America’s Hate-Love Relationship with Pork

Pork, everyone hates it, but no one can live without it.

But I am not talking about the meat; I’m talking about Congressional pet projects. And what can be said about pork the food can also be said about pork spending: everyone wants less because they know it’s bad, except they can’t quite give it up when it’s their turn.

In tonight’s State of the Union, President Bush will make an emphasis on stopping earmarks, money set aside by members of Congress for projects designed to funnel money, jobs, and favor into their own districts.

Look, I’m for cutting back on pork as the next guy, but let’s be honest here: pork-barrel legislation is the grease that helps the American political engine run. Because when push comes to shove, when election time rolls around every 2, 4, and 6 years, the only thing that an incumbent can use to appeal to his local constituents is pork. He can say that he got x amount of money and jobs in his district, and of course, his local constituents will applaud him for it.

The heart of the matter is this: everyone, politicians and constituents, play this little game called “let’s bash pork-barrel” spending, but no one is really willing to give up pork. The same people who decry the Bridge to Nowhere will not decry when their own district representative brings federal money in the form of a construction contract that generates jobs for the locals. The same people who decry other Congress members’ pork-barrel spending will not elect their own representative if he fails to bring in an equal amount of federal money.

Because at the bottom of it, American politics is really about representation of local interests, and the pork is the easiest and most obvious way for politicians to show their constituents that he is representing their interests. Whether you think this way of conducting politics is normatively correct is another matter. But to me, it doesn’t look like people really want something different. Sure, every once in a while, we all play the game and denounce some easy target like the Bridge to Nowhere, but everyone–politicians and citizens both–are complicit in this little game we play.

And in this little game, everyone benefits. Congress members get a chance to denounce an easy target and sound the righteous rhetoric horn, appearing to be above the squalor, all the while negotiating deals with other Congress members that will funnel money into all of their districts. Voters, on the other hand, are assuaged that their representatives are “clean,” all the while enjoying the very money funneled through a process that they supposedly “hate.”

Of course I’m not saying that pork spending should be limitless, but all this incessant, self-righteous rhetoric about “stopping waste” strikes me as dubious, self-serving, and worst of all, hypocritical. More so, it is utterly unrealistic, because the structure of American politics present an irresistible incentive to create pork spending. Unless Americans are willing to change the structure, they can never realistically expect pork spending to stop.

Caption: Here, one can see a local constituent enjoying the federal money funneled into his district by his Congressional representative


On the Need to Identify with Fictional Characters

My two favorite movies from 2007 are No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. What they have in common among other things, and it is this commonality that makes me attracted to both of them, is their protagonists: Daniel Plainview in TWBB, and Anton Chigurh in NCFOM.

In my discussions with other people about these two movies, one complaint has emerged on a fairly consistent basis, namely, that neither movie really “explains” these characters, thereby making them almost impossible to identify with. A related complaint is that because these characters are impossible to identify with and are not historicized, they do not “grow.”

I fail to see the merits of these criticisms, because the need to “identify” with a character through some kind of psychological historicization of the character seems to me a reflection of the prejudice, unsophisticated in my opinion, to feel at one with the characters. I see no reason why identifiability should be an artistic requirement.

First, these two movies are not naturalistic or realistic; they are rather mythical. They both take place in a geographical settings that are rich with allegory and symbolism, and they both feature stories that have overt Bibilical/religious undertones. Therefore, to expect these movies to be populated by realistic, everyday people is futile at best. Rather, these movies are populated by larger-than-life, mythical, otherworldly characters.

Second, why the demand to identify with these characters? What is the point of identifying with an extreme misanthrope or an utterly pathological psycho-killer? Some characters are meant to provoke and shock, not to identify with. If they are to provoke and shock at all, they must in some sense remain mysterious to the viewers.

Third, why the need to, so to speak, “psychologize” these characters, in other words, to explain and rationalize the process by which they become who they are. There are many pitfalls in taking such a psychological approach. First, it is likely that any psychological explanation that is offered will be too reductive. After all, do we need another “he was abused as a child by his father” type of explanation? These kind of psychological explanations are too simplistic or causally trivial. Second, the need to psychologize and rationalize evil reflects a bias to moralize everything. Why is it not acceptable to accept that sometimes evil people just exist, that they are just evil.

Fourth, why do these characters need to “grow”? What are they supposed to be growing into? Are they supposed to undergo some kind of moral transformation that makes them bearable? Again, this is just a bias to moralize fictional characters. If they are presented as fully formed in the beginning, what exactly is wrong with that? But of course, these characters are not presented explicitly in the beginning. The viewers begin to understand more of these characters as the films progress, but that is not the same thing as these characters’ growing, because the characters themselves are already fully-formed–it is only the audience that needs to peel back the layers so to speak. But even then, both movies never fully reveal these characters, which is good, because the mysterious and inexplicable nature of these characters contributes to the overall effect.

And these arguments that I have made go for pretty much all works of art. Why is it that people feel the need to identify with characters? It matters not to me whether a character is “likable,” because that is not the point: the point is to create an artistic effect. I just see the need to identify as reflecting a kind of self-absorption, the inability or willful denial to confront reality, which is to say, the denial that in real life, as is in art, there are people whom we can never know or understand, and that sometimes they commit acts of evil which cannot simply be rationalized away.

