INHERENT APPEAL

Posted in Rants on August 11th, 2016 by Ed

These are halcyon days for conspiracy theorists. It's possible that with the help of the internet such theories will propagate exponentially forever and we'll look back on 2016 as a more innocent time, but I don't relish the opportunity to live in a world where a wider range of conspiracy theories are more gleefully embraced than they are today.

Conspiracy theories are appealing for two reasons: they make the world seem more interesting and exciting than it really is ("Hillary stole the nomination" is a much better hook than "It was unlikely that a 74 year old Vermont socialist who isn't a member of the Democratic Party was looking at an uphill battle to win the Democratic nomination, and honestly if there was a conspiracy against him he wouldn't have come nearly as close to winning as he did") and they allow people to shift responsibility. We didn't lose, we were cheated. I'm not a failure, the (Jews, Unions, Liberals, feminists, immigrants) stole what I deserve. Both of these things make conspiracy theories inherently appealing, and for valid reasons. Nobody likes being bored or having to blame themselves for the things they aren't happy about.

Not all conspiracy theories enjoy equal acceptance, though, and the most plausible ones – the ones that seem like they have enough circumstantial evidence to make them true-ish – have the upper hand. You don't hear anyone but the most fringe unstable types talking about chemtrails, but large numbers of people believe, for example, that global warming or the price of gasoline are the products of conspiracies. Identifying a group of people who could benefit (Scientists! Environmentalists! Liberals!) a theory seems more plausible, and identifying individuals or groups who seem to have control over a fluctuating commodity (OPEC! Obama! The Saudis! The Jews, because it's always Jews!) allows people who don't care to bother with the details below the surface to take comfort in having found the answer.

I do not for a moment endorse the conspiracy theory that Trump is tanking this election on purpose to ensure that his supposed close buddy Hillary Clinton wins – Look, they stood next to each other in a picture in 1994, what more evidence to you need? What other explanation could there be for the First Lady and a famous rich person to have been in the same room together? – but the past three weeks have made it perfectly clear why so many people have latched onto it. I don't believe it, because there is no evidence to support it. But Trump has melted down so completely and seems to be going so far out of his way to think of what he can say that will finally get his acolytes to stop cheering for him that it's only logical for people who are cynical and pay limited attention to politics to seize upon this as an explanation for his otherwise inexplicable behavior. Trying to make sense out of nonsense is normal.

The truth, as usual, is more mundane: the man has a personality disorder, and an attention-craving narcissist who relies on shock value has to continually up the ante in order to keep achieving the same effect (think Howard Stern, Marilyn Manson, etc.) And once you've attacked a dead US Army soldier's parents and asked Russian agents to steal classified information to help your campaign, I guess the only way to increase the shock value from there is to make "jokes" about your supporters killing Hillary Clinton. That's why it seems like this is playing out to a script, like each week brings a calculated increase in the extent to which Trump seemingly goes out of his way to get people not to vote for him.

I don't believe Trump cares about anyone but Trump, or that he is trying to help Clinton win. I do understand how people could look at this shitshow and come to that conclusion, though. The popularity of that theory is the best testament to just how bad he and his campaign are. We're witnessing something historic here. Think of how badly a team would have to lose the Super Bowl, for example, before it would enter your mind (and seem plausible) that they were losing on purpose to help their friends on the other sideline.

POURING YOUR HEART AND SOUL

Posted in Rants on August 8th, 2016 by Ed

Of all the places a person could look for happiness and fulfillment, I can't think of one more likely to produce constant disappointment than the American electoral process.

Studying elections for a living has taken most of the shine off of them for me. As a kid they seemed like the most important thing in the world, and the process of voting was an almost mystical expression of rights inextricable from lofty concepts like freedom and justice. Maybe political science has reduced the moving parts involved to numbers, formal models, and abstract data points, but over time I've developed an outlook toward voting that is no different than paying the electric bill. It's a thing we do for practical reasons. You don't have to pour your heart and soul into it. It's not a goddamn spiritual quest; it's an election.

