Saturday, January 16, 2016

When Ted Cruz insults “New York values,” he insults the totality of human experience

Screw you, Ted Cruz. 

All personal feelings aside, when Ted Cruz tried to insult Donald Trump by saying he had “New York values,” he misjudged the rest of the country’s current feelings towards the Big Apple, the most visited tourist spot in the Americas, including Las Vegas.  

New York still represents the big city, but not necessarily in a negative way.  For millions of vacationers, New York offers a wonderfully homogenized tourist zone: the cleaned-up Times Square, the High Line, a Broadway musical or two, a visit to Strawberry Fields in Central Park and a shopping or window-shopping trip down Fifth Avenue. Along the way, the average tourist may run into an historic building or a museum or gallery. For educated young people, who tend to like cities and mass transit more than their parents do, New York represents a Mecca, as it does to anyone interested in either traditional or cutting edge performing or visual arts.  

New York represents all the positive trends in cities over the past twenty years. Cities all over the country are cleaner and much safer than they used to be, filled with creative and educated young people, multiple entertainment venues and interesting non-chain restaurants, magnets for wealthy consumers, empty nesters and recent immigrants. The energy and diversity of cities are now glorified and considered precious national resources. 

In other words, Senator Cruz, your anti-New York dog won’t hunt.  

Today’s view of New York is largely positive. Sure there are small-town folk throughout the country like my uncle in Macon, Georgia, who don’t like New York and may be intimidated by it or, like a friend of mine in the Los Angeles area, feel uncomfortable traveling unless driving an automobile. But for most of the country, New York is a cuddly and loveable town.  Dozens of celebrities and pundits from all over the country, including many fellow Republicans, joined in the chiding of Cruz, even the Wall Street Journal. 

Cruz was wrong not just in his cynical attempt to tar Donald Trump with insults by connecting him to the Big Apple. Cruz conflates New York with a set of social values that are now largely accepted throughout the country. The fight for gay marriage did not take place in New York, but California, Ohio, Texas and Kentucky. The Roe v. Wade case came out of Texas. There is no difference in the number of women using birth control sometime in their life in New York City and elsewhere in the country.  

Also implicated in “New York values” is the concept of the suspicious or dangerous “other” lurking in ethnic and cultural diversity. True enough, New York City is the most diverse city in the world, a place where you can hear more languages regularly spoken within its five boroughs (actually one, Queens) than any other municipality in the world. But the rest of the United States is gradually following New York’s lead and becoming far more diverse, not just in its population, but in the mainstreaming of ethnic and sexual minorities. 

As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and others have pointed out, “New York values are American values.” 

At the end of Ted Cruz’ brief list of the values he despises and that New York symbolizes for him, he mentioned money. When he says money, everyone understands he means the capitalist system, lots of very wealthy people and great wealth inequality. In condemning New York for its “money” Cruz is not wrong on the facts, just being hypocritical, for two reasons: 1. Cruz supports policies which help “money” make and keep more money. He is a fanatical believer in the free market unencumbered by regulations and unions. 2. Cruz has accepted a ton of money from New York sources. Judging from his list of campaign contributors, including loans from two large New York banks that epitomize Wall Street, Ted Cruz loves New York money.  

The biggest mistake that Ted Cruz makes is to try to characterize New York. New York is everything and has archetypes and prototypes of every kind of person: Billionaires, investment bankers, hedge fund managers and trust fund babies, yes. But also secular Jewish socialists, left-leaning professors, strong labor unions, progressive publishers, jazz hipsters, aging hippies, Brooklyn rappers, punks, goths, geeks and LGBTQ, immigrants from every continent, artists, dancers, musicians, writers, designers, inventors, first-nighters and birdwatchers (in the many large parks and wetlands within the city limits), communists and neo-cons, trannies and tanned jetsetters, fashionistas with Fendi bags and feminists with shopping bags, plus millions of ordinary families of every color, race, religion, sexual orientation and ethnicity.  

In short, New York is everything and has everything. New York values encompass all values. To insult New York is to insult the totality of human experience.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

When Jane Austen meets zombies, the result is plenty of gore, kitsch and economic anxiety.

By Marc Jampole

As far as I can tell from common usage, a zombie is a former human being whose dead body has been reanimated. Zombies walk around in a stiff stupor and often want to kill and eat humans as their only way to survive. While not all zombies feed on humans, most of them do in popular fiction, video games and movies, which connects zombism directly to vampirism.

The vampire, and by extension the zombie, is the perfect image for an age when selfishness reigns as the underlying ideology.  I call it the Age of Reagan because it was under Ronald Reagan’s leadership that the country began its turn towards selfishness.  Reagan expressed it best with his oft-told joke with the punch line, “I don’t have to run faster than the bear, just faster than you.”  A human creature who stays alive by sucking the blood of other humans is an apt metaphor for the current epoch in which our social and economic policy creates small numbers of ultra-wealthy Americans, while everyone else gets poorer.  In a real sense, the wealthy feed off the bodies and work of the rest of the country.

