Again, 97% of Americans support universal background checks for all firearms.

There are other rational steps–like putting licensing barriers between buyers and especially deadly weapons like the now-infamous AR-15. But the NRA won’t even admit to the necessity for the background checks and their Republican allies continue to defend the fantasies of the pro-gun set, preventing all progress on this issue.

What they miss is the demographic reality. They really are a relic. They are the minority. The pro-gun world view is slipping into the past, where it always belonged. Guns never made you any safer and some retreat into fantasies of an Old West balance of power will not lead to any real security.

We make a safer society together, not by balkanizing our communities behind armed fortifications. And the way people in a society do things together is, yes, through government. This irrational dread of anything collective from the Right isn’t just anachronistic, it’s wholly illogical.

The Right must abandon its commitment to the absurd conviction that government can do nothing right and begin participating in conversations about what’s the right thing for government to do.

Politics and the Superhero

So, Black Panther has arrived and everybody’s pretty excited about it (well, except racists). The film has delivered the biggest debut of any Marvel hero so far (though technically the character appeared first in Captain America: Civil War) and is second in its opening haul only to the original Avengers. Beyond its early box office might, the film has also garnered outstanding reviews, with io9 calling it Marvel’s first “Shakespearean Epic.”

It’s continuing proof that the Marvel is one slick entertainment factory. The film is sumptuous in its realization of the Afro-futurist world of Wakanda, the isolated and secret utopia protected by the titular hero and king. The cast is so undeniably stellar that it’s hard to even begin to talk about the performances without this whole piece becoming a tribute to the spot-on realizations of these characters (though I have to mention the star-making turn for Letitia Wright as the newest Disney princess, Shuri…and Lupita Nyong’o because she’s Lupita Nyong’o).

(Personally, the only disappointing thing about this film was the predictability of the plot. Even without being familiar with the comics, from which several key story points were apparently taken, if you’d sat me down before the movie and asked me to outline the story, I would’ve been able to hit every key plot point based on only seeing the first trailer.)

Of course, what’s keeping the conversation about this film going is fairly atypical for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Audiences aren’t coming out of the movie wondering about the infinity stones (okay, maybe a little) or how this will impact the next Avengers movie. Instead, Black Panther has us talking about representation (again, that cast) and–gasp!–politics.

Captain America: Winter Soldier surprised me by delving into the politics of the drone war and the post-9/11 surveillance state. But those themes were really quite secondary to a plot that was still, at its heart, a superhero’s story. Black Panther, though, inverts this ideological hierarchy, putting the action and whiz-bang antics in the back seat. Up front, it offers several layers of political discourse between its varied (and surprisingly earnest) story beats, from overt commentary on the African Diaspora through the righteous but perverse ideology of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger to implicit critique of American isolationism and exceptionalism expressed through the allegorical mirror of Wakanda.

For whatever reason, the discussion swirling around Black Panther has me thinking back to one of the biggest disappointments in the history of superhero filmdom: The Dark Knight Rises.

That film’s problematic, muddled political themes always bothered me. The way Bane tries to offer himself up as a savior of “the people” in a direct mockery of Occupy Wallstreet was a particularly noxious bent for a movie about a billionaire savior to take. Taken seriously–and Nolan’s movies plead to be taken seriously–Bruce Wayne is, indeed, a problematic figure. How many millions does he spend fighting crime through vigilantism and how much more impact could that money make actually improving communities?

The Dark Knight Rises might have explored those questions. At a few turns, if feels like it wanted to. When Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle warns Bruce Wayne that he and the other filthy rich should “batten down the hatches” because “a storm is coming” it felt as though Christopher Nolan might be game to question the inequality of Batman’s world. But when the storm comes, it is brought by the masked Bane and his master Talia Al Gul. These villains purport to be carrying on the work of the latter’s father from Batman Begins, but Ras al Gul wanted to destroy Gotham to stamp out its decadence and corruption as an example to the rest of humanity. Bane seems only interested in causing despair.

In the Dark Knight, Harvey Dent said, “You either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” What a much more interesting film The Dark Knight Rises could have been if it found Batman wondering–in the light of the League of Shadows’ continued assault on a seemingly at-peace Gotham–whether he had become the villain, the lynchpin holding together a corrupt economic system that kept the rich rich and the poor under control.