This presidential election appears to be bringing out the worst in the electorate in so many ways. One is the habit we have as Americans of thinking that our feelings are important in a process that is a practical and means-to-end oriented. My view is that the primary process is the time for big ideas, for hopes and dreams and attempting to steer the ship, so to speak. Once the primary process is over, voting becomes no different than picking a cable company. You pick the one that gives you the most of what you want at the lowest cost. And, like with cable and internet service, you usually have a very narrow range of choices. And you usually don't like any of them.

Now that I think about it, picking a cable and internet provider is more like American presidential elections than anyone realizes.

I didn't vote for Hillary Clinton in the primaries, where she was my second preference in a field of two. Now that process is over, and I have two choices. There are about four things about Hillary Clinton that I like and the rest crap. Trump is not merely 100% crap, he is the actual diametric opposite of everything I like. So, being a rational person who understands how elections work and that the rules of our process virtually ensure that only one of the major party candidates can win, I pick the one who gives me more of what I like. I could punish myself by writing in someone who isn't going to win (to extend the analogy, that would be choosing HughesNet satellite internet, which, for the record, is the most expensive and ludicrously bad internet service since the obsolescence of the 26k modem) but what would that accomplish. In the din of 100 million-plus people voting this year, the "message" of staying home or throwing away a vote on a joke candidate isn't going to be heard.

"But I don't like either candidate" is the background refrain of this entire election, and my reaction (at least internally) is always the same: Who cares? How often in life are you really making choices among great options? The mechanical process of choosing who will represent us in the various elected positions of power in the United States is important, but it's hardly a place to look for fulfillment and self-expression. You don't have to go down into the Fuhrerbunker because you don't like either the Americans or the Russians. You pick one to surrender to (probably the one that isn't going to shoot you on sight or ship you off to the Gulag) and go from there. In the end, too many people are simply too invested in a process that is not designed – not in the slightest – to fluff your self esteem and sense of self worth. If you can't make a choice in a practical decision-making process without invoking your integrity, pride, and self esteem, that says more about you than it does about the process.

NPF: CITIUS, ALTIUS, FORTIUS

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 4th, 2016 by Ed

(Note: I'm going on vacation as of Friday morning. Posts will continue, although there may be interruptions. Not only do I have to return to teaching imminently, but if I don't take a break from this election I won't survive to November.)

With everything that has happened in the world in the last few years, not to mention the uninterrupted shitshow that has been 2016, it's hard to believe they're even going forward with the Olympics in Rio. The internet can give you thousands of stories about how totally unprepared the city is and how little of what was promised has been delivered (side note: I visited Brazil three weeks prior to the 2014 World Cup, and nothing was ready. The new terminal supposedly being build at the airport in Brasilia had a plastic sheet stapled to 2×4 boards for two of its walls). Beyond that, the likelihood of the Games going off without – I don't want to jinx it – a serious "security issue" at some point seems nearly nil. If international terrorists have found ways to exploit the weaknesses of France, Germany, and Belgium in recent months then Rio, where the cops aren't even competent to handle basic street crime…well, it's not a pleasant thought.

It's becoming clear to the international community what a boondoggle these events are, which is why we see authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states like Russia, Qatar, China, Brazil, and Turkey making the biggest (and most often successful) bids to host Olympics and World Cups. Despite all the promises of economic development, inevitably the huge government expenditures end up in the pockets of a small, predictable group of people with financial and political power. Then the moment the competition ends, the costly infrastructure becomes useless. Remember all that fancy stuff they built in Beijing? Yeah. So, nations with democratically elected leaders are shying away from taking it in the neck financially in exchange for the dubious benefit of turning a major city into a disaster area for the better part of a month.

It might be time to revisit the idea of holding the Olympics in the same city every time. Athens seems to be a popular proposal, but essentially any city big enough to house people for a couple weeks in hotels or dormitories can handle it. Pay once to build facilities and then reuse them with only the costs of maintenance, not new construction, to worry about four years down the line. As for the World Cup, limit it to nations where no new stadium construction would be required. Places like France, Germany, the US, Japan, Brazil, and others could work the games into existing facilities that are more than able to handle it.

