Kamala Harris Is Lost in Space

W.J. Astore

Did you know Vice President Kamala Harris is Chairwoman of the National Space Council? I didn’t — until a friend notified me of a feel-good video featuring Harris and a few earnest and photogenic kids on YouTube. The kids were decidedly diverse: boys and girls, black and brown and white, but they all had something in common. No, it wasn’t their enthusiasm for space — it’s that they were all paid actors.

Here’s the link if you haven’t seen the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5PABXXdDwA

As my wife and I watched the video, my better half turned to me and said, “stagey” and “fake.”

I had to laugh as Kamala Harris tried to wow the kids about seeing craters on the moon. My goodness — on a clear night you can see craters with the naked eye. A decent pair of binoculars (I have 10×50 Tasco binoculars) will reveal plenty of gorgeous detail. You don’t exactly have to visit the Naval Observatory to see moon craters.

Even through my relatively cheap $200 camera, I can see plenty of detail. Here’s a photo I took of the moon, a handheld shot done quickly and inexpertly:

The Moon by me. Look at the craters!

I have some experience talking to real kids about astronomy. Elementary school kids can be fun. One class I talked to wanted to know all about UFOs. Another wiseguy kid asked about Uranus, pronouncing it “your anus,” of course. I smiled, quietly corrected his pronunciation, and answered his question. We both had a laugh.

Yet apparently Kamala Harris is not to be trusted talking to real kids who might go off-script. Perish the thought of a kid who might make a joke about Uranus. The horror! It doesn’t inspire confidence that she’s only a heartbeat away from the presidency, as the saying goes.

If and when the space aliens come for me, I know what I’m saying: Take me to your leader — mine is lost in space.

We’re Mad As Hell — And Fighting Each Other

Peter Finch in “Network”

W.J. Astore

In the movie “Network” from 1976, a TV news anchor played by Peter Finch builds a mass following by promising to kill himself on the air while declaring that “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!”  The network execs are all too happy to encourage him – as long as his outrage is good for ratings and doesn’t threaten the system.  But when Finch starts to step on corporate agendas, he has the riot act read to him by Ned Beatty, who explains “There is no America.  There is no democracy” and that “The world is a college of corporations.”  A visibly shaken Finch realizes he’s in over his head.

I’ve always liked that catchphrase from the movie, for we the people should be as mad as hell, and we should refuse to take it.  We should act.  But what’s interesting is how our anger is redirected before we can act.    

We’re not supposed to be mad at the oligarchs – that “college of corporations” – who own it all and who push all the buttons. No — our anger is supposed to be tribal. We’re supposed to hate Republicans, or Democrats, or anti-vaxxers, or Trump supporters, or someone — someone ultimately like us, without much power. The anger is ginned up to encourage us to punch down while keeping us disunited.

Being mad can be good if the anger is channeled against the exploiters; it’s not good when it’s exploited by the powerful to keep us divided and weak.

America’s two-party system is designed to deflect anger away from the moneyed interests and toward each other.  What we need is a new political party that truly represents the people rather than the oligarchs.  Neither major party, Republican or Democrat, seems reformable.  Both are captured by moneyed interests.  After all, if money is speech, who can yell louder: you and me, or Lockheed Martin and Amazon? Even the “anti-establishment” voices in either major party have largely been neutralized. Or they get sicced on the enemy of the day, whether it’s evil woke Democrats or evil unwoke Trumpers.

Hence nothing really changes … and that’s the point.

America needs an anti-imperial party, a “Come home, America” party, a party that puts domestic needs first as it works to downsize the military and dismantle the empire.  Yet, in the spirit of Orwell’s 1984 and the Two Minutes’ Hate, Americans are always kept hating some putative enemy.  Russia!  Radical Islamic Terror!  China!  Immigrants at the gate!  Maybe even an enemy within.  We’re kept divided, distracted — and downtrodden

If we continue to be at war with each other while punching down, we’ll never turn righteous anger against the right people.  We’ll never effect meaningful change.

It’s said that power never concedes anything without a demand.  Why do we demand so much from the powerless and so little from the powerful?  Isn’t it high time we reversed that?

AOC’s “Radical” Gown

W.J. Astore

AOC got a lot of attention wearing a gown to the Met Gala that read, “tax the rich.” Here’s a fetching image:

Of course, this is hardly a radical message. Firstly, the rich are already taxed. Secondly, something like 70% of Americans, and perhaps more, agree that the richest Americans should pay more taxes. Thirdly, attendees of the Met Gala are, though rich, generally supportive of liberal causes, if not of true leftist agendas, so her message was hardly offensive to most of the people there.