But alas, that opportunity was wasted.

So The Dark Knight Rises misses its chance to comment on its times. Perhaps Nolan wanted to repudiate the Occupy movement, but refused to make it an overt propaganda film where the rich, like Batman, should really just be trusted with the reigns of society. It certainly doesn’t seem interested in interrogating the inequality or corruption that was so important in Begins.

In a way, then, Black Panther is the film that The Dark Knight Rises could have been. It is unafraid to question its hero’s position within its fictional world. In the beginning of the film, T’Challa has complete faith in Wakanda’s long standing secrecy, even when urged to abandon it by his love interest Nakia. It is only through his struggle against Killmonger and the revelations his appearance in Wakanda brings that he changes his view of what Wakanda should be to the world. It will not be master as Killmonger would have it, but nor can he allow his country and its myriad gifts to remain aloof from the rest of humankind. The film may have landed during the Trump presidency, but its theme is unmistakably of the Obama era: unabashedly against isolation and militarism alike, advocating principled engagement.

In these troubled political times, a success story like Black Panther is a beacon–made more explicit by a mid-credits scene at the UN in which T’Challa warns the world that we must seek unity, arguing that “illusions of division threaten our very existence…But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.”

Where Does Wealth Come From?

Over at the National Review, Jonah Goldberg is waxing philosophical about the tax bill and contrasting America with Venezuela. In his essay he takes on the Rawlsian thought experiment of the “original position,” imagining a disembodied soul waiting to be born.

Goldberg thinks that such a soul should really choose to be born right here, right now in the good ole US of A because we are such a great capitalist country and we know how to produce wealth.

Goldberg says, “But if you recognize that humans create wealth with their brains and their industry and that it therefore belongs to them, you’ll be a little more humble about the state’s ‘right’ to take as much as it wants to spend how it wants. Human ingenuity is the engine of wealth creation, and there is no other.”

His argument is a mix of sensible commitment to the foundations of Western liberalism…and a healthy dose of naïveté.

Yes, ingenuity produces wealth, so does good old fashioned hard work. A culture that does not value these qualities is not with its salt.

But it is not the only way wealth is created. Not by a long shot.

For one thing, his assertion that there is “no other” factor is fanciful. Wealth begets wealth all on its own in 21st century America. If I already had a few million dollars, I could just put it in the market and let it ride, living quite nicely for all my days off the churning capitalist engine of Wall Street.

I suppose Goldberg’s answer would be that I’d still be generating wealth from good ole human ingenuity–just not my own.

Exactly. Not my own. There’s the rub.

Goldberg’s idolatry toward capital rivals Ayn Rand’s. But just as her novels crafted a fantasy world to make the capitalist class mythic heroes, Goldberg’s simplistic rendering ignores reality–mostly by ignoring the contribution of others, of the working class and middle class, to the creation of wealth. Not every wealthy person sits atop wealth they created solely through their own labor and genius.

Take Jeff Bezos. Now the richest man alive. Good for him. If you look at his story, you’ll see a man with a vision to transform retail. That vision has paid off.

Goldberg would say that he deserves to be rich.

And yeah, he does.

But does he deserve to be that rich? How is it that he came to control so much of the wealth his company has produced? It was not, after all, a sole proprietorship. Bezos was not burning the midnight oil packing all those smiling brown boxes himself. It took thousands of people working together to create his empire. What’s more, it took a whole landscape of infrastructure and culture to allow him to accrue this wealth on behalf of Amazon.

Wealth is not the inevitable byproduct of ingenuity. You don’t just input your genius into a machine and POOF! out comes your fortune. Wealth flows through a system and right now, the way that system channels wealth is skewed.

Here’s the crux (and I’ve said this before). If it was only ingenuity and hard work that dictated how wealth is created and who gets it, then something interesting has happened in the world since the 1970s:

The wealthy have gotten much, much more ingenious and are working much, much harder.

Inequality is the bugaboo for people like Goldberg, but they won’t talk about it. In their world view, wealth is the straightforward reward for hard work, oh and “ingenuity,” nothing more. But for over a generation now, that wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated in a few hands. So how can they account for this?

