In the Balance

By P.Lameiro - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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.


So…it’s been a while

It’s been more than six months since I threw out any flotsam and jetsam into the tides of the Internet for the public record. There is a completed novel to show for my hiatus from discourse, but also an ungodly amount of hours logged in Destiny. During this time, I did occasionally write about the issues that I would typically air out here–politics, geekery, etc.–but I never polished those pieces enough to post.

I think, more than anything, 2017 was a year personally defined by a sense of powerlessness. I would write something and then look at it and think, “What’s the point?”

The world has gone so stark raving mad, yet everything I wanted to say about it made me feel like a broken record.

So…what’s changed?

Nothing, really. Trump is still president and he’s proven to be very much what we feared. In addition to his near-daily debasement of the already morally bankrupt American political landscape, Mr. Trump is now apparently running 30% odds of starting a war on the Korean peninsula and getting the nice people of Seoul obliterated.

And yeah, I am pretty powerless to do anything about that.

But the one thing we cannot offer Mr. Trump is silence. He is, after all, listening. Every note of discord rankles his fragile ego (and they call liberals “snowflakes”) and so we must resist all the more. This is a historic chapter in the American republic and if it does mark the beginning of the end for that noble experiment, well then I hope some graduate student laboring at some far-future university studying the era just before the Republic of Gilead comes across an archive including my ranting and raving and, for one brief moment, mentally puts me in the column of “Damn, at least some of them knew what was happening.”

Plus, there’s a new Star Wars movie and Expanse novel to talk about so…


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.”

Ignorance on Parade

There is no denying that today, we face a new global landscape–one that was unthinkable before the ascendancy of Trump to the presidency. It is perhaps, though, one we should have seen coming.

In a recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn argued that the world order is not and should not be defined in terms of a “global community,” but rather, the world stage is an “arena” defined by competition.

It is an alarming shift of world view. To be sure, this smacks of Steve Bannon, who famously celebrated “darkness” and “power” in describing the governing style he hoped for under Trump. Many are calling this op-ed the clearest articulation yet of what Trump et al. mean by “America First.”

Yet, herein lies the great problem with “America First” (besides its connection to Nazi sympathizers):

America already was first.

The United States of America was indisputably the leader of the global community, not just the fiercest competitor in some arena as McMaster and Cohn insist. Our nation was the leader of, not just the free world, but the entire world.

As global orders go, it could have been better. Many critiques could and should be leveled at the quality of that leadership. Yet American hegemony in the post-Cold War era has marked a time of relative peace and uneven prosperity–and it was a community and order led by America.

No more.

Donald J. Trump, the accidental president, has pulled the rug out from under decades American leadership. This shift in world view is more than just rhetoric, as his disastrous appearance before NATO and his shameful withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement demonstrate. His enablers, like McMaster and Cohn, along with far-right cheerleaders in Congress believe and declare that Trump is serving American interests.

The fact that their understanding of those interests is short-sighted and skewed is irrelevant in discussing the larger, critical issue.

The simple fact is that leaders do not consider only their own interests. That is simply not what leaders do.

As the leader of the global community, it was America’s responsibility to look beyond its own limited interests and to put conditions like global prosperity and global peace above narrower concerns like the health of individual industries or particular (and often peculiar) sub-national interests.

That is the price of leadership. It is one that past American administrations have understood.

The Iraq invasion, for example, was undertaken in the name of leadership. America would lead, we were told, a “coalition of the willing” to remove Saddam Hussein from power in the interests of global stability and the eradication of rogue states bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

The idea that this invasion was solely in our narrow national interests was a charge that the administration vehemently denied. We were told, repeatedly, that we were not invading for the oil or for the potential windfalls for related industries should Iraq be transformed into a friendly state (those were just fringe benefits). We were eliminating a source of dangerous weapons and, when that turned out not to be the case, we turned our national attention to “liberating” the Iraqi people.

The extent to which this was a completely misguided application of our leadership capital is not really important for this discussion. What is important is that President George W. Bush and his neocon allies still acknowledged and, ostensibly, believed in the truth of American leadership.