Many people have pointed out AOC’s hypocrisy, such as her lack of action on issues like health care for all or a $15 minimum wage. Her gown was basically an exercise in performative theater. It garnered “hits” and “likes” as well as fury, but in the end it signified nothing.

Actions speak louder than words, even on gowns, but I can imagine more powerful words for her to have worn, if she’d really wanted to send a subversive message. Examples that occur to me:

EAT THE RICH. Much more amusing and to the point.

END THE WARS. Why not focus on America’s forever wars that have (or will) cost us $8 trillion?

HELP THE POOR. Why not remind the rich at the gala that there is such a thing as poor people in America?

GREED IS BAD. The anti-Gordon Gekko message.

CLASS WAR: Why not go all Marxian on them?

NO MORE NUKES: Why not remind Americans that the Pentagon plans to spend as much as $1.7 trillion on new ICBMs, bombers, and nuclear submarines, when the “old” ones we have are already capable of ending most life on Earth?

OK: Wearing what amounts to a bumper sticker on a gown isn’t going to change the world. It’s a stunt to grab attention, with an element of narcissism to it. But if you’re going to pull a stunt like this, why not go big? Why not be radical?

One more thought: If you watched the Met Gala and all the celebrities showing off their gowns and outfits, and you’ve also read “The Hunger Games” or saw the movies, you couldn’t help but recall the scenes of the decadent few in The Capitol, thoroughly enjoying life as all the proles in the Districts suffer to serve their prodigal and hedonistic lifestyle.

Something tells me AOC is very much a Capitol creature. She’s no Katniss Everdeen, no matter what she puts on her gown.

Readers: What message would you dare to wear on your gown or suit to show your “betters” you mean business? Have some fun in the comments section, but let’s keep it rated “R,” not “X.” And short!

Pulp Fiction and the Vietnam War

W.J. Astore

Growing up, I watched a lot of James Bond movies. That super-tough, super-sexy, British secret agent, played with such brilliance by Sean Connery, always seemed to have great fun as he saved the world from various dictators, terrorists, and megalomaniacs. I wanted an Aston Martin like Bond had in “Goldfinger,” tricked out with all the latest gizmos and gadgets provided by Q Branch. But more than anything I wanted Bond’s competence, his swagger, his ability to win the day while getting the girl as well. Such movies are harmless male fantasy flicks — or are they harmless?

While Ian Fleming was writing his “Bond” books and Sean Connery was breathing life and fire into the character, another sort of male fantasy was being promulgated and promoted in men’s adventure magazines with titles like “Stag” and “Man’s Life” and “Man’s World.” These pulp magazines appeared at a time when men’s masculinity was threatened (then again, when hasn’t masculinity been under threat?), in the 1950s and 1960s, a new nuclear age in which America seemed stuck behind the Soviet space program and stuck fighting wars (Korea, Vietnam) that ultimately proved unheroic and unwinnable.

It’s easy to dismiss such men’s magazines as a simplistic variety of pulp fiction, but we’d be wrong to do so, argues historian Greg Daddis in his new book, Pulp Vietnam: War and Gender in Cold War Men’s Adventure Magazines. Daddis is quite convincing in showing how this pulp fiction advanced a view of Western, and specifically American, chauvinism in which war served as an adventure, an opportunity to demonstrate the innate superiority of the American male over various foreign, often Asiatic, opponents, while getting the girl, of course, with the girl usually scantily clad and stereotyped as vulnerable and/or duplicitous and/or sexually available.

Daddis is careful to say that such magazines, with their often violent and sexist fantasies, didn’t drive or determine U.S. behavior in places like Vietnam. But they most certainly reflected and reinforced the idea of American martial superiority and the notion that foreigners, and specifically foreign women, were both inferior and exploitable. The book is well-produced and well-illustrated, including color plates of a representative sample of these magazines. “I’m not afraid of World War III,” “Castration of the American Male,” and “Beat it Sister, I’ve Got a War to Fight!” are a few of the article titles that caught my eye from these pulp covers.

For me, Daddis hits a homerun as he compares the harsh realities of the Vietnam War to the bizarre fantasies of these adventure magazines. If there were U.S. troops expecting lots of easy victories and easier women in ‘Nam, they quickly learned that pulp fiction had nothing to do with hard reality. In Daddis’ words:

In the macho pulps, brave warriors had fought for honor, for their comrades, for a sense of triumph. In Vietnam, GIs simply wanted to leave the fighting behind … The gaps between truth and fiction seemed insurmountable.

