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    • Rationality Is A Process, Not A Conclusion (Nuclear Weapons Edition)
      A lot of mistakes come from assuming rationality means “thinks the same way I do” rather than “reasons from premises I might not share.” Left than 1/1000 economists predicted the financial collapse, because they reasoned from assumptions like “the market is self-correcting” or “housing prices never go down.” (Sometimes both at the same time, which is rarely […]
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“The New York Times Had Two Wordles.” One for You and One for Them, and Yours Got Deleted

Well, with all the other things going on, this is less important, but nonetheless depressing, and not surprising. And it is about our favorite current word game, Wordle.

Yesterday I played, and the answer was STOVE. Not too hard, I got it in four tries. Sometimes I search to see what the general reaction was to the Wordle word, if people were upset or angry that the word was too hard for them. Well, I saw something strange, that there were apparently TWO Wordle answers that day, at least some people got one and some got another.

And it seemed, from what I was trying to extrapolate, that the New York Times somehow took out the first answer, which was HARRY, and replaced it with STOVE. Why would they do that? Harry would have been a difficult one, and it is a good word, I have certainly seen it in stories, usually from earlier times. Merriam-Webster defines harry as “To make a pillaging or destructive raid on.” I have usually read it as meaning to harass, to keep going after. Another dictionary definition is, “To harass, agitate or trouble by or as if by repeated attacks, beleaguer. He was harried by constant doubts.”

This is how I read it in the olden adventure stories, and I am sure I have read it in Shakespeare. But somehow the NYT decided in medias res to remove “harry” and replace it with “stove.” And my immediate thought was that somehow they were doing their bowdlerizing, expurgating thing, how pathetic.

And today an article in the New York Post (I do not very often read that trash Murdoch publication, but it is read by many, and it is sometimes a news source) is headed, “Wordle goes woke. Vows to remove ‘politically insensitive words.'”

The story says that after various players were upset or confused at learning that there were “two answers,” because “the answer is supposed to be universal,” the Times told the site MASHABLE that they had removed “harry” and replaced it with stove,” “as they are in the process of removing obscure or politically insensitive words from the game.”

A NYT spokesperson said, “In an effort to make the puzzle more accessible, we are reviewing the solutions, and removing obscure or politically insensitive words over time. Harry is an example of an obscure word.”

And so, the NYT is by degrees doing what I and others had expected: they are making the game easier for the “masses,” while removing all words which could somehow offend somebody. We have discussed this before, it is unfortunately another bad aspect of this era, and probably will never change back. We have acutely sensitive people who do not really care about the art of doing word games, or writing novels, who just enjoy complaining that something offended them. That is easier, takes less brainpower, and gives one a sense of righteousness.

Of course, as with all things, there are boundaries. I would never want to see vulgarities as the word answers, although we know that there are many Anglo-Saxon words which refer to genitals, which also have completely asexual meanings. And there are many more English words which have completely innocent meanings, but which may have been used in some context to insult someone. I used the example “chink,” which of course means a small dent, but was also used derogatorily about Chinese people. Should that word be removed from our language, in any context, because of that? I would say, absolutely not.

Think of a word like “fat.” It has all sorts of meanings, but someone who wanted to be mean, might call an overweight person “fat,” and he or she might be hurt and offended. Do we take the word out? “Stupid,” ‘dummy,” “jerk,” “ugly,” ‘fool,” are all words which used in the wrong context might insult and offend. But again, does that mean the words should be removed from the language, or usage in a book or in conversation?

Then we have all sorts of words which are about violence, real or metaphorical–and that distinction is important. “Slash,” can be about a horrible act of violence, or it can be about drastically cutting a budget. “Pound” can be about beating up someone, or it can be about a professor trying to go over and over a certain theme. Or in sports, a team “pounded” their rival. Or of course in an entirely different context, an English currency.

Now, some people, either out of ignorance, or almost deliberate offense, can try to go through books and articles and remove such words. We have the very sensitive racial aspects, where words like “lynch” or “whip” have very unpleasant connotations, but at least to me, should not mean that the words should never be used. For example, the Oscar-nominated movie “The Ox-Bow Incident,” is about a lynching, but not of Black people; there were lynchings throughout history which were not racially based. And while using a whip is a bad thing, we read about sergeants whipping recruits into shape, and it is not meant literally.

I think that there are a few words whose history and connotation are so bad, that they should not be used. But there are very few. You know, people often use the phrase “beyond the pale,” and that has a history where Catherine the Great, so-called, segregated all the Jewish people in her region to live within specific boundaries, “The Pale.” The term has other medieval meanings, but I certainly am aware of that particular one, yet the phrase is often used today, to refer to behavior which someone thinks goes too far. I do not like hearing the phrase, but there it is.

So we can debate the connotations of certain words, and people can try to get them banned. This particular popular Wordle game seems to be a chance for the New York Times and others to try to send all sorts of words to a realm of proscribed speech. That is not a good thing, overall.

Now, it certainly seems that “harry” was not taken out of yesterday’s game right in the middle, because it offended people; but who knows, the way things are going now. I assume that it was as the NYT said, they took it out because it was “too obscure,” meaning their average readers, the same ones who thought “tacit” was too obscure, or “caulk,” would not get it, and be angry at the NYT, and not play the game. They don’t want that!

I have watched the “lowest common denominator” effect all my life, in school, and in the political realm. Shoot for the simplest explanations, couch everything in terms that the less literate will understand. This might be viewed as egalitarian, or it might much more actually be a dumbing down, so that the people who want to control everything, get their way .Take nuance out of the language, or out of argument, and things become far too oversimplified, and people become less able to think in more complex ways.

That is what the Republicans thrive on. Say the same thing over and over, devoid of context or historical fact, or implication, and they can get enough people to say, “Yeah! That’s right! We don’t want a bunch of pointy-headed liberals telling us we have to learn about this theory of evolution, or about what the Constitution means. We know that it is all about the most important Second Amendment, which says that anyone can carry any amount of weapons they want!”