The simple answer is that they can’t and don’t. Republicans largely ignore the issue of inequality. Partly because their plutocratic donors don’t want them to, but more so because it represents a clear a challenge to their world view. CEO pay, for example, has grown 930% since 1978. You’re seeing that right. Not 93%. Nine hundred and thirty. As a ratio to average worker pay, the average CEO now makes 271 times as much. That’s up from CEOs earning around twenty times what average workers made back in the 70s. Mr. Goldberg, are today’s CEOs really more than ten times more ingenious than in the past? If not, how can you account for this inequality? Whence comes this massive concentration of wealth?

It is not just the product of hard work or ingenuity–unless you mean the ingenuity to rig the entire economic system to screw over workers and benefit the investor class.

Sorry, Mr. Goldberg, there is another way to accumulate wealth. You can design an economy with systemic channels of wealth that invariably favor supply-side factors like capital and grant the wealthy disproportionate access and influence to politicians, and you can refrain from taxing huge investments in any meaningful way to allow existing wealth to grow and grow without limit.

So, for your hypothetical floating soul out there in the aether, it would be a good time to be born here in 21st century America…if you were sure you were going to be born rich.

Because the rich are only getting richer,

In the Balance

By P.Lameiro - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21095250

In Pearl S. Buck’s 1931 novel The Good Earth, there is an aphorism supposedly from China which informs much of the narrative:

“When the rich are too rich, there are ways and when the poor are too poor, there are ways.”

Those “ways” often involved violent upheaval when the imbalance between the wealthy and the poor bedrock of society becomes too vast. Buck’s protagonists experience this cycle of poverty and prosperity personally as they struggle through subsistence and then ruin, only to gain riches in the end through their relationship with the land.

Every great society has grappled with how its structure governs wealth, with the cancer of greed and accumulated economic power a recurrent theme through all great thinkers’ writings about society, from Plato’s Philosopher Kings who were barred from owning wealth to Moore’s Utopia where gold was a sign of shame hung about the necks of slaves.

Perhaps none is a starker warning that Marx’s, who predicted a final revolutionary upheaval that would supplant the greedy capitalist class once and for all. While Marx’s prediction that communism could somehow best human greed seems hopelessly naive to our modern eyes–which have witnessed the failure or subversion to autocratic capitalism of nearly every communist state born in the twentieth century–his prescience about the shortcomings of capitalism continues to be useful in studying the modern world. After the 2008 collapse, many a wonk admitted that nobody had seen it coming…except for Karl Marx.

And, of course, his ideas live on in modern socialism. Every developed country has some measure of socialist thinking incorporated into the way it governs and structures society, but the United States in particular resists anything with the taint of socialism. In fact, much of the political discourse in this country is dominated by loud voices that like to treat the term as a dirty word, despite the success of democratic socialist regimes in Europe.

Instead, the political ideologies of America–and of the American right in particular–owe their allegiance to the Enlightenment Liberalism of the Founding Fathers.

This Liberalism was a search for “ways” to regulate the relationship between social classes and those empowered by society’s structure that did not require continual upheaval and bloodshed, ways to shape society so that it could rebalance and adjust itself to the realities of history as it unfolded, instead of being crumpled up and discarded in favor of a brand new design or dynasty. Ironically, though, establishing a republic based on these ideals required…bloodshed and upheaval.

In the intervening centuries, though, the American Republic has functioned relatively well as designed. (There is one interregnum of note.)

The success of the basic model of American government has led some, “originalists” like Neil Gorsuch, to fetishize our Founders for the accomplishment of crafting this Republic. These typically right wing figures seek to assiduously preserve the model envisioned by the Founders, believing their intent is the most important metric by which to assess law and custom in today’s America.

Let that sink in for a minute: Men like Gorsuch think that the best way to govern a nation of three hundred million smart-phone toting citizens competing in a global market is the game plan put together by some eighteenth century farmers as they crammed fewer than three million colonists under one federal umbrella.

The Founding Fathers of the American republic do deserve a lot of credit, but they were only all-too-human beings, not demigods. They knew they were not crafting a perfect system (3/5s compromise, cough cough). They knew that this system would need to evolve and change. Some predicted that every generation would have to draft a new constitution. Most would likely be awestruck that their basic design for a network of fledgling states on the edge of what they saw as a wilderness was still (more or less) governing a vast, industrialized and metropolized superpower state in the 21st century. Some might be horrified.

