Thursday, September 28, 2017

PBS Vietnam Series, Finale, "The Weight of Memory," 28 September 2017

Excellent project all together; for what it's worth some comments.

      * This is trivial, but they got across the green of the Vietnamese countryside: a brilliant, unforgettable green. Not as much as the earlier series, they also did well to suggest the occasional terrible beauty of the war, and to get statements from a US veteran or two on the exhilaration and community of combat. I cannot speak to that point personally, but in terms of men's behavior, the polished-up version of General Sherman's "War is hell, and all its glory moonshine" has got to be balanced, at least for some, by positives, including, with a lot of irony, beauty and community.

      * The final episode didn't make up for the previous one's unfairness to George McGovern and John Kerry. McGovern was a good and honorable man, and far more right than wrong. With Kerry, they let stand without any response the accusation that in his testimony to the Congress for the Vietnam Veterans Against the War he passed along lies about atrocities by US forces. The last word on the subject is from an American combatant who said that he was certain atrocities occurred but that wasn't what he saw, not part of his war. I believe him, but what is actually the case in terms of the war and the stories Kerry told the Congress?

      * There's a book on Vietnam movies by the PR officer for General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. He found THE DEER HUNTER mostly pretty silly but praised it for showing a small-town's friendly wellcome-home for returning Vietnam soldiers, as opposed to the usual Hollywood curses and spittle. The US is a big country, and in the Midwest outside of Madison, WI, and some other places, the party line among the Peace Movement — as opposed to "The Revolution" — was to treat grunts and low-ranking officers as (as a critic of the Wall put it) victims of the war and potential and important allies. (The VVAW were crucial for the anti-War movement.)

      * The approach of the documentary necessarily avoided the wonkish "Well ...?" Well, were US actions in Vietnam finally, on balance, right or wrong? Was it a just war, or a "mistake" that with so high a body count would be a crime? The US lost, and we're still here and doing OK, and, arguably, would be better off if we hadn't fought. Therefore no vital interests were involved, by definition of "vital"; certainly there was no existential threat to the Republic. Alternative, the US opposed the Communists with vigor, and the Philippines and Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, et al. aren't part of a Stalinist world. Indeed, the USSR fell, and the Cold War ended before World War III. All of this precisely because the US showed that JFK was right and we would (just about) pay any price — and inflict huge damage — to preserve capitalist, liberal freedom: our spilling so much blood and spending so much money proved that. The approach of this PBS series was effective, but a wonkish word or two would have helped.

     * I really do have to visit the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington,  DC. I wanted to leave a stone there that I had picked up at Kent State, but left the stone at My Lai instead. Still, I do need to see the Wall.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Donald Trump vs. the NFL et al.: Free Speech, Patriotism ... Blacklists and Firing Blacks

Coming to very different conclusions, a couple of my friends going back to high school have argued or allowed on athletes' "taking a knee" that "it is within the rights of the owners to fire them." Under the "employment-at-will doctrine," this is indeed the case, though there are competing theories on job security.

Firing for political reasons, however,  is also in the tradition of the 1940s and 1950s Blacklists 
and the attenuated loyalty-oath requirements which lasted for teachers in the two states I worked in until, at least, 1971.

Additionally, given the racial implications, Americans should overcome our historical amnesia enough to recall the brag of the National States Rights Party during the time of the civil rights movements that they have "been preaching a 'Fire Your Nigger' campaign at our meetings to force more of them to leave the South" (my on-line source cites here The Kansas City Star for 7/21/63; I can remember a later call by White racists — White Citizens Councils? — for a "Fire Your Nigger Day").