President Obama took great pains in his early years repairing that stature, assuring allies and partners worldwide that America would not fly off the handle again with a ill-advised war and that we would be more tempered and more cautious in our role as leader. But his rhetoric and policies again presumed the simple fact of American global leadership.

But no more.

Today America has receded from that role under a president increasingly unlikely to finish out his term. His ill-begotten presidency, won under a previously unthinkable electoral scenario that saw him lose the popular vote by a greater margin than any other president not selected by the House of Representatives, is plagued by ongoing scandals even as his health and soundness of mind are in demonstrable and rapid decline. But even if we rid ourselves of this president, the damage is done.

The withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement is the surest sign of Trump’s disastrous impact on America’s role as a, nee the, global leader. The editors of the National Review applaud Trump’s decision, citing low-end projections of climate change’s impact on the GDP of 2%, and echoing Trump’s claims about the coal industry and how the agreement allows developing nations to keep burning coal while phasing it out in America.

These spurious claims aside for the moment, the National Review does point out something fairly important about the Paris Agreement, a critique that no proponents with an understanding of constitutional powers can lightly dismiss: Obama never had the authority to join it in the first place.

President Obama, in one of his many acts of legal gymnastics to try to address policy with an unabashedly hostile and obstructionist Congress, joined the Paris Agreement without sending the treaty to Congress for ratification. Given that several high-profile senators, like Texas’s Ted Cruz, applauded Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement, Obama rightly feared that the treaty would not be ratified.

Yet Obama knew what these senators and Trump have ignored or forgotten: The United States of America cannot be the leader of the world if it rejects a treaty signed by every other major nation–every nation on Earth, in fact, save Nicaragua and Syria.

American leadership required that we join the Paris Agreement. It demands that we remain committed to it.

The details of the treaty are almost irrelevant in that regard, but it is worth noting the extent to which its detractors are wrong. In focusing almost solely on the coal industry, both Trump and the National Review editors take a myopic view of the treaty and the larger issue of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, if they want to maintain a healthy American coal industry, then they should embrace the fact that the accord would have continued to allow for American coal to be exported. It is not, after all, environmental regulation that is killing the domestic coal industry, but good-ole fashioned free market competition. With natural gas and even renewables becoming more price competitive, coal is on the way out no matter what.

Even when the coal industry is gone, though, the atmosphere will still be in jeopardy. That is the importance of the Paris Agreement. It represents an international acknowledgement that climate change is a pressing issue for the global community.

An arena of competitors is never going to effectively deal with a global problem like climate change. It is a problem of the commons, and dealing with problems in the commons requires cooperative–not competitive thinking.

It is the failure to grasp that truth of leadership and community that is the greatest hallmark of the Trump administration’s ignorance–which is sadly its defining trait.

Trump claimed that the treaty was not fair to America because it allowed different standards for developing nations. Yet, even if we ignore America’s role as global leader, we must consider our role as a global polluter. We have only recently been passed as the world’s greatest contributor to global warming, despite China having more than six times our population. (The National Review editors disingenuously cite America’s share of the global pollution market in terms of GDP instead of per capita.)

But none of that matters to the ignorant.

And make no mistake, Trump’s election and presidency mark the triumph of ignorance in America. His refusal to embrace climate change as a sound scientific understanding of our physical world in the 21st century is the most glaring example of this uncomfortable truth, but it is far from the only one.

What greater sign of ignorance in power do we need than the president’s absurd relationship to truth itself? Again and again, he has spouted off false-hoods and out-right lies. Yet he is uncowed, and blithely unconcerned with any pretense of honesty.

And while some past followers have publicly admitted regret over his antics as president, many remain committed. Again, their ignorance is glaringly obvious as studies confirm that the values that motivated many Trump voters are decidedly Unamerican.

This shift toward ignorance has been brewing since the Tea Party stormed Congress and dragged the entire Republican establishment away from both the center and from reason. The Tea Party was always built on ignorance. Initially, it was only ignorance of economics and tax policy. But the right-ward nose dive of the Republican party has attracted all manner of ignorances into their coalition of the befuddled, from climate change deniers to conversion therapy believers to alt-right racists and lock-her-up Benghazi fanatics. All now empowered voices in our political landscape.