It’s important to understand the genius of the Founders, yes. Because the Founders accomplished so much not by being paragons of virtue and transcendent models of human wisdom (slavery, cough cough), but rather by studying history carefully. As students of history, they crafted a government meant to meet the challenges of their time. It is only logical that to preserve and adapt their system to the challenges of our time, we too must study history.

Yet again and again, we refuse to learn from this teacher, to study its lessons, or even admit its shape. A key example of this failing is the proposed package of “tax reform” being hashed out in Congress.

You see, the Republican tax plan learns exactly nothing from history.

The basic premise–or at least, the stated premise–of the tax reform bill is to cut taxes to stimulate growth in the economy, allowing business and capital to create more economic activity and thus, by extension, create better jobs and more opportunities for Americans.

So, what does history tell us about how to do this? Nothing. It tells us we will get nothing out of this plan because the outcome promised by this bill’s proponents has never, ever happened…ever. The idea that giving capital what it wants will produce broad outcomes for other stokeholders in the economy is pure fantasy. It has never worked. It will never work.

Some proponents of “tax cuts” try to use history to justify this disingenuous tax reform package, citing the success of the tax cuts proposed by Kennedy before his assassination that actually increased government revenue. No honest scholar can compare this bill to those measures. Though Kennedy did propose cutting taxes on the rich–down to 65% compared to today’s 35%–his tax cut proposal was Keynesian in design, aimed squarely at demand-side stimulus. This Republican tax plan, though, only offers temporary demand-side cuts for middle America. Its tax cuts for corporations are permanent and it does nothing to address the giant tax loophole for the rich in America: capital gains.

What history does tell us is what will really happen when you give up tax revenue to corporations and the wealthy–because we’ve been doing it for a generation. Supply-side economics, the theory behind the Republican tax plan, has governed our economy since the Reagan era and in that time we have reaped clear results.

We have witnessed massive growth in GDP and absolute stagnancy in real wages and income.

Our national and personal debt has grown and grown and grown.

We now have an economy completely out of balance. The rich have indeed become too rich, with a handful of billionaires controlling the same about of wealth and hundreds of millions of others. So far, our society has been protected from the more disruptive and violent “ways” that imbalances like this have historically been reshaped because the poor have not yet become “too poor.”

That, though, is because of spiraling debt. It is a system heading for a crash…in fact, we already faced that cataclysmic reckoning and we paid off the Pied Piper with more debt.

The Republicans profess to be fiscal conservatives and say they are deeply concerned about the deficit and debt levels produced by government spending. Yet their tax reform package is not a grown-up solution to those problems. By making the income tax system less progressive, they will only further perpetuate these issues. Their eventual aim is to shrink government and the so-called entitlements to reign in this disparity, but by cutting government spending, and undermining the economic stimulus provided by government spending, they will only hasten the advent of those other “ways” that history has of righting economic imbalance.

Eventually the poor will be too poor and then their entire house of cards will come tumbling down.

Their solution will only perpetuate these problems. But that’s beside the point from the ideological position they’re coming from. Essentially, their anti-regulation, small-government stance is motivated by an antipathy towards the evils of socialism and an allegiance to their distorted image of the Liberalism of the Founders.

From this vantage, they imagine a dystopia welfare state. Eying the political landscape, they see that so-called entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare have already begun to gobble up more and more of the country’s wealth. Some of them are smart enough to point out that shifting demographics will make this problem much, much worse in the future. Likewise, they are concerned about our enormous national debt, which they legitimately decry as “generational theft.”

They are rightly concerned with these deficits and debt and this looming demographic bomb that so-called entitlements will drop on the next generation, but aren’t really honest about the nature of these problems:

Though the national debt has been an issue for decades, its current stratospheric levels are thanks to, in large part, the bailout after the Great Recession. That crash was exactly what unregulated capitalism gets you. Again, this is a lesson from history that we (should have) learned well. Left to its own devices, a capitalist economy will continually expand and contract, spasming from crash to boom and back again. To fight this natural inclination, we have constructed all manner of regulatory measures–from social safety nets to robust monetary policy. The 2008 crash was due, at least in part, to Republicans pushing to relax regulations to protect consumers. So our national debt is debt owed to bailing out a faulty capitalist system that had been deregulated…by Republicans.