Five years ago in these pages, I noted the vampire fad and predicted it would continue, because it served so well as a symbol for the zeitgeist. The spin-off these past few years into zombism is therefore not surprising. A five-minute Internet search yielded the following list of zombie or zombie-vampire television series showing on broadcast, cable, premium cable or Internet television: “The Walking Dead,” “Z Nation,” “Dead Set, Death Valley,” “In the Flesh, Raised by Zombies,” “Ash vs. Evil Dead,” “The Returned “and “Zombie Hunter: City of the Dead, to name a few. I’ve assiduously avoided this nonsense, but sometimes see the promotions for these shows while channel surfing.

The zombie is not exactly a vampire and doesn’t hold exactly the same subtextual symbolism. Unlike the vampire, who is generally a loner or runs in small packs and usually comes from a privileged background, the zombie is a creature of groups. Whereas the vampire represents the capitalist, the horde of zombies may in fact be stand-ins for illegal immigrants, who are currently getting the blame for many of our problems by most Republicans.  Criminals, rapists, stealers of jobs from honest Americans, users of our social safety net—these zombies who live off the body politic come from the dregs of society, not the higher planes as many vampires do.  Mitt Romney was the perfect vampire, whereas Donald Trump projects himself as the ruthless superhero protecting us from the zombies.

The latest entry into zombie entertainment caught me by complete surprise: a new movie titled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The trailer makes the movie look like a martial-humans-versus-supernatural-monsters flick set in the late 18th century.

Not recognizing the title merely shows how out of the mainstream of pop culture I can be when it comes to adult horror and fantasy fiction, because as it turns out, the movie called “P&P&Z,” as I’m going to abbreviate it, is based on a 2009 novel by the same name. According to the Wikipedia article on the novel, about 85% of it repeats Jane Austen’s original words, which are now in public domain and therefore available for use without royalty payments. The author, Seth Grahame-Smith, interweaves several subplots about the living dead into Austen’s classic story of star-crossed lovers kept apart by their own foibles of pride and prejudice.   

Not the author, but the publisher, is responsible for creating the concept of interjecting zombism into Jane Austen. Quirk Books editor Jason Rekulak developed the idea for “P&P&Z” after matching a list of popular supernatural characters with a list of books whose titles are in the public domain. Once he came up with Pride and Prejudice and zombies, he turned the project over to a writer, much as a marketing vice president would turn an industrial video, a television ad campaign or website concept over to a PR writer.

I usually don’t depend this much on the contents of a Wikipedia article, but the Wikipedia description of the opening of the novel gives a pungent sense of the odd pastiche produced by combining Jane Austen with the living dead:

“Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters live on a countryside estate with their parents. Mr. Bennet guides his daughters in martial arts and weapons training, molding them into a fearsome zombie-fighting army; meanwhile, Mrs. Bennet endeavors to marry the girls off to wealthy suitors. When the wealthy and single Mr. Bingley purchases a nearby house, Mrs. Bennet spies an opportunity and sends the girls to the first ball where Bingley is expected to appear. The girls defend the party from a zombie attack, and attraction sparks between Mr. Bingley and the eldest daughter Jane Bennet. Elizabeth clashes with Bingley's friend, the haughty monster-hunter Fitzwilliam Darcy.”
Elizabeth and Darcy have become superheroes, while maintaining their upper class country English breeding. As a “Saturday Night Live” skit, I would think it a hoot of a travesty. But in a full-length novel or movie, I imagine that the joke quickly becomes boring and the tongue gets a little tired firmly stuck in the cheek for hours at a time.  Plus the frequent interjections of violence must quickly overcome the humor of mixing 18th century gentry with zombies.

Those who believe that this triumph of marketing over creativity reflects the bankrupt spirit of western culture should remember that the practice of a business person giving a concept that mixes unlike elements to an artist goes back at least to Roman times, when the Emperor Augustus’ political advisor Maecenas gave the well-known poet Virgil the task of creating a Roman epic that incorporated elements of the Iliad and the Odyssey into it, but with a Roman hero. In a sense, the early Renaissance paintings which depict the family of the person who paid for the artwork adoring the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child perform the same kind of genre mixing and for the same reason: to make money. We could analyze for days what makes the Aeneid or Botticelli’s “The Adoration of the Magi” great art and ”P&P&Z” a piece of titillating dreck. The points we would discuss include artistic technique, depth and consistency of characters, avoidance of the explicit, historical significance and discussions of or allusions to great issues.   