There's history here, and some pretty nasty parallels, oNr parallels once we pass the possibly unique instance of a US president taking time away from fire, storm, and flooding national disasters and picking two fights involving nuclear weapons — to defend patriotic gestures and question quiet protest.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Trump: Tweets, Basic Calendar, Geography ... and the Next Dark Age

On 8 August 2017, President Trump threatened North Korea "with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before." The 8th of August falls between the 6th of August, the anniversary of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and 9 August, the bombing of Nagasaki. So whatever Mr. Trump intended to say, in that context of basic calendar what he did say was a threat against North Korea of "fire and fury" exceeding two smallish atomic bombs, a degree of "fire and fury" that would require a hydrogen bomb or several substantial fission bombs.
On 19 September 2017, in a prepared speech to the United Nations, Mr. Trump claimed great patience for the US but "if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea," presumably referring to destroying the Democratic Republic of North Korea as a functioning state but possibly meaning more — although it's hard to conceive of what that "more" could be unless he was thinking of North Korea as its human population (ca. 25.4 million people) and was threatening genocide, or had some idea that North Korea as a geographical entity could be destroyed by military action.
Whether the President of the United States on his own may legally order preventive genocide or even just state destruction by very-high high explosives is a question I now submit to readers expert in the law, but I will move from the initial calendar issue to a point from maps.
The City Distance website saith that Pyongyang, DPRK, is 684 km / 425 miles from Vladivostok in the Russian Federation, as the crow flies or fallout drifts, and about 810 km / 503 miles from Bejing, China. The Chinese border city of Dandong is about an even 100 miles from Pyongyang, 161 km; Dangong's population varies by how one defines the city, but just under a million people would give a fair idea.
It's not entirely clear how the governments of China and Russia would react to North Korea's being reduced — totally — to radioactive glass, but China has made it clear that it doesn't want to deal with large numbers of North Korean refugees, which would result from anything short of literal genocide; and it is a safe bet that both Russia and China would be very upset with radioactive fallout falling out on their territories, plus smoke, toxic gasses, and maybe a short-term nuclear winter or other climate change, including long-term warming.
Perhaps Mr. Trump should consider his reaction if China practiced some very hard-nose capitalism-by-other-means and nuked all Mexican maquiladoras 100 miles (161 km) or so south of the Rio Grande. Or he should consider Air Force General Buck Turgidson's description of Russian reaction upon seeing on their radar a wing of US B-52's entering their airspace: "[T]hey are going to go absolutely ape, and they're gonna strike back with everything they've got."
Call me a pessimist and/or an old softy, but I believe the Congress of the United State should specify — immediately and by a veto-proof majority — that the President of the United States is authorized to go nuclear with a counterattack to a nuclear strike on the US and can use subnuclear means of a wide variety to preempt an imminent attack of significant danger to the Republic and/or to large numbers of Americans. BUT: No preventive wars or nuclear strikes, especially on the scale of genocide. Zip, none, nada; and an order for such a nuclear strike is illegal, to be disobeyed by all people under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and to result in the arrest of the Commander-in-Chief, as a person subject to the UCMJ.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Bathrooms Again (Fall 2017)

I got started in campus politics on a bathroom issue in the mid-ish 1960s and really didn't think we'd be back to such issues in the second decade of the 21st c. Anyway, I see that signs on bathrooms — who, uh, goes where — are back in the news, so here's some background from the last few rounds of argument.

Homo sapiens sapiens, "The wise, wise man," as we arrogantly call our species, is sexually dimorphic. That means that "the modal phenotype" is bi-modal: the folk you're likely to run into are usually XY sexual males or XX sexual females. There are other places on the curve, however, and even sexual expression gets complicated, although not often enough complicated enough that variations are, as a practical matter, difficult to accommodate. (This really should not be an issue for major debate.)

"Gender" is a term from grammar which, the lore on the subject tells us, got introduced into a legal brief to avoid repeating "sex," "sex," "sex." The usage got picked up and expanded as a handy way to talk about how people's sex gets culturally and socially manipulated in its expression in gender roles, yielding curves that are also usually bimodal — culture and society are powerful — but pretty complex: cultures and societies evolve a whole lot faster than species and go through periods of relative fluidity, and are always subject to The Iron Laws of Fashion, as the sainted Mark Twain saith in "Corn-Pone Opinions," even while stressing the power of social pressure. 

So: The Great Bathroom Debates are indeed about who gets to piss next to whom, and with what plumbing, but more crucially about who gets the power to make such decisions and about hierarchy: Executive Toilets, Faculty Johns, Whites Only. In the couple dorms I've been in where decision was left to the residents, the matter was settled without fuss. In one for older folks, a woman who was a Mother Superior in her usual life just posted signs for MEN/WOMEN; in the other, U of Chicago undergrads just shared washrooms, with very strong social pressure on guys to put penises back in their pants and zip up before turning away from a urinal. Introduce parents into the decision-making, and there's another group going for the power to decide.