On entitlements, the right is similarly misguided. Yes, there is a looming demographic crisis that we must grapple with. Benefits for retired boomers threaten to derail our economy if there aren’t enough taxable high-wage jobs to provide fresh cash for the social security and medicare slush funds. Yet, the Republicans are the ones who have pushed to remove protections for unions and minimum wages (and against immigration), the very factors that history tells us can fill those coffers again.

Not to mention that the biggest driver in the growth of entitlement expenses is rising healthcare costs, a problem which other developed nations address through socialized medicine. Yet, the Republicans have tried and tried to repeal Obamacare, the only piece of legislation that has had any impact on those outrageous, spiraling healthcare costs.

What we’re left with is the story of three isms: Liberalism, Socialism, and Capitalism.

We have long assumed that Liberalism and Capitalism belong in the same boat, yet even Adam Smith warned that capitalism could become a monster if not watched carefully. In creating the invisible hand, he did not intend to slap back the very real and human hands of human beings from protecting society from the ills of capitalism.

In the modern world, Liberalism needs Capitalism…and Socialism. Capitalism needs Socialism. Liberalism–the very ethos of democracy–can only flourish in a populace with the opportunity to pursue happiness and the knowledge that their lives and liberty are protected. Capitalism drives growth and prosperity, making sure the well is full. Socialism, though, we use to safeguard the general welfare, steadying the ebb and flow of Capitalism, smoothing out the rough patches.

Without each other, each will implode. As a society, we need to find the right balance. As one idea pushes forward, another sways to the side. As two are about to collide, another passes between them, pulling the others in its wake.

It’s a dance. And with the two-right-feet Republicans leading, a lot of toes are going to be stepped on.

Did the World Need a Wonder Woman Movie?

In today’s Hollywood, producers, movers, and shakers are all clamoring for “shared universe” franchises. Inspired by the juggernaut of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every possible story-telling rock is being overturned in the hunt for a franchise of franchises–money making interconnected characters and settings that will hopefully have infinite reservoirs of built-in audience appeal.

It cannot last.

Soon the silver screen will be graced with a Mummy remake starring the incomparable Sofia Boutella. But I doubt even her physical grace and screen charisma can carry a movie that is basically going to be Tom Cruise playing Ethan Hunt (again) vs. monsters. Universal is hoping otherwise, though. In fact, they hope it will be a relaunch (they tried already with an abysmal Dracula movie a few years back) of their monsters-themed shared universe.

On the horizon, we have other studios with similar hopes for Transformers spin-offs (because Bumblebee, the yellow camaro that cannot talk can totally anchor a feature film) and Godzilla vs. King Kong movies.

They’re all trying to do what Marvel did with its superhero movies, and thus, they all miss the point.

Superheroes work as a “shared universe” because they already occupy one. They already dwell in a common space within our collective imagination–they live within the mythic.

That is what the DC shared universe of super hero movies has failed to grasp thus far. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel offered some rays of light, but mostly was subdued by a larger interest on the director’s part of making a darker, grittier superhero universe–an impulse that took over (and took a shit on) the Batman v. Superman debacle.

Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, though, finds the soul in her super heroine that the boys’ outings for the DC murderverse never could. In Batman v Superman, Superman was dragged into the muck in a sophomoric attempt to make his idealism grapple with the ugly side of humanity.

Wonder Woman shares a similar thematic impulse, but executes it so much more capably.

The film is in many ways a bildungsroman for Diana, the nascent Wonder Woman (who never gets called that on screen), who moves past fish-out-of-water gags in London to have her eyes opened to the horrors of war on the Belgium front of WWI. She has trained her whole life to fight war in order to end it, but the suffering she actually witnesses surprises her.

It’s a somewhat superficial exploration of the limits of idealism, but it’s more depth than one generally finds in a super hero movie (Winter Soldier aside) and does much greater justice (pun intended) to her character’s unflappable heroism than Snyder’s take on Superman where Henry Cavil mostly had to grimace to try to maintain Supes’ dignity in the face of terrible, terrible writing.