This slide into an abyss of us vs. them nativism and isolationism is exactly why Obama never sent the treaty to the Senate. Though we can fault him for such a maneuver coming from a constitutional law scholar, at least he tried to preserve American leadership.

But, sadly, that is no more.

All we can hope is that the next administration can right this fool’s course and reintegrate the United States into the global community it built for the security of, not just its own citizens, but for the world as a whole. Sadly, though, it seems unlikely that America will be able to retake its role as global leader any time soon.

The American century is over.

Sci-Fi Connoisseur: Alien Covenant

So, it is here. Yet another Alien movie.

Spoilers will follow–ALL THE SPOILERS!

I’ve made my feelings known about the Alien films. Alien is great. Aliens is perfect. Beyond that, I live in a bizarre state of suspended reality. It’s sort of like how official U.S. policy is to deny the existence of Taiwan to China while simultaneously committing to defend Taiwan from China. I’ve seen all the films in the Alien franchise multiple times–yes, even the Alien vs. Predator movies–but at the same time, I insist that the following is true: There are only two Alien movies.

Now, about that last Alien movie that doesn’t really exist, Prometheus. It was a mess. A really, really pretty mess. So the simple fact that the new film, Alien Covenant, is a direct sequel to Prometheus starts it off on awfully shaky territory.

I went into Covenant with very low expectations, so maybe that’s why I left pleasantly surprised. My first thought was to agree with Christopher Orr from The Atlantic, whose review I hadn’t read but had noticed was headlined, “Covenant is the best installment since Aliens.”

But remember, that’s not saying very much. The Ripley sequels, Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection, always reigned above Prometheus–and towered miles above the AvP flicks, which are pure garbage–because of one simple reason: Sigourney Weaver. Her performance in Alien 3 lifted it from dismal and bleak cash grab to a serviceable send-off to a beloved character (who still deserved much, much better). Then Resurrection gave Weaver a chance to just play. Taking the Ripley character and twisting her drive and determination into a new, cough-cough, alien shape allowed Weaver to infuse the otherwise claustrophobic encounter with a brood of xenomorphs into something that was, if not good, at least intermittently interesting.

Prometheus’s characters, though, were poorly developed, as forgettable as all the nameless mercenaries and soldiers that get eaten in Resurrection or the shaven-headed convicts who are gristle for the gore mill in Alien 3. So, Ripley’s presence in the other films acted as a sort of check-mate, leaving Ridley Scott’s belated (and ill-advised) follow-up to his original sci-fi horror masterpiece a clearly inferior piece of cinema.

Now, Alien Covenant does no better by the continuity of the franchise as a whole than its immediate predecessor. The alien bioweapon we were introduced to and the culture and intentions of the albino giant Engineers responsible for it all still make exactly zero sense. In fact, by making the android David the ultimate creator of the xenomorph we know and dread, Scott has fouled up the continuity even more. The implication in Alien was that the Space Jockey–now “Engineer”–ship with all the eggs on it had been sitting there on LV-426 long enough for the Engineer’s body to “fossilize” into his chair. Plus, the oversized elephantine pilot of that ship was clearly killed by a chest burster. Covenant, though, sees every known extant Engineer slaughtered by David. Meanwhile, at the end he jets off at the helm of the human colony ship with some embryonic face huggers and about two thousand human guinea pigs to experiment with.

How is Ridley Scott planning on leading from this to the ship that Ripley and company find in Alien? At this point, the only possibility would be time travel. But hey, Leia remembered her mother, so who the f’ cares about continuity in sci-fi anymore, right?

I swear, we should pass a law with a statute of limitations on sequels.

But here’s the thing that Alien Covenant brought to the table that no other Alien sequel after Aliens ever did: characters I actually cared about.