Oh, yeah: And then there's religion and archaic fears underlying religion. See Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger, especially on "The Abominations in Leviticus" and note more widespread views of Chaos as the breaking down of boundaries. And before you flatter yourself into thinking how far beyond such fears you've gone and how you can groove on boundary transgression and fluidity — watch Ridley Scott's ALIEN again, followed by the James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd ALIENS, and look through H. R. Giger's Necronomicon. Part of the terror of the Alien and its works is the violation of boundaries starting with human flesh but including male/female, mechanical/organic. So for the passion of john debates, add legitimate issues of boundary policing and irrational fears — noting that fear, as such, is an emotion and not exactly rational even when totally justified and whenb, so to speak, a damn good idea. (Fear over bathroom issues: probably a bad idea.)

Production Memorandum 2: THE LUBYANKAN CANDIDATE

Novograd Republic

From: Richard D. Erlich, Director of Development
To: Boris Badenov, Writing Team Coordinator & Executive Producer
Subject: Trump Project (working, "Lubyankan Candidate") Draft 6
            cc: Natasha Fatale, Extra-Special Thanks

Boris, sweetheart!

            Congratulations on your upgraded title, improved credit, and the draft for Acts I and II The Lubyankan Candidate. I talked with Natalia from the Money people, and she loved it, loved it.

            Now about your team's suggestion for "opening up the film for an international epic of apocalyptic proportions, ending with the live-action/CGI destruction by massed artillery fire and/or nuclear bombardment of Seoul, Pyongyang, Tokyo, Kyoto, most of Guam, Burbank, Beijing, and Vladivostok, climaxing a neoMabley/McKee five-act structure." Natalia says she is happy your team has read a book — I pointed out it was at least two books — and she says she'll appropriate the budget if we can attach the Strugatsky Brothers for the final draft and Eisenstein and Kubrick to co-direct. I pointed out they were all dead, and she responded with "Da" and a long silence while she glanced through your team's receipts for "development," especially the research into Kompromat by "honey trap." (And, by the way, my name is spelled "Erlich," not "Ehrlich," and you and your crew have one week to pay back the 500,000 rubles I did not approve for "Sonia Shlyukha, consultant.")

            Anyway, you're not getting blockbuster budgeting, so figure one more act, giving a Beginning, Middle, and now End. Let me suggest, very strongly, a climax where Fearless Leader decides the point of the exercise was to show the world he can make an American President — and then, pardon the pun, trump that by unmaking him.

            You've already established some "buyer's remorse," in a manly sort of way, in Comrade Supreme Commander. The peripeteia, as the Greeks said, will be an intimate but powerful (and cheaply shot) scene of the Leader's watching one last meandering speech by Trump, taking a thumb drive out of a secret compartment and holding it up — and handing it over while saying quietly but manfully to The Aide, "Destroy him."

            We test-marketed some of the actual Kompromat (with faces masked) and got thrown off X-Tube for violating community standards, so tone down glimpses of the salacious stuff. What remains is an expandable or contractible "procedural" and "courtroom drama" as Mr. Trump's money affairs are spread over the Internet, and steely-eyed accountants "follow the money." This could become boring, but given the sheer chutzpah of the scams it will be fascinating … or will be unless your crew really are as dumb and untalented as Natalia thinks you are. (Get that money back, or heads will roll figuratively and knees broken literally.)

            The denouement — the final tying up of loose ends — can be a large-ish or small scene of the swearing in of the former VP as President Pence, or the former Speaker of the House, as President Ryan, depending on how many people you want implicated in the "procedural" and "courtroom drama." It should be in the Oval Office, watched on television by President Putin, with the last shot of Putin watching the show in his private office, and the preceding shot making clear that there are no cameras visible in the Oval Office.

            I have tremendous enthusiasm for this project, and I'm sure you and your team will come up with an End of The Lubyankan Candidate every bit as fascinating as the Beginning and Middle.

            Or else.