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Posted by on Aug 21, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Politics, Travel, What's Left | 2 comments

Blame Republicans and Conservatives for the Death of Small Town America

 

 

Here’s a fact?  97 out of the 100 poorest counties in America are in red states — i.e. Republican states.

 

Democrats often get blamed for the collapse of many American cities, particularly inner-city neighborhoods where stores and shops are boarded up and poverty is a daily way of life for the people who live there.

The ruse goes something like this:  Big cities are mostly run by Democrats, who comprise a majority of mayors and city councils.  Accordingly, Democrats are at fault for slums, crime, and a pervasive diseased culture of hopelessness.

The accusation does seem to have considerable merit to those with little or no grasp of history nor an understanding of urban affairs.  The accusation appears to ring true to those stuck inside echo chambers of hyperpartisan disinformation, which is a deliberate and constant toxicity brewed on right-wing media.  The accusation does look factual to someone who’s spent no time actually working in big cities nor ever comes into direct contact with people who born and live most of their lives poverty.  It’s attractive clickbait to those susceptible to the mindlessness of memes, those who don’t really give a damn at all about their fellow brothers and sisters struggling to make ends meet in the ghetto.

Indeed, there’s a lot of blame floating around out there and most of it is aimed at Democrats.

Now, let’s look at the truth.

 

 

Oddly enough, for reasons I can’t quite comprehend, no one blames Republicans for the collapse of small-town America.  I mean, wait-just-a-minute here:  Aren’t most small towns run by conservative Republicans?

The fact is, small-town America has been in a tailspin for several decades.  The evidence is overwhelming.  Despite a so-called “boom economy,” many town squares, once thriving centers of commerce packed with locals who shopped and ate lunch and conducted most of their business with people they knew, now resemble snapshots of what things were like during the Great Depression.  Boarded up stores.  Broken windows.  Vacancy signs.  Buildings completely deserted.  You know, just like in the big cities.

Look at some of these pictures.  You can’t tell if these buildings are in Detroit or Dixie.

Things are at their very worst — in other words, the economy really sucks — in small towns in the South and the West.  Many towns have quite simply vanished.  They are de facto ghost towns — places with signs and spots on a map — and they number in the hundreds, if not thousands.  And they’re vanishing.

Why is this happening?  Many reasons.  One is that Walmart has steamrolled over more businesses and led to the shutdown more factories in America, due to outsourcing its suppliers and manufacturing overseas, than any company in history.

Looking for a culprit to blame for all the stores in the town being vacant?

Here’s something you won’t read on the right-wing rags.  Thank giant corporations, industrial farming, conservative economic policies pushed by Republicans, union-busting, and the insatiable greed of the market greased by company shareholders who consistently demand profits over people.  If a product can be made cheaper in China, fuck it — close the doors and move the plant.  Capitalism 101.

And so, small towns and the people who live in them became the victims of bad economics.

 

 

Yet, no one points a finger at any of the Republican mayors of these deserted towns, nor the Republican congressional representatives who dominate these districts, nor the state and local officials who are mostly Republicans, nor the Governors of states like Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, or Kentucky who are all Republicans

Why is that?

Why are Democrats to blame for boarded up windows in Baltimore, but Republicans get a free pass for creating the thousands of shitholes in their own backyards?

Here’s a fact?  97 OUT OF 100 OF THE NATION’S POOREST COUNTIES ARE IN RED STATES.

Take a moment.  Let that sink in.  Republicans are in charge of 97 percent of America’s shitholes.

 

So now, let’s get back to inner cities.  Yeah, many of those areas suck.  Things are awful.  And someone should take responsibility.

But what are the factors that led to slums?  Who’s to blame for that?

I have a theory, and I’m convinced that I’m correct.  Let’s see if you agree.

In the 1950s, a phenomenon social scientists later came to term as “White Flight” began happening.  Whites began fleeing inner cities and moved to the suburbs.  Since White people owned most of the wealth and held all the political and economic power, most cities were left devastated by the mass departure which took place over a long period, generally between 1950 and 1985.  Fewer people with wealth paying taxes meant cities didn’t have as much money.  Stores fell into disrepair.  Sections of cities began collapsing.

During this time, factories closed down or moved to other parts of the country, but more often overseas.  Thousands of them.  Cities that once were home to millions of factory workers who spent their paychecks in town, were left deserted.  Who is to blame for this?  Liberals?

Think again.