You know, we more nuanced people can scoff at this, or feel sorry for these people’s lack of depth and understanding; but if there are more of them, they win. It is like the triumph of the ignorant. The rulers of old always counted on that, and the Republicans thrive on it. Trump, one of the stupidest people ever, said gloatingly, “I love the uneducated,” and no one took it seriously, but it was simply saying what the people running his party have been trying to do for decades.

Now, am I going a bit too far with this, simply because the NYT took out “harry” in the middle of the game? Perhaps, but I think it is very important to see how commercialism, and anti-intellectualism, combine in this country. These words: tacit, caulk, bloke, harry, are not obscure to many of us ,but they don’t care about “us,” they care about their target audience of people who don’t read novels, and don’t know many words.

I had to sit through first grade listening to children read the Dick and Jane books. I realize that learning to read is not as easy for some. But hearing “Run, Jane. Run, Jane, Run,” over and over, every day, was stultifying, and I could not opt out of it. I am not calling for a world of philosopher kings, but can’t there be an effort to challenge people, give them a few more arcane but hardly vanished words, so that they can learn something, and we can be mentally challenged? I guess not, they are shooting for the same audience that has made it almost impossible to find a really good book or movie which makes you think and consider things in complex ways.

I guess it is too much to ask, even in a word game, because there are major profits to be made, and blockbuster movies to sell, and things need to be reduced to the most basic ideas and words, to make the money which is now the bottom line for everything, at least in America. And it continues apace, which is a word which you can be sure will never show up in Wordle, when there are all those “great,” “silly, “super” words of five letters to use.

Smith and Rock and 15 Million Americans Watching

(I wrote most of this on Monday evening, then held onto it, and have added a few things. I hate to let the post go to waste, as it’s probably our only chance to chime in on it).

Do I want to write about this? It is the story of the day, will likely be the story of the week, somehow getting more attention than the war in Ukraine, Clarence and Ginny Thomas, John Eastman, “Trump probably committed felonies,” “Where are the seven hours of missing phone logs?” and other very important matters. But it is what most people are talking about, and everyone has an opinion on. That is because this is something that anyone can have a view on, no background or expertise is required. People love those things, and they can be entertaining to argue about.

So I will presume to provide my opinion, which anyone can of course discount or disagree with. I will say that I watch some movies, not as many as most people do. I do not know much about the celebrity lives of the movie stars, nor do I want to. They make immense amounts of money if they are big stars, and they are fawned over. I am not jealous of them; maybe a little bit about all the money they make, but I do find it irritating that they are so often solicited for their opinions on things, when they are mostly not versed in issues or history or theorizing. Some celebrities do good things, and spend time and money to help worthy causes. Some do not. Their personal lives: romances, affairs, drug issues, and the like, are vaguely interesting, but only in small amounts.

So here is Will Smith, and I may never have seen any of his movies. That is likely because I don’t see too many mainstream movies, which are his very lucrative staple. I must have seen him in something; I have this sense that I think that he is “okay” as an actor, nothing special, a kind of “Everyman.” His movies do well, and he keeps getting nominated for Academy Awards. In fact, virtually every movie he makes earns an Best Actor nomination for him. Six of them? And this year he was the overwhelming favorite to win, and he did.

I will say that part of him getting nominated over and over, is because there is a lot of pressure on the Academy, or maybe it is more of a desire, to give many more awards to Black actors than in the past. One could see that as commendable, or political. That is up to the Academy of Motion Pictures, how they want to vote their awards. I will just say that Smith getting more nominations than Bogart, Brando, Robinson, Fonda, Holden, Hopkins, seems rather glaringly skewed.

I do not know much about Jada Pinkett. I do know about her “Oscars So White” crusade, where she demanded that more Black people win. The year after she did that, both Best Actor awards went to Black people: Denzel Washington, who is an excellent actor by anyone’s standards, and Halle Berry, who is not. Anyway, Smith has continued to get his yearly nominations, and this was to culminate them, though maybe he will get ten more in a row, who knows?

Now, the marriage between Smith and Pinkett is something I do not know much about, other than that they have had some problems; and that one or both of them announced that they would have “an open marriage,” presumably meaning additional sexual partners. That is their business, of course. Maybe their marriage has become more in the nature of a financial partnership, I have heard of such things in Hollywood history. Again, it should not matter to us–except that now it suddenly has become a focus, which the two of them have made it to be.

Pinkett has alopecia which has caused loss of hair on her scalp. She has told the world about it. She has sometimes joked about it, but I am sure that it has been a source of psychological pain for her, as it would be for any woman who was suffering hair loss. Men suffer hair loss more than woman, but the societal norms are such that it is not nearly as shameful and upsetting for a man as for a woman, though the billions of dollars spent by men on Rogaine and Propecia, and hair transplants and toupees, would attest to the fact that millions of men try to do something to stop or minimize hair loss.

Some of it has to do with getting older, not looking the way one did in one’s twenties. Some of it has to do with sex appeal, competing with men with lustrous heads of hair. So it is not something that men just pass off. I am not bald, and I am glad of that, though I suppose that most men do lose most of their hair at some point. I have hair to brush, though I do sometimes wish that I had the thick hair that I had in high school.

This is not about me, just some general perspective. So in the Academy Awards show, Chris Rock was scheduled for a comedy monologue. Why, with three female comics hosting the show, they needed another monologue, I do not know, but he has been popular, though some think that he is mean-spirited at times.

I was not watching the show, I have not for years, mostly because I am tired of the movies that have been winning the Best Picture awards recently, mostly films of limited popular appeal, conspicuously arty and often dreary and pretentious. That is just my opinion, of course. But last night I turned on to see if Jessica Chastain, a great actor, and apparently a classy and caring person, would win; and she did, and gave an elegantly touching speech.

So I left it on, and I heard Rock’s monologue, half-listening to it. I heard his comment about Jada Pinkett Smith, and I am unknowledgeable enough about the movies, that I thought that he was “dissing” her because her career may have gone downhill; “G.I. Jane II” being a bottom of the barrel idea. But then later I learned that the reference was pretty obviously to her shaving her head because of the alopecia.