The undiscovered adventure thus generated a lingering sense of anxiety that Vietnam might not be the man-making experience as publicized in the macho pulps. The modern battlefield engendered a sense of helplessness, not heroism …

[M]ore than a few discouraged American soldiers in Vietnam took advantage of wartime opportunities to behave aggressively toward the very people they were there to protect … the pulps played an outsized role in contributing to a portrait of a manly warrior, conquering enemy forces in alien, savage lands, and, frequently, the women who resided there as well. For the men who were schooled by the Cold War pulps, actual experiences in Vietnam proved nothing like what they expected from stories of adventure and domination … [A] climate of deep frustration … might have contributed to violence against Vietnamese people in general and women in particular. After all, had not the macho pulps for years been promising them the sexual rewards of an exotic Orient?

Daddis, pp. 172-73

I’d wager that most men recognized the fantastic elements of the pulps — even laughing at some of the more outrageous stories and exaggerated illustrations. But on some level fantasy has a way of informing the reality that we construct out of the cultural material that surrounds us. Sure, I know I’m not James Bond, and I know that real spy work isn’t an adventure-filled romp as in a Bond flick like “Thunderball.” But I still prefer a martini that’s been shaken, not stirred.

The fiction sold by these men’s adventure magazines glorified war and the warrior even as it marginalized and stereotyped and demeaned foreigners of various sorts. Read enough of this stuff (or watch enough Bond flicks) and you’re bound to be influenced by them. Daddis is to be congratulated for writing a highly original study that sheds new light on why Americans fight the way they do, and for what reasons, fictions, and compulsions.

On War Movies

W.J. Astore

The other night, my wife and I watched “1917,” a movie set during World War I. The Western Front was the setting, and the movie took pains to show the many horrors of trench warfare. Rotting corpses of men and horses. Rats and flies around those corpses. Huge shell craters. Barbed wire everywhere. Broken down tanks and other discarded military equipment. Nature itself blasted. It made you wonder how men could have slaughtered each other under such conditions for so long.

But it’s hard to sustain such horrors, even in a war movie crafted with such care. Because the overall story was a noble one about sacrifice, persistence, and endurance at the longest of odds.

Most war movies are like this. They may show the horrors of war, and do it viscerally and effectively, as Steven Spielberg did in his opening sequence of D-Day in “Saving Private Ryan.” But such horror can’t be sustained in what is ultimately meant as a form of entertainment, so in Spielberg’s film there is meaning and purpose. Sacrifice is ennobling. It is memorable and remembered. The hero does not die in vain.

I’ve seen war movies that have stayed with me, but no war scene in any movie captures the horrors of real life. And if somehow a movie could capture such horrors, who would voluntarily go and see it? Especially if they were not mere spectators but participants — with skin in the game, so to speak.

There are many good war movies out there, but has a movie ever stopped anyone from fighting and dying?

We make war into something larger than life. The irony is that war is most often the negation of life. Too many people die for no purpose and no reason. There is no dramatic arc. Only death and more death.

Yet we remain fascinated by war. Libraries are filled with books on war, and new war movies come out on a regular basis, promising drama and meaning and authenticity.

What was the last peace movie you saw?

Those Pesky Hunter Biden Emails

Joe and Hunter Biden in 2010

W.J. Astore

In trying to cover the Hunter Biden email story with his usual zest, honesty, and outspokenness, Glenn Greenwald ran afoul of the bosses at The Intercept and issued his resignation. Matt Taibbi covers Greenwald’s resignation here, and Greenwald himself has posted the article that got him into trouble here. At her own site, Caitlin Johnstone cites Greenwald’s resignation as exposing the rot in mainstream media outlets. As Johnstone puts it:

I don’t know that the Hunter Biden October surprise shows anything more scandalous than you’d expect for any major US presidential nominee. I do know that the uniform conspiracy of silence and obfuscation from the mass media about it is uniquely scandalous and says bad things about the future of journalism in western news media.

The Bidens have yet to deny the authenticity of these emails. Even so, the mainstream media, joined by digital powerhouses like Facebook and Twitter, have worked to minimize the story. In some cases, not just minimize but to misdirect, as in suggesting the emails are part of a Russian disinformation campaign in favor of Trump, even though there’s no evidence of this.