Then, neighborhoods were carved up.  People with no power became pawns.  Highways were built, highways mostly intended for commuters and companies making deliveries, and inner cities became reduced to the dark recesses of an off-ramp, an area of town we were instructed not to go into.  Stay away, we were told.  It’s dangerous.  Inner cities didn’t get that way all by themselves.  They were starved.  They were choked.  They were bled dry.  And the skeletons of today are the remnants of centuries of racism and the grotesque failure of an economic system tailored to wealth and power and privilege, while indifferent to its victims.

Yes, conservative economics ruined cities.  Greed ruined cities.  Democrats, who have inherited the messes caused by the past, now get blamed for conditions they couldn’t possibly have prevented.  If you don’t feed something that’s living, eventually it dies.  That holds true for inner-city Baltimore.  It holds true for Dixie, West Virginia (population 315).

It’s conservative economic philosophies and Republicans’ distorted policies that have created the squalor of many inner cities, just as it’s conservative economic philosophies and Republicans’ distorted policies that have destroyed small towns.

We and they are one and the same.

 

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Posted by on Aug 17, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Politics, What's Left | 0 comments

Ten Thoughts on the Eve of the 2020 Democratic National Convention

 

2020 Democratic National Convention

 

Here are my thoughts on the eve of the (virtual) 2020 Democratic National Convention.

Ten bits of advice for speakers:

 

1. IDEAS: Make the convention a broad showcase for fresh ideas and celebration of America’s renewed hope. Stress positivity over negativity.

2. INCLUSION: Stress that the Democratic Party is (or should be) the big tent of inclusion, where Americans of virtually all beliefs are welcome and can freely express themselves. Hit on the fact that Republicans have litmus tests. Hammer home the idea that Democrats, while often disorganized and in disagreement, believe in compromise and working together as one. Yes, we are the party of progressives. But we also welcome moderates and even conservatives who are disillusioned by the horrors of the current regime.

3. THE FUTURE: Minimize and marginalize Donald Trump. He doesn’t deserve to be the focal point. While it’s impossible to ignore Trump as a factor, look forward, not backward. This convention is not about the past. It’s about the future.

4. MAKE THIS ABOUT THE WORKING CLASS: Talk straight to the working class. Speak to the desperation of struggling families sick and tired of fearing for their jobs and struggling to make ends meet, despite the so-called boom on Wall Street. Make this election about Main Street and the cul de sac and the apartment complex that’s raising the rent again. People are scared. Half the country is close to being bankrupt. Talk to THEM.

5. SCALE BACK DIVISIVENESS AND REPETITION #1: Black Lives Matter is an important cause, worth fighting for. But it’s not the only cause worth fighting for. Let’s keep this issue in perspective. Democrats will be squandering an opportunity if BLM becomes the centerpiece of the message. Political Fact 101: Pragmatism works. Rigid ideological lectures turn off (most) voters, especially undecideds.  [A comment sure to upset some people:  Yes, Kamala Harris is the first woman of color ever on a national presidential ticket.  That’s awesome!  But we don’t need 45 speakers to tell us this in every speech.  Let’s celebrate this historic occasion.  Let’s not play the same recording over and over again at the expense of other vital issues.

6. SCALE BACK DIVISIVENESS AND REPETITION #2: LGBTQ issues are an important cause, worth fighting for. But it’s not the only cause worth fighting for. Let’s keep this issue in perspective. Democrats will be squandering an opportunity if LGBTQ becomes another centerpiece of the message. Political Fact 101: Pragmatism works. Rigid ideological lectures turn off (most) voters, especially undecideds. Yes, I intentionally copied the text from #5. The point is — winning swing states isn’t going to come down to making a stand on transgender bathrooms. Let’s get real, people.

7. IT’S HOTTER THAN HELL, AND THERE’S A REASON:  August 2020 is turning out to perhaps be the hottest month ever recorded. Let’s spend more time on the issue of Man-Made Climate Change, which is very scary and very real. Every DNC speaker should at least mention this, as it’s the most important long-term issue we face collectively, as a nation and as a planet.

8. OPPORTUNITY: Make this election about OPPORTUNITY. Which party’s candidates provide the majority of Americans the greatest opportunity for safety, prosperity, and happiness? Trump has demolished each of these aspirations. Tell us what we can expect to be built in place of the shambles left by Trump and the Republicans.

9. STRAIGHT TALK: Talk straight and be honest with the American people. Whoever wins in November and which party controls the House and Senate are going to be left with a massive cleanup project that will take several years. There are no easy fixes. This is a time for real leadership, not faux-patriotism and phony flag-waving.