I don’t know if Rock knew that alopecia was the cause, he may have thought that it was just a fashion statement. Someone wrote that Smith had joked about his wife’s shaved look before, but I don’t know if that is true. What does seem to be a fact, is that Rock’s monologue was rehearsed in front of Academy members who would check to see if it were acceptable. They were not going to let him go out there and wing it. And they apparently approved it.

So he makes this joke, and Smith smiles and laughs for a second. Then the camera shows Pinkett, who does not seem happy. Then Smith races onto the stage, appears to take a swing at Rock, whose head snaps back. and then walks off the stage. Then there is muting of the sound for a few minutes, and it appears that Rock and Smith were yelling at each other.

I thought that this was some kind of joke, but apparently it was not. The feed was kept on in some other countries, and Smith was heard screaming at Rock, using obscenities, and also perhaps giving him the finger. The punch seemed more like a hard slap, but he apparently did hit him.

I knew that Smith was going to win the award, and have a chance to frame everything. I turned down the sound, because I did not want to hear his speech. I saw him being very emotional, with tears. The speech was about six minutes. Most have seen it; he talked about love, and how he wants to be a vessel for love, and how love makes you do crazy things. At the end of this, he got an ovation, many standing to cheer him.

Well, now it is opinion time, and here is mine. You do not hit someone because they said something you did not like. There may be a few exceptions, the so-called “fighting words” which a Supreme Court in the last century found are not protected under First Amendment free speech. We can imagine someone using the “n word” to a Black person, or the “k word” to a Jewish person, and that person reacting with a punch. Is that good? I don’t know, but we can viscerally understand how it could well lead to that.

But an intended joke, obviously in poor taste, about Pinkett perhaps acting in a movie sequel to one where Demi Moore shaved her head; this legitimizes her husband going on stage and hitting or slapping the comedian who made it? No. For many reasons, not the least of which is that if that reaction is countenanced, half the people in jail for assault would be freed, because they were insulted, or you can’t say that to them!

Smith was in no way physically threatened, nor was his wife. Nor was she savagely mocked. Rock made a rather dumb joke about her shaving her head, which is because of her alopecia. That the joke could upset her is certainly understandable, but it did not give Smith any license to physically attack Rock. And again, the joke apparently was passed through by the people who watch the run-through, to make sure that nothing is overly inappropriate. So why should Rock be roundly criticized for this?

I used to watch the Oscars, and I saw Johnny Carson, who was expert at this; and as I recall, he sometimes would say a few cutting things about the celebrities; maybe their reputations for straying, or perhaps penuriousness or unpleasantness. I’ve seen “celebrity roasts” where the “star” is insulted for the entire proceeding, but laughs along, and the insults are rounded off by hugs and praise. At the Washington Press Corps dinner, the insults have been quite shocking at times. No one thinks they are grounds to hit someone or swear at them

Some think that the message sent on Sunday night is a terrible one, that someone has the right to resort to physical attack of a person who has said something that they thought insulted them or their spouse. We know that the juvenile courts are filled with young men who say that someone dissed them, or gave them a look, or did something which caused them to react by hitting them with a baseball bat, or even shooting them. In the Wild West movies, exaggerated or not, people pull out their gun and shoot someone because of any perceived offense. That is what the development of law and a justice system was supposed to prevent.

The fact that Smith was cheered by so many at the Oscars, is upsetting. He never even apologized to Rock, who was a comedian making a tasteless joke, and getting verbal and physical abuse for it. But actors and movies love the emotional moment, the protagonist standing up and making a heartfelt speech, the kind that wins the awards, where he or she pleads for understanding and acceptance, and the audience gives it to them.

This is wrong. Life is not a movie, and the high-paid star is not superior to someone else, with special star privileges. Of course, when we see that Allison Mack is apparently never going to jail for among other things, branding her initials in the genital regions of the Nxivm cultists, we do see that there is another rule of justice for the most pampered people.

To summarize, I do not think that Smith has any legitimate excuse for his actions. Rock made a bad joke, likely approved by the Academy censors in advance. Smith, who apparently has had anger issues, either thought that his wife was going to punish him in some way for not reacting; or is upset at people joking about their open marriage, so wanted to do a cinematic thing, and also play the heroic victim, who gets to make the big speech at the end. The fact that many people excuse and even applaud him for what he did, is disturbing. Many do not, fortunately.

I remember the very good David Mamet film “House of Games.” I was discussing it with a woman whom I knew casually, and she said that she liked it, “And the woman won!’ I said, “She killed him!” She replied, “But he cheated her.” Where does one go after that? I am afraid that this not unintelligent person has the same lack of sense of appropriate response as do those who are vigorously defending Smith. They probably support Rittenhouse and the “stand your ground” murder excuse laws, too. And does Smith being a member of the cult of Scientology have any role in all of this?

Just to add, since I wrote this, the creator of the show “Entourage,” Doug Ellin, has said that Rock did not know about the alopeicia, and that Smith is a supreme narcissist who cannot take a joke, and who wanted to make the night all about him. Well, that is his opinion, though it sounds credible to me. Also, Smith did finally issue a formal apology, saying that violence is never the answer. The problem is, that after all of this fame and money and a sure Academy Award he was going to win, he still resorted to violence, making his comment essentially meaningless.

I have never been much of a Jim Carrey fan, though I liked him in “The Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind,” but I was gratified at his comments on this. He called the Academy attendees, at least the ones who got to their feet cheering for Smith, “spineless.” He called the incident “sickening,” and said that it pretty much overshadowed the entire event, including anyone else who won an award that night. He opined that there was something deeper bothering Smith which led to this.

Well, we can all play amateur psychologists, and it can be presumptuous and in error to do so. But I’ll do it, anyway, and say that Smith and Pinkett have a very uneasy relationship; that she is pretty obviously a difficult and edgy person, and that Smith is intimidated by her, at least is afraid of how she would take after him if he just let the joke go by. Apparently some time ago, she said something about “I don’t give a ___ what anyone says about my hair,” or something similar. Smith laughed at Rock’s joke, then turned around and looked at his wife, and then felt that he had to do something big to keep her from turning on him.

