Saturday, March 24, 2018

How important is the presidency, anyway?

One of the hot topics in the (internet) circles I run in is: is Trump the worst president? Which has replaced the hot topic of 2004, which was: is Bush the worst president?
At the time of the Bush is the worst fad, I was all: kinda, sorta, but with reservations.

This is what I wrote back then:
“It is easy to think that our present Bush is the worst Bush who has ever ruled over us. The citizens of Rome, whenever Nero committed some new jape, no doubt cast their eyes back longingly to the good old days of Caligula. Whenever we find out about Bush’s newest low – from the vacations of August, 2001, while the hijackers were asking directions to the nearest airport, to the Spring of 2002, when political intervention cut off the main American chance to deal a stunning military blow to Al Qaeda, to the mass thefts on behalf of the greediest and worst that are bankrupting the state, to, of course, the web of war crimes and lies that compose the entirety of his current foreign policy – we are tempted to sigh, as many liberals do, that this is the worst president of our lifetime.

Yesterday, we picked up a real crime book – Blue Thunder: how the mafia owned and finally murdered Cigarette boat king Donald Aronow, by Thomas Burdick. The book was written in the late eighties. There are amusing period touches – at one point, a DEA agent explains how they spot drug dealers at Julio Iglesias concerts: who else brings a portable phone to a concert? Indeed. Aronow was a Miami business and sportsman, famous in motorboat circles both for the designs of his boats and the records he set racing them. In 1984, he impressed his good friend, Vice President George Bush, by taking him around Miami bay in a prototype speedboat that Bush enjoyed so enormously that, in his (bizarre) position as head of a South Florida drug task force, he recommended ordering grosses of them for the DEA. The boats, named Blue Thunders, were produced by Aronow, apparently, and bought, given this recommendation, by the DEA.

Aronow was gunned down in a mob hit. Burdick, investigating the murder, was puzzled by rumors he heard about the Blue Thunders. The DEA had apparently failed to interdict even one drug craft with the boats. The design of the boats was so bad that the agents using them had to be more alert for engine explosions than for the chugging of speedy boats full of drug smugglers. The enigma was explained when he uncovered the fact that Aronow’s company was secretly owned by Jack and Ben Kramer. Jack and Ben were names in the boat industry – but they were more famous when they were hauled into court and charges with running the largest marijuana smuggling operation in the U.S.

Yes, this happened. The war on drugs had many farcical moments, but this has to be one of the funniest. Bush, it goes without saying, cut his ties of compassion to Widow Aronow, and went on, as President, to intensify the War against drugs to the point that the misery inflicted on one to two million Americans, imprisoned under his draconian regime, and the laws and procedures he introduced that were, with exemplary cowardice, left undisturbed by Clinton, do dwarf the misery inflicted by the current Bush whelp. Although to give him his fair share of abuse, the current Bush, ravening for Iraqi blood, is well on his way to surpassing his pa in terms of sheer feebleness.

Incidentally, Burdick includes a little aside that hints at how, well, lucky the Bushes are in Florida. When Ben Kramer was arrested, apparently original copies of the primary speeches given by Gary Hart were found in his safe. Kramer and Aronow belonged to a ‘swinging” club, Turnberry Isle. It was from Turnberry Isle that Gary Hart extracted his temporary honey, Donna Rice, who was photographed with him on a boat in the Miami harbor. How did the press find out about this? An apparently anonymous tip from another Turnberry hostess. This isn’t to say that the Bush organization, using its dirty connections in Florida, culled the Democratic field in order to organize the elevation of Bush to the presidency. To believe that would be to believe, well, that the Bushes would do anything to retain power, including corrupting an election…”

Back in 2004, to doubt that George W. Bush was the worst president was treated as some kind of treason in some liberal circles. The same thing is happening now for our current shit-for-brains prez. All of which makes for a nice parlor game, but… does it make for real politics?
The real political question should be: how much do presidents count? In other words, the whole point of electing a president is to implement certain policies that the electors want. But once the president is elected, the collected mass of the policies that have been implemented – that overwhelming concrete mass – means that mostly, presidents will try to operate on the trend, rather than revolutionizing the content. This means the experience of governing is always, for those who most favor massive change, an experience of mourning. One mourns the president one thought one was electing.

Certainly that was my experience of the Obama years from 2009-2012. In his second term, I didn’t have high hopes, and Obama was, I think, better in those four years – save for the love of the TPP.
One of the ways in which mourning is averted is to concentrate on those who are attacking the president one has voted for. This makes it easier to think that the president is revolutionizing content, since he is so completely seen as doing so by his opponents.