During the last act of the film, as Daniels and Tennessee race to save the colonists and themselves from the xenomorph that has just spawned on their ship, I felt palpable dread. Not because I thought the alien might prevail, but because it was clear that David already had by taking Walter’s place. (Seriously, Scott might as well have shown us David winning that fight because even the noisy seven year old in the row behind me who didn’t seem to speak English must have known that was David, not Walter.)

Yes, these characters make decisions as monumentally stupid as those in Prometheus (when they stepped out on the planet without space suits, I was reminded of Galaxy Quest) but ultimately the characters’ motivations seem so much more genuine and less cliche than in the previous films. Daniels, the Captain, and Tennessee are all defined by loss that we get to see in visceral, human terms. They’re written believably and their reactions ring true.

In particular, I owe Danny McBride an apology because I went in assuming I would hate having to look at him on screen since I find his comedic performances so obnoxious. But he and Waterson held down the emotional core of the film.

Kudos also to the writers for not squeezing Crudup’s Captain Oram into any of the archetypal slots from previous films. Though he opposes Daniels and seems headed into territory like the sleazy corporate antagonist Burke from Aliens, the captain admits his mistakes and he and Daniels come together with the best interests of their remaining crew at heart. Also, his status as a “man of faith” looked like it was heading in the same dreadful direction as Rapace’s Shaw from Prometheus, but the film, mercifully, did not overplay that card.

Ultimately, though, despite the valiant efforts of this cast, this is still a movie that just never needed to happen. Scott abandoned many of his aspirations for a think-piece–which bogged down Prometheus in faux-intellectualism–and made a suspenseful film. If it weren’t posing as an Alien film and David had created some other kind of monster then perhaps this movie might stand on its own fairly well. But its connection to Prometheus and to Alien/Aliens means that it is both mired in the miasma of the former and doomed to be judged against the gold standard of the latter.



-Like I said, this movie does just as much of a doozy to the continuity as its predecessor. But it also continues a trend hailing from the Alien vs. Predator movies in which the life cycle of the Alien is tremendously accelerated. In Covenant, we see a chest burster emerge seconds after the host wakes up–as opposed to Cane in the original film, who was unconscious for hours and then had time to sit down to dinner before his progeny emerged. Also, a face hugger implants its seed instantly, whereas in past films the process took hours. Then in the end, the newly hatched xenomorph is full grown in what looks like mere minutes.

-Scott keeps the internal space of that temple/whatever where David leads the survivors pretty ambiguous. At one point, shots can be heard by the others from inside David’s laboratory, but when the neomorph thingy attacks what’s-her-name (seriously, they might as well have named certain characters Victim #1-5) her shots go completely unnoticed. The captain told her not to go far, but apparently she couldn’t find a place to clean up that was within earshot. Then later, the crew is looking for the captain, but apparently the place is big enough that they can’t find him until after David has had time to gestate an alien in his gut. Seriously, guys, you’re in a monster movie: DON’T SPLIT UP! Meanwhile, Daniels and Walter easily stumble onto incriminating “I’m the Bad Guy and I’m going to leave lots of written proof of it even though I’m ostensibly a walking computer” evidence against David. It’s quite a labyrinth where characters can only find each other or what they need when it’s convenient for the plot.

-Speaking of the temple and the city…Geez, Covenant crew: You don’t want to do more of a fly by or survey of a planet when you’re landing? That was a pretty big city…and, wait, was it the only one? Was the engineer planet really only populated in that one area? Eh? Again, their whole culture is pretty wonky and hard to understand. Why were they all gawking at the arrival of that ship when David shows up? The Engineers in Prometheus were supposed to have died a few thousand years earlier, right, so maybe the whole town came out because they were excited for their loved ones to finally arrive–after being delayed for frickin’ millennia!

-And how did the colonial survey miss this “too good to be true” planet anyway? Never explained that. Come on, guys. One line of technobabble, please!

-It seems improbable that nothing would have tipped Daniels off that David wasn’t Walter until she mentions the cabin. He must have taken pains to hide the little cut right under his chin where she drove that nail in, right? Was David carrying some really well selected concealer (Cover Droid?) or did he staple on some of Walter’s skin after cutting off his own hand?