And not in highly unusual fashion, at least for big name celebrities, he sought to turn this into his personal war and redemption. He runs up on stage to slap Rock; he yells and swears at him; then he gets to stand up and make a speech about it, eyes welling with tears., and gets cheered as if he did some kind of noble or heroic thing. Some think he did, and that is upsetting in itself. I actually think that in some way he thought he was in a movie, because there are scenes like that which one sees in films. The protagonist almost always comes out redeemed and heroic in those.

That may sell tickets, but it is not good morality, and interestingly enough, is a major factor behind Hollywood’s new bete noir of “toxic masculinity.” I’m personally tired of hearing about that as a major theme in so many movies (I just watched a very unusual film, “Last Night in Soho,” which I somehow thought was a charming tale about going back to early ’60’s England with its great music, and with a very appealing ingenue heroine; and then it turned into a grand guignol horror nightmare. Some reviewer actually said it was about toxic masculinity, which seems to be the comfortable gloss on virtually every movie now). It is a real and dangerous thing, “toxic masculinity,” but it is too broad a term; and Soho in 1962 or so was likely not filled with leering sexagenerian men who hung out at clubs to pay for sex with the young women of mod London. But I wasn’t there, so I suppose it’s possible.

However, there is no question that there are many men who derive their sense of masculinity from, and also get rewarded for, having a trigger temper, their fists or worse at the ready, to stand up against anyone who says something they don’t like, or possibly insults their woman. Some women who support Smith for his actions, are the very ones who condemn those aspects of men which they just applauded in the concrete. You really shouldn’t expect to have it both ways. Someone described Chris Rock as “not having a mean bone in his body,” and he surely did not hit back, physically or verbally, or financially.

Smith finally apologized, but only on social media. And while the analogy to women beaters can sometimes be overused, the image of a man striking a blow, then saying that violence is never the answer, and that he is a vessel for love, must be terribly unsettling to those women who have been in some kind of relationship with one of those sick and deadly people.

Smith’s actions were not the worst thing in the world, and he will undoubtedly make more movies, make hundreds of millions more dollars, and eventually get more Academy Award nominations. That’s the way that too much of the world works; and Hollywood usually excuses everything. But it was a very unpleasant spectacle; not just the few minutes of action, but the implications,, and the efforts to somehow make Smith the hero, and Rock some kind of foil for him. There are very important lessons to be learned, but as is often the case, there are all sorts of wrong ones, to go with the better ones.

Russian Puppet Theater

Most of us are so over Trump. He’s like that guy in a bar that Taylor Swift sang about in Mean who was “washed up and ranting about the same old bitter things”. But the Russians just can’t quit him:

We change our regime every 4-8 years through an election and a peaceful transition of power. Or we did until Russia made Trump their favorite “partner”.

And when was the last time Russia got to do that? Russians have sham votes and live in a country with some bright spots in Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Astrakhan, and vast areas of broken roads and poverty almost everywhere else. The oligarchs steal everything that’s not nailed down and the country is about to default on a debt in 4 days.

That’s all you need to know about Russia today. Oh, and it perfected the art of spreading fake news and confusing people in their country and ours.

Words to live by: if your news confuses you, change your news.

Fighting for Democracy Over There, and Right Here

In the speech that President Biden delivered last Friday in Warsaw, he spoke about “a battle between democracy and autocracy. Between liberty and repression. Between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force. In this battle we need to be clear-eyed. This battle will not be won in days or months either. We need to steel ourselves for a long fight ahead.”

He said, “Fighting to save their nation and their brave resistance is part of a larger fight for essential democratic principles which unite all free people. The rule of law, fair and free elections, the freedom to speak and write and to assemble. The freedom to worship as one chooses. The freedom of the press. These principles are essential in a free society.”

President Biden spoke at length about Ukraine, and Russia, and about efforts being made by the United States and other countries to help Ukraine. The speech was stirring, it went back into history and then forward again. It was generally very well received by the majority of American news outlets.

But the problem is, he did not, could really not on that occasion, speak of the desperate fight to preserve democracy in America. It is a fight that we could be losing, while Ukranians fight on to preserve their country.

This is not something that I need to hammer away at, we all know this. We know that the Republican Party is trying to turn America into a fascist state. They would never call it that, but that is what it is intended to be.

They are trying to make all abortions illegal, and Texas seems to be looking to institute the death penalty for it. They are trying to ban contraception. In Florida, they are passing a law which allows anybody, presumably a parent, but who knows, who does not like something being said or taught in a school, to lodge a complaint which will presumably result in hearings, the firing of the teachers, and perhaps worse.

How is this much different from what we decry about Russian autocracy, the arrests of people who espouse any opinion contrary to their dictator, the shutting down of news networks, the beating up of protesters who are thrown into jail?

The fact that in our country, the fascists speak with American accents, some of the folksy down-home variety, does not somehow dilute the actions or the effects. This is not posturing by them, this is a deadly serious attempt to end democracy in this country.

Of course, they’ve got all the smooth slogans intended to hide it. They love America! They are all about protecting freedom! But the America they profess to love is mostly symbols: flags and songs, mixed with Fundamentalist Christian prayers and dictates. They want this to be an autocracy where the very rich make and keep all the money; the rest of the people have very little, but they get to impose their religion, their ignorance and prejudice on everyone else.

One doesn’t have to imagine this, or be dramatic in foreshadowing it; you can see it right now in the bills the legislatures are passing in a variety of Red states, and even some other ones. The people keep voting for Republicans to run the states; the people elected pass more repressive and intolerant laws, the governors sign them, the courts uphold them.

We see this happening right now, and it looks like we are going to see both Houses of Congress taken over by Republicans, although it is not certain. If they are, we will see a Republican Party that makes the Gingrich years look tame. This Republican Party bears no resemblance to the one of the 1950’s, 1960’s, or 1970’s. Efforts to wishfully believe that they are something other than the sum of the McCarthys, McConnells, Jordans, Blackburns, Johnsons, Cawthorns, Greenes, and Scotts, are abysmally naive and ignorant.