Yet trends do have an effect. Certain presidents, like Ronald Reagan, worked the trend in such a way that it became the dominant trend for his successors, even today. We are spending about 600 billion dollars to much for the military annually due to Ronald Reagan, and we are spending about a trillion less annually on social insurance – and the collective infrastructure – due to Ronald Reagan. But note that here: Reagan refers less to the man who was president than the collectivity of compromises and agreements by which D.C. was governed in his time. The trends I pick out of Reagan’s presidency were already present in Jimmy Carter’s.

What presidents can do more successfully is negate trends that grew stronger under their successors. For all his military spending and attempts to “shrink government”, Carter was strong about energy saving, ecology, and the environment. Reagan certainly destroyed these things, and they have never come back – hence the disaster we all know we are heading towards, and the hope we have that maybe random volcanic activity will be enough to preserve a livable earth for our children, or that at least these children won’t live in the large swathes of the world in which the water is going to dry up or the seasons are going to become Martian-like.

I suppose the reason that Trump – or any of the Republicans on offer in 2016 – was going to inevitably become the worst president is more because of larger trends that the U.S., and in general the capitalist system, simply is not designed to meet. From an inequality that has pretty much terminated a lot of what we used to have in terms of a democratic culture – one in which, for instance, we had an ideal of equality in the courtroom, now a distant dream – to a global environmental mess, we have deeper and deeper problems. Which is why the choice between Make America Great Again versus America is Already Great is such a farce.  

Friday, March 23, 2018

the strike yesterday in Paris

There were ten police vans going up Rue de la Bretagne, which was a good predictor of a political rally by the left. It was gray, a penetrating over the seasonal deadline gray, a where is spring gray. Weather in cities: I could make a concept album. Everybody was walking around still wrapped up in scarves and long coats. Not gloves, though – the average Parisian seems to have lost the glove habit. Me, I’m a glove man. My hands get cold. I walked along and observed the traffic, which was snarled. The Marais seems to have been converted into a vast chantier since we moved back. It is a sign that the French economy is coming back, but it is also an irritation. The traffic was even worse because streets were arbitrarily blocked and the busses were running on an irregular schedule.  The grève had knocked out a lot of public functions, and one noticed.  Paris without these functions is rather like a sentence that had lost its punctuation, its commas and periods. It becomes a vast run-on.
I headed up to the Bastille. Walking along Beaumarchais, a sweet old lady gave me an anti-globalization handout. There were posters up against the EU. This gave me a sinking feeling. I understand that the EU was designed to spread neo-liberalism in Europe, and that the last ten years have been terrible – it is as if the policymakers at the EU had skipped the economic course about Keynes. Instead of shoveling money into the economy for the workers, the EU’s big solution was to shovel money into the banks for the banks. The reasons for this were multiple, but they all came down to one thing: the poohbahs at the top want to remain as wealthy, and are willing to use the power of the state to do it.

However, the framework of the EU doesn’t necessitate this kind of austerity economics. I’m for a reformed EU. But I think the EU poohbahs have underestimated how they have lost the patience of the people. I still don’t think they get it, don’t get what a massive force popular impatience can become.

Political thoughts. I go on up the street, approach the Bastille monument, which is surrounded at the base by a high wall. I look around. There are signs, posters, but no demonstration, no marchers. I thought they would be here by 3:00, but apparently getting hundreds of thousands of people to move from Bercy to the Bastille takes more time than I had reckoned on. So I hang around with a small group of communists, read their literature. Again, I have a bad feeling. Macron-Holland-Sarkozy reforms work, partly, by shaping the options. Instead of reshaping the options, calling for massive eco infrastructure investment by the state, and raising salaries, etc., the leaflets are all about analyzing the reforms sarcastically and defending the status quo. You don’t win if you don’t promise the goods. You just keep retreating. That, at least, is my feeling.

Alas, after a while, I have to make my way back. I have to get groceries and pick up Adam. So I missed the great assembly of the workers. Like is this a symbol or what? Still, I’m not going to croak like a crow. This day was well worth it. And I’d like to think that my sinking feeling that Macronism is inevitable is one of those momentary internal surrenders that happens with those of us who are prone to mainlining the news for breakfast. Which, don’t do.    

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

the movie and the stop button

1980 is not a bellweather year. Hostage crisis, inflation, campaign between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, these are the faint associative chimes that ring out for the American goof. But it was quietly decisive in one way for the arts, for that was the year in which the VCR entered the American consciousness as more than just a hobbyists item mentioned in Popular Photography. True, Betamax had come out in 1975, and there were expensive alternatives on the market, but it was roughly around 1980 that a critical mass had been achieved. Meaning that you didn’t have to explain what a VCR was. In 1981, Jack Valenti, stooge of the movie industry, said: "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." It is the ritual of technological dissemination that the corporations it seems to threaten throw their lobbyists at it, and then they figure out how to capture it and use it for themselves. Money money money.