10. “WOW” US: Finally, make the speeches fun. Use humor. Entertain us. Make us laugh in jubilation and cry with joy at the aspiration of what we might be with a better government with good people running it. As a policy wonk, I usually prefer substance over style and details rather than generalization, but I’m not the target demographic. The struggling family in Toldeo, OH is the target. The single mother in a Phila. suburb is the target. The senior citizen in Florida fearful of what will happen to Social Security is the target.. Make it about THEM. This election and this convention, being mostly online and virtual, is very different. So, ADAPT. CHANGE with the times. Use the unusual occasion to our BENEFIT. Make us feel better and smarter and more hopeful after watching the convention. Speaking to the DNC, that’s entirely on YOU.

I’ll be watching, anticipating, and hoping.

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Posted by on Aug 11, 2020 in Blog, Essays | 0 comments

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Documentary Film Review)

 

 

He was a receiver. 

He was possessed. 

He articulated what the rest of us wanted to say, but couldn’t say.

 

Writer’s Note:  No Direction Home:  Bob Dylan — (Duration — 3 hours, 28 mins) is currently available on Netflix.  Allow me to sum up the film-music-biopic documentary in one sentence:

 

Bob Dylan is nostalgia unless you were there and remember, or you know someone who was there and remembers, or you’re related to someone who was there and remembers that time and place before the matrimony of music and poetry and message and purpose that was changed by the lad born “Zimmerman” who appeared to be the most unlikely of poets and prophets, a lyricist not known for the quality of his voice nor revered for his ability to strum the guitar nor blow into a harmonica but who nonetheless shattered all the previous expectations and conventions of celebrity and superstardom and became the incarnate of an entire generation, the relectant recipient of a passed torch, and the shatterer of stereotypes — and all of this, and the man, and the music, and the backstory of how this perfect storm of a miracle in time happened is told in a sprawling nearly 3.5 hour long documentary stoked with rare footage, candid recollections, and (shocker!) arguably the most self-revealing interview ever done with Bob Dylan, who despite hundreds of prior interviews dating back to the start always seemed aloof and hostile to the responsibilties and pressures thrust upon him, who realizes this film might be his cinematic epitaph, a comprehensive collection of untold stories and set-the-record straight pronouncements on many of the singer-songwriter’s most memorable compositions which includes some of the most memorizing stage performances ever on recorded, some drowned out by hecklers, and the gaps in between of pensive introspection and outter expression of the shaggy sage who seemed not so much the origin as the conduit of a new sound, a new voice, a new expression, a new vision, a new aspiration, a new consciousness, a new conviction, a new idea, and new possibilities that music and words and idealoism mattered and were capble of greatness and had the power to end wars and cure racism and end poverty and bring awareness and heal and give hope to the helpless and that music and those words in his genre came not from grand orchestras nor amoed rock bands nor the roar of choirs nor techno wizardry but rather from solitude and the twangy strings of a weathered guitar and the pitch of a voice slightly out of tine and the look of a man who seemed frail and might otherwise be perceived as uncertain but who spoke and sang with the force of a sledgehammer, splintering all that was before and pounding the mantel of a new way of looking at things and thinking about things and doing things and all that’s expressed in this film, which must not be viewed as a look back but a vision forward as something sure to entertain, arouse, and inspire.

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan is an absolute must-see.  I recommend it highly.

Note:  Okay, so that’s three sentences.

 

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Posted by on Aug 6, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Politics, What's Left | 1 comment

Will You Trust a New COVID Vaccine?

 

 

There’s a false assumption that a COVID vaccine is the cure to our problems.

Not so fast.

There’s growing concern that *if* and *when* a vaccine becomes available, it might not be as effective as we’re inclined to think.

What if a quarter of the population refuses to get vaccinated? Think that’s unrealistic? Read on.

A few points for discussion:

1. Trump’s recent pronouncements that he’s confident a new vaccine will be available “by the end of this year” are preposterous. Science (infections) doesn’t bow to political pressures nor is it concerned about the outcome of an election. The correct response to the question about a vaccine timeline from a non-scientific source and voice of authority (the President) should be, “it will be ready when we’re convinced it’s effective and it’s safe.” THAT should be the timeline.

2. Being wary of a new COVID vaccine isn’t the same as being anti-VAX, though there’s probably some crossover within this otherwise disparite demographic. Many of us who are strongly *pro-vax* also have (legitimate) concerns about a new drug that might be cutting corners during the research and trial phases.