Without going too much into depth on it, I would suggest that if the Republicans control the House and Senate in 2023, we will see the following: Immediate House hearings aimed against Democrats, including Biden, Pelosi, Schiff, Hillary, everyone on their enemies list. Impeachment of Biden, maybe several times. Impeachment of other Democratic officials.

Refusal to raise the debt ceiling, unless Biden gives in as Obama mostly did before him. No money for anything to improve economic conditions or create jobs. No approval of any judge nominated by Biden. Reductions in many benefits, including the enacting of Rick Scott’s proposal to overturn ACA, cut Medicare and Social Security. Biden could veto it, but they figure they are only two years away from replacing him.; and rather than risk it, what if they can get rid of Biden and Harris, and install the House Speaker as President?

Biden eloquently spoke about the right to vote, but in his own country, Republicans are doing everything they can to take away the right to vote for everybody who is not one of them. And in some states, they have managed to pass laws that let the Republican legislatures which wrote them, overturn the vote totals, and hand the elections to the Republicans. Does Russia do it any worse than that?

We’ve got about six months before voting starts, and the fixed wheel starts spinning to its predetermined result. We were having meetings and actions taken by the 1/6 Committee, but that seems to have stopped, or at least is not covered by the media any longer. Everyone is focused on Ukraine, but the calendar moves ahead.

Was this part of the plan behind the invasion of Ukraine? Perhaps not, but it is not inconceivable. The news that Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, part of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy that Hillary Clinton tried to warn the nation about, but was mocked by the very members of that Conspiracy, worked to overturn the 2020 election, is given the requisite one day of coverage, before the media returns to all-Ukraine coverage, plus inflation worries.

Every economic indicator but inflation is very strong under Biden, but a very recent poll shows that while his favorable numbers have gone up in other areas, only 33% view his handling of the economy favorably. This is ludicrous, but it is testament to a dumbed-down and not very interested populace; and the power of the right-wing media to relentlessly pound away at framing intended to make Biden look bad.

The thing that Biden must do, is to try to push his framing, Democrats’ framing. But to do that, he has to somehow overcome his own, and much of his party’s, reluctance to emphatically call the Republicans what they are, which is the enemies of democracy. Just like the leaders of Russia, and China, and Hungary, and India, and Turkey, and North Korea, and Brazil. They are not the loyal opposition, or decent people who just have different approaches.. They are merciless totalitarians who seek to clamp down to create a society which will have few individual rights, and nothing to protect them.

If you’re going to lose, for heaven’s sake, at least go down shouting the truth to the people. If you can’t see the Republicans for what they are, you are simply denying reality. If you can see it, then you must say it every hour of every day. Maybe it will get through to some people. If you don’t say it now, what will be the use of saying it when we have no political power?

We wish that the struggle were between democracies and autocracies. But what are we? And if we are currently a democracy fighting to keep from becoming an autocracy, must we not identify those people and that party which are trying to destroy our democracy? Soft-pedaling them, or trying to appeal to what we keep hearing are “the better angels of their natures,” will just allow them to proceed with their destruction of our country’s heritage.

While we are trying to save democracy in Ukraine, we are losing it at home. Do we think that while we devote our time to trying to help Ukraine, the Republicans are going to stand down from what they are eagerly looking forward to, the takeover of our country by their band of literally insane fantasists, crooks, plunderers, and Nazis? The battle is right here, even though the images and battlefields may look different.

And if democracy falls here–and it won’t have the kind of tableaux of surrender we have seen in historical wars–it will be virtually as impossible to get it back. And if Trump or DeSantis or Scott or Hawley take over, what help will we be able to give Ukraine, or any other country trying to hold its democracy?

If Trump had won, or been able to subvert the election, Ukraine would have been taken over, and we would be leaving NATO; while our government stole more funds to build more border wall; and the entire civil service was removed and packed with Trump’s loyalists; and the media would find itself controlled, blocked, and arrested, while they finally cried out for help which no one had enough power to give them. That is what is at stake here. We desperately need President Biden to make some speeches and exhortations about that. “Time and tide wait for no one,” is a proverb that goes back at least to the year 1225, and it is as true now as it was then.

We have to catch up asap

I’m reading Timothy Snyder’s book, The Road to Unfreedom. Snyder is the guy who wrote the best seller On Tyranny that listed the steps that a country goes through to be taken over by authoritarianism. That was the Cliff notes version of The Road to Unfreedom (I’m going to abbreviate it as TRTU). On Tyranny is meant for the general audience and I advise every American regardless of party ideology to read it.

But TRTU, which was published in 2018, describes in detail how we got to the place where half the country thinks Putin is a smart guy, Biden gets blamed for everything, Republican politicians praise a Supreme Court nominee as being super qualified in one breath and vow to vote against her in the next, and why Texas now wants to the death penalty for women who have abortions. I think I understood what was happening on a higher level but I didn’t really get the motivation and the way it was done. Now I do after diving into this book. Snyder methodically explains why Vladimir Putin is invading Ukraine and what he is trying to create. Considering that this book was written before the current invasion, the US election of 2020 and the January 6 insurrection, Snyder is uncannily prescient.

Putin is involved in so much of the disintegration and weakening of the EU, NATO and the US. But he couldn’t have gotten this far without the seeds of totalitarianism that have been dormant in the US but have germinated in the last couple of decades. We brought a lot of this on ourselves but Snyder saw the most recent events of the past few years coming.

I only wish that more Americans were capable or interested in reading TRTU. It’s written well and it’s laid out clearly by labeling each chapter in terms of contrasting values. But it’s also dense, and presents the dangerous ideas of Russian philosophers, some still living, who are unfamiliar to most Americans. We are now caught up in their global aspirations.

For the oblivious trump supporters out there, I will give the short summary: Putin is intent on creating a Eurasian totalitarian empire where all of Europe will be swallowed up by Russia and the rule of law will be replaced by the arbitrary decisions by a Russian Redeemer. That would be Putin. In order to make this vision possible, Putin has been working on breaking down the European Union. He scored a major victory with the UK voting on Brexit.