One cannot credit Gal Gadot enough for her turn as the titular heroine. Even when she exudes naive confidence that the key to peace is simply to find Ares, the God of War, and slay him, her radiance is irrepressible and you want her to be right even though you know she can’t be. Naturally, Diana must learn the hard way that the world of men is not so simple as that and Gadot carries that growth–and conveys the protagonist’s distance from humanity–flawlessly. It’s ironic that many people, both myself and director Patty Jenkins, were skeptical that Gadot had the chops for this part since now she seems like the perfect screen embodiment of the character and likely will be for perpetuity the way that Hugh Jackman will always now be Wolverine.

The other key player in the success and charm of the film is Jenkins. She adopts the visual aesthetic of Snyder’s work–slow mo, muted color palettes–and bends them more purposefully to her story. Her camera loves Gadot’s face, seen often in close up, as much as it does the glint of her armor deflecting a bullet and she manages to humanize the action and epic story (one regrettable bit of CGI artificiality aside) so that the audience feels connected to Diana’s story through her warmth and optimism.

So Wonder Woman is an expertly executed super hero movie and, as many have pointed out, it’s high time that we had one of these stories helmed by a female character.

But, alas, it is one of these stories.

It doesn’t take a fine analytical edge to see the DNA this film shares with its predecessors, particularly the Marvel films that have previously perfected the formula. At one point, Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor leads Diana into a bar to recruit an odd-ball crew for their dangerous mission behind enemy lines and I half expected the camera to pan across the pub to see Chris Evans’s Captain America on the very same endeavor.

It’s a great movie, no doubt. But more than anything, I left wondering if this genre has anything left to give us? The fight choreography was great, but we’ve seen characters tackle rooms of baddies with similar dramatic flair dozens of times–yes, even female characters. Just imagine shooting Black Widow’s fight scenes from Marvel in the style of 300 and you’re there. We’ve also seen the epic show down between God-like heroes and villains tearing the screen and reality apart in blasts of cosmic energy again and again.

Can these scenes really thrill us anymore? Show Wonder Woman to children–preferably some little girls–as their first action movie and they would probably be in rapt awe.

But for us, what is left? We can hardly be dazzled any longer. The story beats and their larger-than-life climaxes are requisite, familiar. The DC movie universe is building toward its Justice League, which looks to be The Avengers with the lights turned down. Marvel itself is building toward the culmination of its “Phase 3” in the two-part Infinity War. And now the world has a really good Wonder Woman movie.

Maybe that’s all it needs.

Maybe it’s time to say, “I say, we will have no more [comic book movies]. Those that are [in production] already, all but one (stop Aquaman, please!), shall live. The rest shall keep as they are…”

The (New) Civil War

Yesterday, I wrote about the Trump presidency and its effect on America’s standing as a world leader as a triumph of “ignorance.”

Now, there might have been some ambiguity about what I was saying when it came to this label. Some might have been unclear as to whether I was trying to say that anyone who supports Donald Trump was “ignorant.”

I don’t want there to be any such ambiguity, so let me clear this up:

If you fully support Donald Trump as president, then you are being ignorant.

Now, you may not be guilty of the racist or intolerant ignorance we’ve seen on display since his election and you may not be guilty of the sort of gross ignorance of global political and economic realities that drive his Bannonesque isolationist/nativist policies, but if you support this president then you are guilty of at least some measure of willful ignorance.

In writing yesterday, I quoted the National Review’s editors. I believe it’s important for any honest intellectual to make an effort to listen to and engage other viewpoints. In today’s increasingly balkanized and bubbleized online discourse, it’s more important than ever to step outside the echo chamber of what-we-already-believe and try to understand where others are coming from.

For a progressive today, that’s really, really, really hard. There simply aren’t many venues where conservative ideas are being discussed without rampant hyperbole and naked bias like one sees at Fox News or, God forbid, in the right-wing blogosphere where fraudulent stories run amok (let’s not forget that 75% of the fake news during the election cycle was right leaning).