Lastly, and only half-fatuously, the Olympics have lost all of their veneer of friendly, amateur international competition. It feels no different than watching pro sports now. Maybe it would revive interest if instead of relying on star athletes, citizens of each nation were picked out of a lottery. If we really want to see if the US is better than Argentina at basketball, the purest form of competition would be to grab a random sample of people and throw them out on the court. We already know Lebron James can dunk on everyone. Let's see how your dentist handles the rock.

SCOOBY DOO MYSTERY

Posted in Quick Hits on August 3rd, 2016 by Ed

The journalistic low hanging fruit of the summer is overwrought "Who are Trump supporters?" pieces, sometimes using that exact phrase as a title in a truly impressive feat of laziness. The format varies only rarely. Attend a Trump rally, interview a bunch of morons, interview one or two people who seem nice and sincere albeit misinformed and weird (for balance), and make sweeping generalizations about how everything is now Different in some way that nobody can quantify.

If this all feels strangely familiar, that's because it's almost identical to all of the "Who are the Tea Party?" pieces from 2010. Some of these articles read like the authors did little more than ctrl-F those pieces and replace the proper nouns to reflect 2016. If you're a journalist and you're reading this (I know, I know. Just pretend they might be.) let me save you the trouble and point out that Trump supporters are the same as the Tea Party enthusiasts, and in both cases the question "Who are they?" has a very simple answer: They're Republicans.

We already sat through years of rampant speculation about the Tea Party. Are they blue collar disaffected Democrats? Working class poor people fed up with ineffective government? Previously apolitical people being brought into the political process by economic difficulties? A nonpartisan social movement with no historical antecedent? Well, it turned out that Tea Partiers were Republicans. Old, white Republicans. The angriest, loudest, least informed portion of the Republican base. Oh, and a good number of them seemed more than a little put off by the idea of having a black president.

When all of the survey data is collected, political scientists will plow through the numbers dutifully and show, once again, that this is the profile of a Trump supporter. They're Republicans. Perhaps they will skew a bit younger than the Tea Partiers did – finding someone under 55 at a TP rally was nearly impossible, suffering children under 10 notwithstanding – but the magical diversity and "newness" that journalists and pundits are desperate to read into the Trump phenomenon simply isn't going to be found. They're not Democrats. They're not "independents." They're not people who do not regularly participate in electoral politics. They're Republicans. Far-right, really angry Republicans who have obvious issues with people who do not look, act, and believe like they do.

I understand the impulse to write the story. What journalist could resist the temptation of seeing the shitshow that is Trump 2016 firsthand? The story practically writes itself and is guaranteed to generate clicks. But understand that there is no real story here, there is no real question that can't be answered. Trump supporters are Tea Partiers, and both are simply the part of the party that the Republican establishment has tried very, very hard to keep away from public view for a long time.

KRESKIN

Posted in Quick Hits on August 2nd, 2016 by Ed

Veteran readers know that making predictions about the future is not a thing I love to do. Very little of political science is predictive, and the processes of politics are too complex for the conditions of something like an election to be replicated across time. But having gone all-in on predicting Trump will get his lunch handed to him in November, I'm surprised at how rapidly the wheels are coming off his campaign all of one week into the general election period. Like any good Third World strongman-bully / man-child, Trump is already setting up the stab-in-back legend of his own defeat, telling audiences he's "afraid the election is going to be rigged." So clearly he has a pretty firm sense of what's coming. Who are we to disagree with him. Because of the tantalizing possibility that I could look like a smart person in the future if I put a few things in writing now, here are four predictions I'm willing to bet my life savings ($57.38) on in the 99 remaining days until we put this grotesque carnival to an end.