As one Washington Post article bizarrely put it: “We must treat the Hunter Biden leaks as if they were a foreign intelligence operation — even if they probably aren’t.” [emphasis added]

Come again? Obviously no Vulcans work at the Post, since there’s a complete lack of logic in that statement.

I think what’s going on here is obvious. For the mainstream media, it’s payback time for Donald Trump. Trump has described journalists as “the enemy of the people,” and don’t think that scarily intimidating statement has been forgotten by the press. Also, there is a modicum of guilt within the media, I think, for their role in facilitating Trump’s rise in 2015-16. They never took him seriously in the sense of believing he could win, but they did love all the high ratings (and money!) he generated.

Readers here know that I reject both Trump and Biden as viable presidential candidates. Trump is a narcissist, a liar, and an incompetent leader; Biden is a fading bureaucrat who’s thoroughly compromised by his business, industry, and banking ties. Arguably, Biden is the lesser of two evils, but that certainly shouldn’t mean that the media should protect him from Hunter’s sad record of influence-peddling in the Biden name.

More so than most people, I imagine, journalists are tired of Trump. They want things to go back to “normal.” But censorship in the cause of normalcy is too high a price to pay, especially for the lesser of two evils.

John Bolton’s “Revelations”

bolton

W.J. Astore

Former National Security Advisor John Bolton, the Walrus Man, is back with “revelations” about Donald Trump.  Yet, unless you’ve been a MAGA man or under a rock for the last four years, these are hardly as revelatory as media mouthpieces are making them out to be.  Some examples:

Trump cares most of all about getting reelected in 2020.  To this end, he’ll make deals with China to shore up his domestic support.

Trump sympathizes with authoritarian dictators and promises to intercede on their behalf in various investigations.

Trump is ignorant of the most basic facts, e.g. he didn’t know the UK has nuclear weapons; he didn’t know Finland was not part of Russia; etc.

Trump is mocked behind his back by some of his most ardent supporters, e.g. Mike Pompeo.

Trump said Venezuela is “really part of the United States.”

And so on.  That last one is especially funny.  Trump must mean their oil, for he hasn’t exactly been clamoring for more people south of the border to be put on a path to U.S. citizenship.

Earlier today, Bolton gave an interview in which he said Trump is unfit to be president.  Surprise!  I was saying that in March of 2016, and I was hardly the only one.

Look: I’m no Trump fan, but none of this is news.  As a narcissist and egotist, of course Trump places his reelection above all else.  As an authoritarian ruler (at least in a wannabe sense), of course Trump relishes striking deals with other dictator-types.  Clearly, Trump doesn’t have a democratic bone in his body.  He’s incurious and apparently doesn’t read (not even the Bible, it seems), so he doesn’t know some of the most basic facts about geography and foreign policy.  Indeed, in this sense he’s the prototypical American.  We only learn geography after we invade a country.

It’s not hard to predict the reaction of Trump’s base to these “revelations”: they couldn’t care less.  But, hey, if it helps Bolton to sell books, then he’s taken a page from Trump’s own playbook.  Lots of hype, “alternative facts,” and controversy are good ways to move copy; don’t some people say there’s no such thing as bad publicity?

Meanwhile, Trump’s true feelings for his base are revealed in his decision to press ahead with a mass rally in an indoor arena this weekend.  Never mind the deadly danger of Covid-19: Trump says its fading away.

Now there’s a true “alternative fact” that may prove a killer for far too many, true believers and otherwise.

Trump and the Media

He’s everywhere.  Trump as Agent Smith in “The Matrix” movies

W.J. Astore

Donald Trump is exploiting a weakness in our media — its quest for eyeballs at any cost. Trump is best at gluing eyeballs to the screen — he inflames his supporters and infuriates his detractors. Meanwhile, he oversees a train wreck of an administration that dominates headlines. “If it bleeds, it leads” — and our country is bleeding under his leadership.

Media owners seem to see synergy here: empower Trump with free and sweeping coverage and watch ratings and profits soar. But Trump is a parasite. He’s drawing strength from the media even as he sucks its power and influence dry. But the biggest loser is democracy, since the Trump-media nexus is degrading (and perhaps destroying) fact-based decision-making.

These thoughts came to mind as I read Tom Engelhardt’s latest article at TomDispatch.com. Trump, Engelhardt notes, has the unique and ultimately pernicious ability to drive — and often to dominate — discourse:

Never, not ever, has a single human being been so inescapable. You can’t turn on the TV news, read a newspaper, listen to the radio, wander on social media, or do much of anything else without almost instantly bumping into or tripping over… him, attacking them, praising himself, telling you how wonderful or terrible he feels and how much he loves or loathes… well, whatever happens to be ever so briefly on his mind that very moment.