As for the US, we have been the only superpower since 1990 and a major player in NATO. Putin can’t achieve his ends until the US is weakened and he had no better ally in carrying that out that in Donald Trump. Trump exceeded Putin’s wildest expectations.

You heard that right. Putin has been working on weakening the US since about 2012 but it was his support of Donald Trump that had brought us to the brink of WWIII in Ukraine.

Donald Trump intentionally weakened us. Bush might have been a Bible thumping war mongering dude and Obama might have been a dithering overthinker who just wanted everyone to get along. But the reason the world may have been laughing at us? That was all due to Donald Trump.

The only problem is that Putin miscalculated and overreached. We’re not quite dead yet and we still count on a world stage. But the stage has been set for the 2022 election to push us over, crippling us with division and corruption of elections.

That is why it is so important that we do all we can to see that Putin loses. Then let’s see how the Trumpist Republican Party reacts. I suspect that most if not all of them have been getting hefty campaign contributions from Russia, and oligarchs both foreign and domestic.

Manchin and Sinema should have been forced to read this book and take a quiz. This is so much bigger than the coal industry and Kirsten’s campaign contributors. They need to be dope slapped upside the head with this big heavy book until they get it.

Some Short Takes from Moi

(If anyone GAF)

  1. Give Ukraine the planes, anti-aircraft equipment, drones, etc for them to create a “no fly zone”. We’re giving them other equipment to wage war and everyone knows that air supremacy is invaluable. (Ask Danaerys Stormborn and Winston Churchill). If we really, truly believe that Ukraine is a sovereign nation, then it has the right to defend its sovereign skies. This is conventional warfare. If putin is going to use a nuke or chemical weapons, he doesn’t need a reason. He’ll just do it. He wants to use the threat of these WMD to paralyze NATO into inaction. So, might as well give Ukraine the means to adequately defend itself. We’ve already guaranteed that if Putin uses some unconventional warfare, we will retaliate in kind. Ok. Get on with it then.
  2. I wouldn’t care which SC justice was protecting his/her spouse from the 1/6 Committee scrutiny, I would have to demand his/her resignation. No, don’t tell me Clarence Thomas won’t or that the right will have a hissy fit or that their scream machine is gearing up for all “Liberals are baby eaters and totally unfair for asking one of our guys to do the right thing or avoid a conflict of interest”. He’s not a popular justice. Mostly, he’s silent and doesn’t write opinions. John Roberts is probably livid right now because the way the federalists remain effective is by not doing the sh}% Thomas did. And the balance of the SC won’t change even if he leaves. So, I’m sorry, he’s got to go. No, No, don’t try that “but whatabout Hunter Biden??” BS. Hunter Biden looks like a Saint compared to the wife of a Supreme Court justice who conspired with a WH chief of staff who tried to overturn an election.
  3. Today is Tolkien Reading Day. March 25 is selected to commemorate the day Sauron fell. Spoiler alert – this is the relevant scene:

Sauron was a servant of the big baddy, Morgoth. You might not know about Morgoth unless you are also a Tolkien addict who read the Silmarillion. Morgoth, first known as Melkor, was the greatest of the Valar who created Arda, the place where Middle Earth is located.

Morgoth wanted to have the same power of creation as Iluvatar or God. But Iluvatar was the only source who could create beings with their own free will. Morgoth could only create creatures who submitted to his will. After Morgoth was captured and his servant Sauron was left in charge, the same restriction applied to anything he created or corrupted. They could only submit to his will, they had no ability to free themselves. When the ring was destroyed and dark tower fell, the orcs and trolls and Nazgûl also fell. The will of Sauron was gone so they were also destroyed or ran mindless and without direction and were ultimately defeated.

Tolkien famously said that he didn’t write allegories. I think he didn’t write the kind of stories that CS Lewis wrote where the characters and stories were clearly Christian in nature and represented Christ and resurrection etc. That was too unsubtle for Tolkien. His world is rich and deep and consistent. In the fall of Morgoth and Sauron, we see his opinion on authoritarian regimes that mindlessly follow a unitary executive whose notions of governance mean that there is no free will. Mordor is a dead, dreary place, reeking with poison, violence and despair. When you are in charge and no one can question your authority, you don’t have to answer to anyone. “The lion does not concern himself with the opinion of the sheep”.

In a dog eat dog world where there is no rule of law, a “magic ring” makes the ruler unaccountable for his actions. He doesn’t have to concern himself with the well-being or prosperity of his followers.

It’s only by forming a fellowship of allies that we have the strength to defeat this master. Our unity is his downfall.

Tolkien wrote his stories during the world wars and saw what authoritarians could do to the world. He knew that we coexist with evil and our greatest triumph comes from resisting temptation, not from eliminating it. His stories remain relevant up until the present day. That’s why they are classics.

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” — JRR Tolkien

4.) Just in time, the dark tower is falling:

Russia signals scaled-back war aims as Ukrainians advance near Kyiv

Let’s go hunt some orcs.

Movie Westerns and Real Life

As we sit here very much wanting the gallant Ukranians to win in some fashion, and yet somehow doing so in a way which will not mean nuclear war, and the end of the human race and most of the animal species, I think about how the great Westerns made mostly in the early 1950’s dealt with existential issues.

Right vs wrong, though often nuanced. Wanting to survive yet not running away. People with various motives which may at key moments subsume the common purpose. Moral redemption. Courage from those from whom you might not expect it; shifting loyalty from someone who you thought would take a moral stand. And in the best ones, someone finding a way to save as many people as possible while not giving up.

I don’t like Westerns nearly as much as film noirs, but there is certainly something compelling about the very best Westerns. Various shades of human character, issues more complex that those of the old-fashioned Westerns where you could tell the good guys from the bad guys by the color of their hat.