3. I don’t trust anything that comes from this Administration. Not a word. Trump knows his re-election chances likely hinge on finding a “cure,” so all the stops have been pulled out on normal protocols. While a compelling case can be made that some short cuts do need to be made to get a vaccine out, based on the Trump Administration’s appalling track record of deflection, disastrous predictions, absurd statements, and misplaced priorities, I simply don’t trust the safety of a drug that’s been rushed to market.

4. Vaccine Origins: I am divided on the factor of the source of the prospective vaccine discovery. I would feel somewhat safer if the vaccine came from labs in Europe, where public/private cooperation has been in place for decades and there’s a long history of success. I am uncertain about the safety of a vaccine if it were discovered in China (certainly a possibility). China’s research capabilities rival our own and we better prepare ourselves for the possibility we could be forced to make some decisions. I’m also wary of a vaccine created by the US pharmaceutical industry, which is under enormous pressure from government (overseeing and financing) and is financially incentivized to cut corners to be first to get a drug to market to shaft the competition. I’d be very concerned if any pharma company that releases a vaccine is also given legal indemnification against damages (which I think is very possible).

5. The biggest fear as I understand it (and I am admittedly a layperson with no scientific knowledge) is a possible repeat of the Thalidomide disaster, when 60 years ago thousands of women mostly in the UK took a drug which later resulted in widespread birth defects. That might be an overreaction and fearmongering. But there is some chance that the recklessness of an untested medication rushed to market under intense political pressures could be problematic later on.

Curious to know the public sentiment on this question, I posted a poll on Twitter yesterday, which produced some interesting results. By about a 3:1 margin, most respondents stated they would agree to a vaccine. What this means is — 25 percent of the population say they will not get the vaccine (see my opening comments).

Note that I tinkered with this question just a bit by asking, what if the vaccine were released “this fall.” One presumes that if any vaccine were released under normal trial and testing the trust factor would be much higher.

 

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Posted by on Aug 2, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews | 1 comment

Movie Review: Joker

 

 

My whole life people didn’t know I existed; now they’re starting to notice.

                                                                                                                          — Joker

 

I finally got around to seeing Joker last night.

My confessed tardiness to this pop cinema campfire was, and very much remains, boredom if not utter disinterest in any movie about a comic book character, a superhero, or a spaceship.  Batman, Superman, Spider-Man Iron Man….if “Marvel” is listed in the credits, I am — the invisible man.

But now, we’re stuck in the age of COVID, addicted to Netflix, and even curmudgeons like me are changing our stubborn habits, and besides — there’s more television to watch right now than any one person can possibly digest in ten lifetimes.

So, Joker appeared on my streaming feed, and finally, my curiosity slew the dragon of prejudice.  Oh, I should also mention — someone ponied up $150 for me actually write a review of the movie and post it on my website (true story).  “Will work for food” and even compromise my principles — if the price is right.

 

Meet Arthur Fleck

Joker is a movie about the transformation of a simple human being who’s trying his best to exist in an inhumane, impersonal, imperfect, poisonously pornographic unfair world.  It doesn’t just pull back the curtains on mental illness so much as rip them off the wall.  Behind the wrinkled cloth, we find a lonely and vulnerable man staring helplessly and hopelessly into the lens, a victim whose life has passed him by and now distant.  Finally, he reaches his breaking point.

We meet Arthur Fleck who lives in Gotham, a fictionalized rendition of New York City during a garbage strike, in 1981.  Our anti-hero resides in a seedy graffiti-plastered tenement building struggling to make a living as a party clown.  He does low-paying gigs all over town, from spinning “going out of business” signs on sidewalks to cheering up kids inside a cancer ward.  Fleck, the lovable loser, even with his glaring flaws, battered and broken by life, is largely sympathetic.  Gazing outside of smudgy windows on buses we see the reflection of an empty man capable of so much more.  Indeed, for those of us who have struggled mightily, at times — in careers, in love, and in life — we all have a little Arthur Fleck, a.k.a. Joker, inside us.  We all have our breaking point.

Fleck’s life takes one bad turn after another, through no fault of his own.  He’s robbed.  Beaten.  Humiliated.  Fired from his job.  While watching the vestiges of humanity slowly evaporate around him with every setback, I was reminded of another film, Falling Down (1993), starring Michael Douglas, a similar character portrayal of a seemingly “crazed killer” who is slowly prodded off the moral and ethical cliff not out of decisions he made, but rather because he is desperate and had no other place else to go.