1. The first one's easy: Trump is going to show up to one debate with Clinton and then refuse to do any more. He played this game throughout the primary process, making a big show of agreeing to or refusing to show up to various debates depending on his infantile whims. Primary debates are not only a dime a dozen but are comparatively rinky-dink, unstructured affairs. The general election debates organized by the CPD are planned well in advance and the organization feels like it has sufficient clout to resist interference (although it does iron out debate details in consultation with the campaigns to try to make sure everyone is placated). Insisting on date and venue changes isn't going to fly. After the humiliating experience of having to try to answer real questions without a script on live TV once, he's going to demand all kinds of concessions to show up to additional debates. They will be rejected out of hand, and he'll insist that he can't do any more debates because it's "unfair" or something.

2. When the outlook is particularly bleak Trump will attempt to replace Mike Pence. Playing off the popularity of his lame reality TV series, he'll do some big, cheesy "You're fired!" publicity stunt and replace him with whoever exists in the political-entertainment universe that is willing to get on board with (and attach their name to) the worst presidential campaign in American history. Now that the nomination is official and ballot deadlines have passed it isn't even technically possible for him to replace a running mate (Even a person on the ticket who died between now and Election Day would appear on the ballot in most states) but don't pretend like that will stop him.

3. When he really starts flailing around once he becomes a pure laughingstock, he's going to go full racist. "He already is," you say. No, this is still soft racism by right-wing standards. He's using coded language for the most part. When the memories of the adulation he received during the primaries have long since faded, he's going to use at least one racial slur on camera. I'd bet my house on it if I had one.

4. This might go without saying, but when he comes to grips with how badly he's going to lose he will insist that he was never really serious about running and that he never really wanted to be president anyway. The presidency and the American people are beneath him, he'll announce, and he has better and more important things to do than to lead a nation of ingrates like pearls before swine.

One way or another I'll bump this after the election. I won't duck out of the line of fire like a certain candidate is going to.

EVERYTHING BUT THE CONCLUSION IS WRONG

Posted in Rants on August 1st, 2016 by Ed

Rarely am I ever interested in following internet pissing contests – especially when they revolve around identity politics and pop culture phenomena that will be forgotten almost immediately – so I paid very little attention when the brief hysteria erupted in 2014/2015 about remaking Ghostbusters with a female cast. It seemed plausible from afar (having seen the trailers and read no more than a few articles about it) that the strong backlash against the movie might have been explained by the fact that it looked like garbage, a cynical cash grab even among the dozens of other nostalgia mining projects of recent years. Maybe the outrage among people who care about such things wasn't a result of the decision to go with a female cast.

Then I thought about all of the other cynical, shitty remakes, reboots, and soulless franchise products that have been churned out over the years without any similar reactions. If these fans / critics really were upset because the movie looked like it would suck, then the reaction to Ghostbusters 2016 would not have stood out as exceptional. So, it seems impossible that a demographic of teenage boys and adult losers that line up gladly to pay to see the 25th reboot of Spider-man or some other obviously idiotic comic book-turned-movie could really be so upset about the perceived poor quality of Ghostbusters. It's pretty obvious they were just really pissed off that they made the characters women.

The movie did well at the box office despite the negative pre-release publicity, so here we go: "Replace male character with female" is going to be the next gimmick, starting with (yet another) remake. The mediocre 1991 live-action Disney film The Rocketeer is getting remade – in itself a good sign of how the bottom of the barrel is being scraped for source material – with a female lead. As if that makes the concept of making the same movie a second time somehow fresh or interesting.

I had no intention of seeing Ghostbusters not because the cast was female, but because almost nothing in the landfill of sequels, comic / video game adaptations, reboots, remakes, and other recycled ideas interests me. If I have a hankering to see Ghostbusters I'm sure I could find a way to watch the real one. Ditto The Rocketeer. Ditto every other idea currently in the process of being turned upside down and shaken until no more money will fall out. I find changing characters from male to female irritating not because I don't want to see women playing the roles, but because I don't want to see anyone playing the same goddamn roles over and over again. And replacing the (describe original character) with (some kind of person not identical to the original) is the kind of cheap, lazy thinking ("Wow, a female Rocketeer? What a twist! When can you start?") that passes for creativity these days. It's the kind of thing dumb people think is clever. You could remake Patton with RuPaul in the title role and you're still remaking Patton. Only so much can be done to cover the stale odor of making a movie that has already been made.