The National Review, though, is an outlet with reasoned articulation of conservative thinking as it applies to the issues of the day. You know how you can tell? They routinely grapple with the problems of the Trump presidency, such as Charles Krauthammer’s recent editorial criticizing Trump for weakening NATO’s deterrent effect in Europe–or, even better, David Harsanyi’s assertion that “no political tribe…deserves your complete loyalty” where he notes several sound constitutional arguments against Obama’s approach to the Paris agreement.

Now, I think he gets a lot of other things wrong in that article and I would love to sit down and discuss it with him, but there’s the thing: we could sit down and talk about it. There’s room for discussion. The divide is not unbridgeable.

Harsanyi supports some of Trump’s actions, but does not argue for blind obedience to Trump’s agenda simply because he is an ostensibly Republican president.

Conservative Dennis Prager in his column for The National Review, though, does.

Writing recently, he chastised the “never Trump” conservatives that he knows for failing to get behind their “general.”

It was a column so unctuous to the general milieu of reasonable discourse on their site that in addition to Harsanyi’s “hey wait a minute” article, there is another rebuttal from Jonah Goldberg.

Prager’s argument is that America is in a “civil war” and that the republic itself is threatened by the left’s assault on campus free speech and its shift toward “European-style socialism.”

There are so many things I would like to say to this man, but I doubt we could sit down and have a reasonable discussion…

I, too, believe that the foundation of our republic is threatened, but not in the way Prager imagines. Mr. Prager, if this is a civil war with the heart of American democracy caught in the balance, are you sure you’re on the right side? Your “general,” after all, has attacked the courts and tried to rule via fiat from the oval office despite your party controlling Congress. If President Obama tried to circumvent and exploit loopholes in the balance of powers, your president is simply balking at them.

But there is something even more deeply disingenuous about Prager’s lament about the danger of it being “close to over for America as America” if Clinton had won.

Prager, and anyone who laments in fever pitch the imminent defeat of conservatism, is not taking an honest view of history–even recent history.

Prager feared a descent into socialism and warned that a Clinton victory would have made complete the “fundamental transformation” that Obama began.

What “fundamental transformation” would that be? Would it be the one where global capitalism was stabilized following a collapse that wrecked the world economy? It doesn’t look too “fundamental” from here.

Let’s face it, Prager, not even “socialist” Bernie Sanders was suggesting a shift toward real socialism. In fact, even Germany–which my conservative father always held up as a boogeyman of nanny-state socialism–is a perfectly fertile garden for capitalist enterprise.

Your histrionics, sir, ring hollow because we still live in the world Reagan built. Business is still booming. CEOs are still super, super rich. And inequality is still running rampant.

You need not declare a Civil War to protect your world view.

You can calm the heck down. Maybe we all need to.

Not about Trump, though, come on. The guy’s a nightmare.

But someday Trump will be gone. I’m hoping really, really soon. If we can’t impeach him or if his erratic behavior doesn’t lead to the invocation of the 25th amendment, then I really think he just can’t take four years of this. He’s already deteriorating physically and mentally and I’m not the first person to think that he’s desperate for some face-saving excuse to resign.

Someday we will face a post-Trump America. And what should that be? Should it be a battleground, Mr. Prager? Should Democrats and Republicans, liberals vs. conservatives, dig in and fight on tooth and nail onto oblivion?

Let’s remember that, strictly speaking, we are all liberals. We all pledge allegiance to the principles of enlightenment liberalism: reason, discourse, progress.

There are a lot of shortcomings with our two-party system, but it evolved basically to serve two necessary impulses in our political landscape.

There should be a party pushing out, calling for progress and proposing bold experimentation to address whatever issues plague us, a party striving for solutions to make our union “more perfect.”

But there must also be a party with a steady voice, warning of the dangers of change for change’s sake, a prudent party that safeguards what is working in our system.

Our government should be an engine grinding out compromises between these two voices–not a battleground.

I continue to maintain that it is ignorant to support Trump, but let’s be honest: we are all guilty of occasional willful ignorance on behalf of our political tribes. It is also ignorant, for example, to ignore the fact that President Obama never really had the authority to join the Paris Agreement without Congress.

We are all guilty of such ignorance, but we should strive against it within ourselves, with our compatriots, and with our opponents.

Because “we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”