What was decisive, it seems to me, was the ability not so much to record film, but to stop it.
This is reflected in the way film was written about. Before the VCR, film exhibition was generally a public thing that the writer on film had to experience like everybody else – that is, as a continuous, forward moving reel. A reel that you could not stop and rewind. In this sense, it fulfilled that cliché about the book whose pages “you can’t stop reading” – except that this magic book would, indeed, have become something unheimlich if you really couldn’t stop reading it, if the pages refused to turn back or to stop.

The VCR put an end to that for the masses.

Jean Epstein, writing in the 1920s, had a prevision that film had yet to be understood in its true metaphysical and lexical glory – the words had to be invented for it, and so did the concepts:
“The Bell-Howell is a brain in a standardized, factory made, commercially distributed metal box, which transforms world exterior to it into art. The Bell-Howell is an artist and only behind it are there other artists: the director and the operator. Finally, you can buy a sensibility and you can find it in the marketplace and pay a tax on it as you do for coffee or an Oriental rug. The gramophone is, from this point of view, a failure – or simply remains undiscovered. We must find what it deforms or where it choses. Have we registered on a disc the sound of the street, of motors, of railroad stations? Some day perhaps we will see that the gramophone is made for music like the cinema is made for theater – that is, not at all, and that it has its proper way. For we must use this unhoped for discovery of a subject which is an object, without a conscience, that is without hesitation nor scruples, without venality, no smugness, nor possible error, an entirely honest artist, exclusively art, the artist type.”
Epstein was an imaginative film writer and maker, like many in the 20s. What he gives us is a machine that is an artist in as much as it transforms the world exterior to it. But what he doesn’t give us is the crucial moment when that machine stops. It stops, and the subject and object fall apart again. Or… perhaps not. Certainly they don’t fall apart again in the traditional way, where reason is the differand – not stopping. We don't have a metaphysics of stopping even now.
I have not had the infinite amount of time necessary to research my thesis, but it seems to me that reading, say, the excellent Gaby Wood article on “In a Lonely Place” in the current LRB, one is not struck with the way she goes into the scene in which Gloria Gayner, playing Laurel Gray, is brought down to the police station to give testimony about Humphrey Bogart, playing Dix Steele, her neighbor. Wood goes “around” that scene, so to speak. She quotes it, she goes into the placement of the characters, the raised eyebrow of Gloria, Bogart with his back to her – it is as if the entire scene were freeze framed, and the method used was the kind of iconographic analysis one expects from, say, Meyer Schapiro. But nobody looks at a Renaissance painting of the crucifixion and thinks of Jesus as an actor, whose personal life infiltrates the picture. The difference between the film and shot cannot be surmounted – they exist in different aesthetic worlds, go on ‘different paths”, to use Epstein’s phrase. But there is a difference in seeing the film in a way that makes its stoppable for the average viewer. It is a possibility in the movies that Epstein, for all his imagination, did not see. Film has becomereadable in another way. And I wonder – if we were in the pre-VCR age, wouldthis be written differently?

“In one of the best seduction scenes in cinema, an interrogation becomes a flirtation: third-person, no eye contact, refracted through the cops’ questions. The setting is the office of Captain Lochner in Beverly Hills police station. The language is the language of evidence. Dix Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter, has been called in over the murder of Mildred Atkinson, a girl he was with the previous evening. We’ve already seen Bogart-as-Dix take little interest in Mildred, whose job was to tell him the plot of a terrible novel he’d bleakly agreed to adapt, and here he takes no interest in her murder either. Lochner sees Dix’s indifference as incriminating – his response to the news, the policeman says, is ‘just petulance. A couple of feeble jokes.’ Dix doesn’t let up. ‘I grant you, the jokes could have been better, but I don’t see why the rest should worry you.’

Enter his alibi: Laurel Gray, a neighbour who saw him come home with Atkinson. At the threshold of the captain’s office she raises an eyebrow, just slightly, and over the next few moments it becomes clear that, for the purposes of irascible romance, Dix and she are the same person: unintimidated, less than ingratiating, sarcastic. She sits down, peers into a near-empty cup of coffee, looks up. Words are unnecessary: she’s nobody’s suspect; men have no manners.
‘Miss Gray, do you know this gentleman?’
‘Did you ever see him before?’
‘Yes, a few times.’
‘At the patio apartments. We both live there.’
‘Do you know who he is?’
Her back is to Bogart. He has one foot up on the leather sofa, arm resting nonchalantly on his knee. Though he’s sitting behind her, the depth of field is at a maximum, so that they are in almost equal focus. The implication of the framing is clear: throughout this scene, though they say nothing to each other directly, the dialogue is between them.”

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...