The Empire Strikes Back

The partisan rhetoric about Syria speaks as much as anything to the deep ideological and illogical divide in American politics. President Trump and most Republican members of Congress have blasted President Obama’s handling of Syria as “weakness” and repeatedly asserting vaguely that the President was somehow to blame for the whole mess of the Syrian war and its undesirable outcome on the world stage.

To be sure, Obama–typically measured and striving for prudence–did not want to get involved in Syria. It was a classic debacle in the making. Even our limited support for anti-Assad forces has come back to haunt us as material support meant to weaken the repressive Syrian regime has ended up in the hands of ISIS, the most repellant ideological blight of the twenty-first century. But the coverage in the media towing the Trump-Republican line that the current president is “breaking” with the last belies the real, muddled history of Obama’s almost-intervention in Syria.

Let us not forget that when chemical weapons were last used in this civil war, breaking Obama’s “red line,” the president did call for a vote authorizing military action in Syria, one that never came. Instead, Russia brokered a deal to stave off American intervention in Syria, saving us from direct involvement in this quagmire and preventing us from the unenviable position of weakening the Assad regime and, as a consequence, strengthening ISIS.

Though his political opponents have spun this moment as one demonstrating Obama’s weakness, in actuality it is a testament to American strength and shows how the threat, if not promise, of American military action changed the behavior of other state actors to abide by international law.

No, it was far from an ideal outcome, but in Syria, there are no ideals.

Now, in 2017, the landscape in Syria has changed considerably. ISIS is wrecked and, hopefully, doomed. But on the other hand, the Assad regime has pulled itself back from the brink and in the past weeks, most everyone has acknowledged that that regime would remain in power whenever this horrible war was finally resolved–whether through peace talks or exhaustion.

Which is why it is so galling that Assad would authorize a chemical weapon attack now. Clearly a completely cynical demonstration of naked aggression against any domestic forces who would oppose him, it is difficult to conceive of Assad’s reasoning. The war is all but won. Why now? Part of that answer must surely be that Assad and his enabler-in-chief Putin must have believed that Trump would indeed “break” with Obama and not deliver on the previous threat of American military action.

Trump, after all, has said that Assad’s ouster is no longer in the cards and has praised Putin’s “strength,” while urging for less American engagement when our interests weren’t directly served, promising to put “America First,” in a sickening echo of the American isolationists and Nazi sympathizers who argued for keeping us out of WWII. So it seems likely that it is their perception of Trump’s weakness, not Obama’s that led to the chemical weapon attack, assuming an American president who would buy their obvious lies about the nerve agent being released by the rebels or at the very least, triggered accidentally by an attack on rebel-held positions.

Assad and Putin may also have done the math and calculated that America has nothing to gain from striking Syria now. There is little chance of dislodging Assad as a key regional ally for Putin and Iran. From a real politik stand point, there is nothing to argue in favor of American involvement now. Assad and Putin played nice through Obama’s tenure, avoiding American wrath, so they might have guessed the coast was clear for Assad to send a harsh message to his enemies without having to worry about the short-term fallout in the international community. Trump, after all, had absolutely nothing to gain by attacking now.

And that’s why I think it may have been the best thing for us to do.

Intellectually, I still lean toward Obama’s reticence, and away from involving ourselves any further in a messy–very messy–civil war. But if Obama was still in office and this attack had happened, this is clearly what he would have done. By the accounts now coming out, it appears that Trump’s team consulted with our allies and even warned the Russians, balancing out the concerns about this being merely “lashing out” by an irrational and unpredictable president out of his depth.

There are plenty of critiques to be leveled at President Trump at this hour–many point out that his sudden sympathy for the Syrian people should also lead him to reverse his policies on refugees and still others suggest a wag-the-dog distraction from Russiagate. Only history, as it unfolds in the next few days and over the course of the next several years, will be able to judge whether this action turns out to be bold or simply brash, but in this difficult hour, we may owe this wildly ineffectual president the benefit of the doubt and accept that maybe, just maybe, in response to a horrible human atrocity, the President of the United States made the difficult decision to seek justice for the innocent victims of a war crime.