Two men walking toward each other on a dusty street, knowing that at most one will live–unless, like Henry Fonda’s marshal for hire in “Warlock,” he throws down his guns to Richard Widmark’s newly minted lawman, rather than kill him, because he knows it is the right thing. Or like Jimmy Stewart somehow standing up to fight the evil gunfighter Liberty Valance, and being saved from certain death by John Wayne’s heroic rancher, who gives up the woman he loves because he knows that Stewart’s decent lawyer is the future of the West, not Lee Marvin’s sociopathic Valance.

We all know “High Noon,” seen by most critics as a metaphor for the McCarthy and HUAC hearings, when so many people would not stand up to them for fear that their careers would also be ruined. We know “3:10 From Yuma,” where the protagonist proves to his wife and boy that he is not a coward. We know “Shane,” who has given up his gunfighting days, but stands up to fight for a family and town. And Gregory Peck’s “The Gunfighter,” whose reputation as the fastest gun follows him everywhere he goes, and he has to fight every young gun who is trying to make a reputation, or who thinks he has a family quarrel to settle with him.

You cannot escape your past in many of the classic Westerns. Kill somebody, even in self-defense, and somebody in his family will believe it differently, and will not be satisfied until they duel it out. Henry Fonda’s Clay Blaisedale n the aforementioned “Warlock” finds a very nice woman, but she ultimately tells him, as he prepares to leave that town and find other ones to serve as marshal in, that she could not bear to worry every day about him, the “backshooters” who will always be there trying to kill him. In another story, Grace Kelly’s Quaker woman in “High Noon” hates violence, but ultimately has to make a choice when her new husband is fighting for his life.

I am thinking of these, because last night I watched a movie which I had only seen once very recently on a movie channel, and then bought. “Garden of Evil,” directed by Henry Hathaway, the script written by perhaps the most underrated screenwriter of all time, Frank Fenton, who wrote the script of “Out of the Past.” Music by the virtually unparalleled Bernard Herrmann, doing a rare Western score. Starring Gary Cooper, Susan Hayward, Richard Widmark, and Cameron Mitchell. Wonderful cinematography.

The basic story is that three gold-hunters , who are all strangers, but are going on a boat to search for gold, are forced to get off the damaged boat, and stay for a few week in a small Mexican town. In comes Susan Hayward to the bar where they are marking time, and tells them that her husband was badly injured in an accident in a mine shaft, and that she needs someone to help extricate and help him. She offers a lot of money, $2,000 each. They all decide to go, along with a gentlemanly Mexican man.

They find that the ride to her abode is almost impossible, going through the edge of a sheer cliff. They ask if there is an easier way back, and she says that she has never heard of one. When they get there, they find signs of Apaches having been there, and this appears to be their Festival of the White Moon, where the goal may be to kill as many White people as possible.

The husband has a broken leg, is angry and embittered, and thinks that his wife doesn’t care about him, she just wants someone to help get the gold out of the mine. What she is really like is not obvious, though from her facial expressions, one thinks that she is hurt by the accusations. All the men like Hayward for one reason or another, though she is not obviously encouraging it. The threat from the Apaches grows, and they realize that they have to get out of there. But the husband cannot walk after Cooper has set his broken leg.

Hayward says that if they all leave, and she stays, she will move around a lot so that the Apaches will think they are all still there. Widmark , who seems to be playing the same kind of gambler type looking for gold as he did in the fine Western “Yellow Sky,” sees her when everyone else is occupied, and says that he doesn’t believe her, she knows that the men will not let her stay by herself to be killed, and that she is manipulating them just as her husband has accused her of doing.

But she appears to mean it. The deal she wants is that they agree to take her husband, even if they have to carry him. Apparently he thinks he can ride, however. At the last moment Cooper hits her on the jaw to knock her out and take her with them. Skip down if you don’t want to see how it comes out.

In the next scene, they are out there, seeing the Apaches gathering on the hills. One of them says that they will all die. Hayward’s husband tells Mitchell, who is unhappy that he is slowing them down, that if he finds him a horse, he will take it and ride off. When Hayward finds that he has left, she is upset and saddened, but Cooper tells her that as she wanted to give him a chance, by demanding that they take him along, so he, realizing that he is slowing down any possible escape, wanted to give her a chance. This seems to make her feel somewhat better.

Some argument breaks out, and just as the hotheaded Mitchell is about to shoot someone, he is killed by an Apache arrow. As they wonder why the Apaches don’t kill all of them, Cooper suggests that maybe their goal is to kill them one by one. Later, they find Hayward’s husband nailed to a post. The Mexican has been killed by arrows in a memorable scene, as he shouts defiance at the Apaches.

The only way for the remaining three to try to survive, is to go back to that sheer cliff which gives them some cover. Cooper, who has told Widmark that he had previously been a sheriff, is able to kill a few Apaches ready to shoot them. Finally, Widmark suggests that the only course is for one of the two men to stay, and try to provide cover for the other two as they try to escape. Cooper does not want to, but Widmark talks him into it They will draw a card from Widmark’s deck, after they shuffle and cut a few times. High card “wins,” and stays.

They each draw a card, and they show them. Widmark says he wins, he will stay. Hayward realizes that he is not the “nothing” she told him he was, back at the house. She sincerely hugs and kisses him. She and Cooper ride off, until he says that he thinks that they have gotten away. They can still hear the sounds of Widmark’s rifle shooting at the Apaches. Cooper had jokingly said earlier that he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, but he apparently is surpassing that.

Cooper and Hayward are talking. He says that Widmark cheated him some way, made it come out that he would have the high card and have to stay. He says that he has to go back and tell him that, and that he was a better person than he had thought he was. Hayward says that she understands. He rides back along that frightening path (poor horses!), and he finds Widmark having been shot by an arrow. They talk. Cooper had earlier said that one always stays behind, someone who help the others get through. Widmark says that there is always someone who dies, this time it is him.

Widmark dies. Cooper prepares to ride off. As the blazing orange streaks of the setting sun are shown, Cooper is heard saying in voiceover, that if the earth were made of gold, people would be risking their lives to find dirt. It looks like the end of the movie, but the last shot, almost indistinct, shows a horse riding up to where another horse is there, waiting. Then we see the two horses, hard to make out, riding off in tandem together. From this, one can hopefully surmise that Hayward waited for Cooper to come back, and they will live a life together.