Engelhardt highlights an important truth later in his piece: Trump’s true “base” is the very “fake news” media he’s so happy to attack.

Of course, Trump has always been a relentless, even ruthless, self-promoter.  Now that he’s president, the media can’t exactly ignore him (or can they?).  But what’s truly shocking is how the mainstream media is so  supinely subservient to him.  How unwilling they are to call him a liar when he lies; and how unwilling they are to critique their own obsequious coverage in a way that would lead to meaningful changes.

The media can’t get enough of Trump.  Knowing this dependency, Trump exploits it, relentlessly.  He reminds me of Agent Smith in “The Matrix” movies. He’s a rapidly-replicating virus that, if left unchecked, will destroy the matrix of American democracy . The question is: How is Trump to be neutralized, or at least contained, when the media keeps feeding him?

Breaking News: Jim Acosta got his press pass back.  Big deal.  Now Trump can score more points off of CNN and its “fake news” machine.

Collusion Takes Many Forms

W.J. Astore

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words:

180719-dan-coats-andrea-mitchell-se-445p_46a4b28bf9adc602cf30c81705e95778.focal-460x230

The supposed big news here is that Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, didn’t know about President Trump’s invitation to Vladimir Putin to visit the White House this fall.

The real story is in plain sight: all the corporate sponsors of the Aspen Security Forum, including Lockheed Martin, the nation’s leading weapons maker.  I like the way the logo for Lockheed Martin hovers just above Dan Coats’s head.  Who works for whom here?

(Other military contractors with prominent logos included Symantec, which specializes in cybersecurity, and MITRE, which technically is a not-for-profit corporation that works mainly with the Department of Defense; I worked with MITRE engineers when I was in the Air Force.)

The other obvious story: the mainstream media’s cozy relationship to those in power.  Andrea Mitchell’s interview with Coats is downright chummy.  It’s all very polite and non-confrontational, with Mitchell hinting we all should be very concerned and nervous about Trump negotiating alone with Putin.

Perhaps so, perhaps not.  But I am concerned about all those cozy relationships within and across the national security state, and the way our media eagerly joins in on the fun.  Collusion takes many forms; let’s not focus so tightly on alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia that we miss what’s in clear sight in photos and videos such as this.

Update (7/22/18): Is the mainstream media focusing on cozy relationships and possible collusion among the various players at Aspen?  You know, the military-industrial complex, the government and its seventeen intelligence agencies, universities and think tanks and the media, i.e. the usual suspects?  Of course not.  At ABC News, they’re focusing on whether Dan Coats’s chuckle and off-the-cuff remarks about Putin’s proposed visit to the White House were disrespectful to Trump.  And there you have it.

The Myths We Tell Ourselves

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General John Kelly

W.J. Astore

John Kelly, President Trump’s chief of staff and a retired Marine Corps general, held a press conference on Thursday to deny he’s quitting or that he’s about to be fired.  In passing, he referred to two common myths in America that go almost completely unexamined.  (By “myth” I mean a defining belief, held in common, and usually without question.)

The first myth: That the United States has “the greatest military on the planet.”  The second myth: That the U.S. military’s value is its “deterrent factor.”

The U.S. certainly has a powerful military, one that costs roughly a trillion dollars a year, when all national security expenses are tallied (e.g. Homeland Security, intelligence, nuclear weapons, and interest on the national debt associated with these expenditures, among other costs).  But is it “the greatest”?  More importantly, why should a democracy and a people allegedly dedicated to peace and freedom be so proud of possessing “the greatest military on the planet”?

There was a time when Americans were proud of having a small standing military.  There was a time when Americans were proud of protesting arms sales around the world by “merchants of death.”  Those days ended with the Cold War.  Now, America leads the world in military spending and arms exports; no other country comes close.  Is this something to boast about?

How about General Kelly’s claim of the military’s “deterrent factor”?  The U.S. military has 800 bases around the world, with U.S. special operations forces involved in more than 130 countries.  Is this all about “deterrence”?  Is the U.S. deterring or preventing wars in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among other places throughout the greater Middle East and Africa?  That hardly seems to fit the facts on the ground.

Of course, the media focused on Kelly’s message that he isn’t being fired and that President Trump is both “thoughtful” and a “man of action.”  His claims about the “world’s greatest military” and its strong deterrent value went unreported and unquestioned.  Such claims are now as “American” as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.

And so it goes …