As a cultural document reflecting its time, “P&P&Z” may be more telling than the Aeneid or Renaissance art, which after all, reflected the predilections and fears of a small sliver of the population, the wealthy. “P&P&Z” incorporates the politics of selfishness in its most extreme manifestation—consuming other people to survive and killing the worthless living dead who threaten to overrun the stable society of the prosperous living. It therefore both reflects and ameliorates the fears many have of falling behind in an economic system in which 95% of the population has stagnated or lost ground over the past three decades, while elected officials have used tax and spending policies literally to take money from the poor and middle class and give it to the wealthy, and then placed the blame on the poor themselves. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

End game for Oregon Refuge occupiers is a nation with a few rich folk & mostly poor people

By Marc Jampole

It seems as if the real goal of Ammon Bundy and the other occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is to take permanent possession of government land as an act of armed rebellion. That’s the simplest way to understand their actions and their statements.

They are playing a game of chicken with the federal government. The current frigidly right-wing winds blowing throughout the country would make an armed attempt by the police or army to dislodge this rag-tag army a probable public relations disaster for President Obama. Bill Clinton faced a lot of criticism for the Waco siege and its violent conclusion in an age much more hostile to gun rights and secession fantasies than today. Imagine if a police force killed a few of Bundy’s buddies.

But I don’t think Ammon Bundy is suicidal. He just plays a good game of poker. He figures that he can stay on the land as long as he likes, as long as he doesn’t start shooting at people.

Good poker player, yes. Good PR hack, not so much. The problem Bundy faces is that everyone has lined up against his group—the people he’s trying to help, the local authorities and even the politicians who pontificated on the rights of his father not to pay nominal fees to have his cattle feed on public lands that tax dollars maintain. Plus wacko groups from the Northwest’s thriving survivalist movement have descended on the Refuge, looking to hook up with Bundy’s group. The more people out of his control—and maybe his payroll, for all we know—the greater the possibility that someone does something stupid that gives the federal government ethical permission to charge in. I’m pretty sure that Ammon Bundy is of the “discretion is the better part of valor” school, adhering to the Falstaffian belief that being a martyr is great PR for the cause, but hazardous to your health. Come to think of it, a fictional Bundy married to a redhead with two children often expressed the same sentiment.

All irony aside, the broader issue is one of property ownership. The Bundys and their supporters, don’t believe that the federal government should own any land. What they don’t realize is that if private hands held all land, the Bundys would have to pay market-rate fees to the owners of the land that the government now allows ranchers to use at low rates subsidized by taxes. The Bundys probably figure that they’ll be the ones who own the land and charge big bucks for its use.

The concept of public ownership of land is at least as old as the concept of kingship. Governments hold land for the public good in virtually every country of the world, from the most right-wing to the most leftist. A majority of all land in the United States has been public since U.S. armies took it from the Native American tribes in the 19th century. And those tribes tended to have a kind of shared concept of ownership in which no one owned the land, but everyone could enjoy it. If you think it’s a weird custom, consider that those readers who own houses may not own the drilling rights below the land surface and those in co-op apartments own only shares in a corporation that gives them the right to occupy their domicile. Every civilization complicates the issue of private property.

As the New York Times has reported, there is an active movement to transfer public lands from federal to state hands, especially out West. As usual, Koch money is behind some of the efforts to neuter the federal government. One state legislature, Utah’s, has passed a law demanding control of the federal lands in the state. The government has ignored the state.

To understand why the ultra rightwing wants to transfer federal lands to the state level, we need only analyze what states have done on national issues over the past ten years.  Working on the state level, whose legislatures tend to be controlled by rural conservatives, has enabled Republicans to pass a large number of laws that make it harder to vote and harder to get an abortion or food stamps and easier to carry a gun. Those in favor of having states own public land must figure they can then whittle away environmental regulations and usage limits, and perhaps eventually convince states to sell the land at typical government discounts.

There are two major conceptual problems with giving the states federal lands. Keep in mind that most of the land in question is uninhabited forests, wetlands, mountains, prairies and desserts. The issues involved in wildlife management, fire control, species protection, resource use, strategic resource management as an aspect of defense policy and environmental degradation go beyond the confines of any state. Addressing these concerns involves an enormous long term investment that the states can’t afford. Without tax dollars from other states with fewer square acres of public lands, individual states would be unable to manage these large holdings.

The privatization of the government has so far mostly led to a shift in the division of the income generated by providing the privatized goods and services. Management takes home a bigger share of the pie and most employees take home a small piece. Privatization is one of several policy changes the federal government made beginning in the Reagan era that have led to the rapid increase in wealth and income inequality we have experienced. Is there any reason to think that privatization of public land would be any different?

Let’s try to imagine how privatization of public land would play out: If the government gave away a fair share plot to every citizen, that would represent a crude form of communism, and we know the Bundys, Kochs and others toying with concept of massive land privatization don’t want that. No, what they probably have in mind is an auction or sale of public land. Large corporate interest will end up buying and then benefitting from most of it.