When Fleck kills his first victim (actually three victims) in a random act of violence on a subway, we see him taking control for the first time.  Up until these murders, Fleck had always followed others — his mother, his boss, any authority.  He’d played by society’s rules, even though he had no voice in creating them, believed in the system, and it got him nowhere.  He’d been a pawn, about to be rooked and captured in a chess game he didn’t much know how to play.  After blasting multiple slugs into the torsos of three rich Wall Streeters who are on a drunken binge, Fleck manages to win a small victory.  It’s a fleeting moment of satisfaction, a tiny measure of justice, temporary glory in an inglorious existence.  He’s in control and the rush is intoxicating.

 

Introspection

“My whole life people didn’t know I existed; now they’re starting to notice,” he tells a social worker.

There’s some debate about the condition of the psyche, still unresolved apparently in academics, about naturing versus nurturing.  Joker makes a compelling argument that many criminals, killers, mass-murderers, even psychopaths aren’t so much born as they’re created by stormy surroundings and a cruel society.  They’re molded by forces outside the mind and the body — parents, co-workers, associates, friends, romantic partners, even the guy on the street we don’t know by name.  One day, one act at a time, slowly, like stones wearing down by the powerful forces of the waterfall, over time, we’re sculpted by those things which shape us, and ultimately make us who and what we are.

Joaquin Phoenix in the title role is every bit as riveting as the rave reviews he received from film critics and the Oscar for Best Actor he collected at the last edition of the Academy Awards.  Phoenix, his onscreen persona boosted by his quirky offscreen reputation as a nonconformist with an affection for the unconventional, seems not only at ease in the Joker’s skin; he’s made the character all his own.

“They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur,” the social worker replies.  “And frankly, they don’t give a shit about me, either.”

He snaps.

 

The Point of No Return

Predictably, Joker is a dark and sometimes troubling film to watch, though it’s also an illumination of shadows we often chose to ignore.  It’s exfoliation in an art form of the phony veneer that separates not so much rich versus poor but, those who flourish within a chaotic psychological dystopia at the expense of all its victims and outcasts.

Out of work, impoverished, and desperate, Fleck (Joker) tries to perform stand-up comedy in a small nightclub.  Although he’s done his homework and the effort is sincere, he’s terrible.  Plagued by a rare mental affliction that triggers uncontrollable laughter during inappropriate moments, Fleck is a walking, breaking, ticking time bomb.  Reminiscent of yet another film, Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982) — which stars Robert De Niro, who in this film plays a Johnny Carson-like role — Joker slides deeper into the crevasse of no return and ultimately goes beyond reactionary to premeditation.  I’ll be vague on this point so as not to spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen it.  However, for those who remember De Niro’s role as Rupert Pipkin, a lunatic loner obsessed with a talk show host, the parallels will be obvious.

Unfortunately, the script and the story take an annoying detour, which largely evaporates the audience’s goodwill.  Although he’s become a murderous clown, we’re so caught up in his condition, that we’re rooting for some consolation.  We don’t know exactly what we want — for the Joker to be caught or killed or perhaps continue on killing bad people who deserve to die.  So, we watch and wait, anticipating some conscientious resolution.

The unnecessary departure detracts from a fascinating meltdown when Fleck thinks he’s the illegitimate son of a rich power baron who refuses to acknowledge the long-lost relationship with his mother.  Again, without revealing more that might spoil the movie, the final scenes with acts of graphic violence seem gratuitous.  And pointless.

The first half of this movie sets up a fascinating premise, then the final half fails to deliver.

 

Grade:  5 on a 10 Scale

The shift to a more serious character-driven psychological thriller by Todd Phillips, best known for directing the comedy trilogy, Hangover, seemed like a natural progression.  The core of a great film was here.  But Phillips’ script (co-written with Scott Silver) gradually loses steam and becomes a one-man showcase for the thespian talents of Phoenix, and little more.

Joker has ephemeral moments of greatness, but not enough of them to overcome an aimless plot.  Phoenix’s best moments are not as the crazed Joker on various killing sprees, but rather the vulnerable void of a man with a blank stare, looking nowhere in particular, desperately seeking something to latch onto which will give meaning to his life.

I too, wanted this film to have some greater meaning, and although I was transfixed for moments, as the final credits rolled to the swansong of Frank Sinatra’s baritone version of the Stephen Sondheim classic, “Send in the Clowns,” I was disappointed there wasn’t more depth to this shallow portrait.

Joker is a film I cannot recommend.

 

Final Thoughts

My takeaways are:

  1.  Joaquin Phoenix can carry any movie, even with a weak script.
  2.  I remain correct in my negative assessment of movies made about comic book characters.
  3.  I just made $150.

 

__________

 

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