I almost always like happy endings in dramas, even noirs. Sometimes the poignant ending stays with one longer, but I still almost always root for the upbeat ending, even in the midst of sad events. So I liked this ending. And I liked the movie, not an absolute classic, but very atmospheric, very well acted, and a with a literate and sometimes poetic script which is the hallmark of Frank Fenton.

The movie took me away from the awful daily news, and the fears for the future of humanity. The story we are watching is not scripted, and there may never be a clearcut ending, which in this case, is almost certainly preferable. The same issues do arise; good and evil, honor and treachery, doing the “right” thing all the way, or pulling back to try to achieve the greater salvation.

If all the characters at a Western showdown are killed, there is still someone to tell the story, or to rebuild the town. In the real world, this is not a given. The longer view, something that many characters in these movies do not, or cannot afford to, have, is of ultimate importance, no matter how one might come out on the matter of choices and risks.

Manafort’s passport has been revoked.

This is interesting. Paul Manafort, the convicted felon who used to work for Ukraine’s puppet president Viktor Yanacovich, was pulled off a plane headed to Dubai a couple of days ago. From WaPo a few minute ago:

MIAMI — Former Trump adviser Paul Manafort was removed from a plane at Miami International Airport before it took off for Dubai because he carried a revoked passport, officials said Wednesday.

Miami-Dade Police Detective Alvaro Zabaleta confirmed that Manafort was removed from the Emirates Airline flight without incident Sunday night but directed further questions to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. That agency did not immediately respond to an email Wednesday seeking comment.

Other sites have reported that the reason his passport was revoked was because he posed a grave counterintelligence risk or something along those lines.

I’ve also read that Dubai doesn’t have an extradition agreement with the US.

I can’t imagine what he’s been up to but I suspect is no good.

Visions of the New World

Ezra Klein has been following the war in Ukraine on his podcast and has a handful of excellent interviews. The one with Fiona Hill is expertly insightful from a national security POV. Masha Gessen relates what the last date before martial law in Russia was like with things changing rapidly and “leaving parties”.

But it’s the one with Timothy Snyder that is making parts of my brain tingle. You have to listen to it. He is having visions of what comes next in the world. Snyder is the Yale professor who wrote the best seller On Tyranny. But his regular gig was as an expert on Ukraine. Weird how some things converge.

Here’s the podcast episode from the Ezra Klein Show. Trigger alert: MAGA people and fundamentalist Christians are not going to like it. You’ll see what I mean when you get there. Strobe Talbot also made a brief reference to this concept in his putin files interview for Frontline. Basically, there are limits to the way we have expected the “invisible hand” to guide us to more perfect unions. Now there is room for something new.

Here’s the link to Timothy Snyder’s interview on Ezra Klein’s podcast.

And here is the link to Zelenskyy’s message to Ukrainians that also touches on this vision. This vision is specific to Ukraine but it is in part dependent on what comes after the war and the agreements Ukraine makes with the EU. What is interesting is that what is currently already in play has the capacity to change the current world order everywhere else. That’s why authoritarians and MAGAs and Brexiteers don’t like it.

Brace yourselves. The first part of this video is hard to watch.

Putin has gotten into our heads

Read Garry Kasparov’s thread here. It’s not too long;

If you’ve been watching Frontline’s Putin Files interviews, you would know by now that KGB trained Vladimir Putin reads up on the people he meets and gets to know how to push their buttons. He flatters them or gets in their heads to feel how they will react. For this invasion of Ukraine, one of the first things Putin did was get in the heads of all the countries that were involved in the Cold War, ie the US and NATO and pushed their big nuke button.

Threatening to use nukes was the very first thing he did to keep NATO from getting involved. Here’s why our failure to do the exact opposite was a mistake.

Yes, he has nukes. We have nukes. If he uses them, WWIII has the potential to quickly escalate and we could all turn to ash.

But if we don’t “close the skies”, he will just keeping pushing and pushing and pushing until somebody pushes back. I don’t think Putin is trying to provoke NATO to get involved. He’s poking NATO because we’re paralyzed with fear and he gets off on that. And that gives him license to do whatever he wants. No one is stopping him.

That’s too bad because as brutal as shelling has been for Mariupol and Kharkiv, his army is a mess and his air support isn’t that much better. It could be over faster than we think. One of the things this war has demonstrated is that Russia without the Soviet Union is not as formidable as it used to be in terms of its military.

Would he use nukes if we got involved? Maybe. Would he use nukes if we don’t get involved? Maybe. What is stopping him from using them now? Nothing. He doesn’t need a reason. So why not close the skies and really give him trouble? Right now, he’s feeling his cheerios even as his army is bogging down and going nowhere. If he runs out of options with troops on the ground, a tactical nuke or two might be just the thing to make his day. If he does it within Ukraine, sure there would be an international outcry of biblical proportions. But outcries are like sternly worded letters. They won’t stop the violence unless there is an equal opposite force.

Before we get to that, why not take out his air war now? Give Ukraine the planes and anti-aircraft support they need and take him on. Destroy whatever poorly supplied army he still has left and take out his Air Force. It might be enough to demoralize his troops and motivate his advisors to finally pull the plug on Putin’s power lust.

There will undoubtably be shrieks that we’re engaging in a proxy war. But we never wanted to renew the Cold War with Russia. That’s Putin’s fantasy. All we want is for things to calm down and it’s not going to happen while Europe is being thrown into chaos with energy shortages and millions of panicking refugees and a pandemic hanging around.

NATO is needed after all. It serves as a real deterrent. It needs to jump in on behalf of Ukraine now to keep the destabilization of Eastern Europe from getting worse and spreading.

I realize that there are a lot of peace at all costs people out there who have a strong moral objection to using force of any kind and I’m not a war hawk. But these confrontations rarely resolve themselves.

Whether or not putin chooses to use nukes is irrelevant to any action we take or fail to take. He can drop one at any time and make up any excuse he wants to justify it.

Enough with the mind games. Let Ukraine defend its skies.