The Last Straw

This is the last straw for me: I can no longer, in good conscience, vote for Hillary Clinton in the election.

I can’t believe how blatantly, and worse, more smugly, Bill Clinton played the race card in the video above. By comparing Obama’s victory today in South Carolina to Jesse Jackson’s victories in that same state in 1984 and 1988, Bill Clinton has essentially pigeonholed Obama as the “black” candidate–someone who gets support from African American voters but lose the general vote.

Nevermind the fact that exit polls show that Obama has a quarter of the white vote, and nevermind that despite Hillary’s attempt to frame this contest as a decision between the first “female” president and the first “black” president, 79% of female African American voters chose Obama.

The facts are not that important in the end; what is important is Bill Clinton’s absolutely SLEAZY way of playing the race card. The Clinton campaign has been hinting at this for the whole week, but now they made it explicit.

This is exactly the kind of politics that Obama says he will transcend and leave behind, and I am sick and tired of Clinton’s sleaze tactics. What a way to fuck up a genuinely historical moment in America, when not one, but TWO, viable candidates can become president and overcome the racial and gender barrier. Instead of focusing on this opportunity, Clinton plays the race card.

I cannot stand this brand of politics, and I will not vote for Hillary in the primaries.

The Only Victim is the Truth

Another maxim: in a time of elections, the only victim is the truth.

Case in point: the Clinton campaign’s portrayal of Obama as a Reagan lover, thereby trying to discredit him in the eyes of Democratic primary voters.

The truth: Bill Clinton, more than any other Democratic politician in recent history, steered the Democrat party toward the right by using Reagan-esque rhetoric and adopting Reagan-esque policy positions, albeit to a lesser degree than Reagan’s own policies. He does this because Reagan created a hugely successful and powerful political coalition which is only now beginning to fracture.

Clinton adopted Reagan’s fiscal conservatism and anti-welfarist stances by dismantling AFDC. In otherwise, he dismantled the welfare state as we knew it. In this he was no different than Reagan or Thatcher, two political leaders, who in the 1980s, created a sustained campaign against the traditional liberal welfare state. Granted, Clinton’s rhetoric is not as to the right as Reagan or Thatcher, but his policies implicitly acknowledged the success of the Reagan program and imitated it and packaged it for a generation of Democratic politicians in a safe, presentable, and more importantly, something they can sell.

Clinton also adopted Reagan’s tough-on-crime policy, because this kind of crime politics has been proven successful. The most obvious example of this is the continuation of the War on Drugs. In fact Clinton elevated the Drug Czar into a Cabinet-level position.

What about in foreign policy? Clinton was not as explicitly militaristic as Reagan; indeed he even cut military spending and shut down military bases. On the surface, this is as anti-Reagan as it gets. But look deeper and one will see that Clinton is not a dovish president. Aside from the withdrawal of troops from Somalia at the beginning of his first term, Clinton had a fairly interventionist foreign policy: under Clinton, the US military intervened in the Balkans conflict, East Timor, Haiti, and air bombing of Iraq.

Of course Clinton did not explicitly acknowledge that he was following Reagan’s lead. Instead he called it “The Third Way”, which is another way of packaging Reagan-esque policies in a tamer way so as to sell it to a centrist, moderate constituency. A similar movement occurred in Britain with the election of Tony Blair, who called his policy positions “New Labor.”

So it is extremely hypocritical for both Hillary and Bill Clinton to try to paint Obama as some kind of Reagan-lover who is not intent to bring a new politics as he promised in his campaign. How the fuck can the Clintons even make this claim when Bill Clinton built his political success precisely based on following Reagan’s policies?

In fact, the modern Democratic party is the product of attempts to imitate Reagan’s political success in building a powerful coalition by following his policies and packaging it in a more moderate, more presentable way to centrist voters.

So is it so unreasonable for Obama to suggest that Reagan had some good ideas? Of course not! I am not going to make any normative judgments about Reagan’s policies (but believe me, I could), but what is undeniable is that Reagan was a tremendous politician who successfully built a political coalition that has endured for 20 years, produced Republican dominance in both Congress and the Presidency. Of course any politician and party would kill to have that kind of success, which is exactly what Bill Clinton did–he followed Reagan, which is itself not unreasonable–after all, why not imitate something that has proven to be successful?

What is unreasonable is this sudden about-face, this attempt to portray Obama as a Reagan-lover and discredit him in the eyes of Democratic primary voters, because that is just pure hypocrisy.

The maxim repeated: in a time of elections, the only victim is the truth.

Sound The Alarm! It’s Election Time!

If there is one thing you can be sure of, it is this: when it’s election season, all the politicians will sound their alarmist horns.

Case in point: the economy.

Suddenly all the big shots are calling for a stimulus package, especially Bush, who has had a change of mind and decided that we are really facing an upcoming recession. To use his own phrase, the economic outlook is becoming “increasingly mixed.” What the fuck does that even mean?

Anyways, all the Pols are sounding off on the fact that foreign investors and countries are buying up shares of our finance firms like Merill-Lynch and Citigroup. And you can bet your money that the Pols are saying that we can’t surrender our money markets to “foreigners.”

Never mind the fact that capital markets are global, or the fact that China has been financing your average American citizen’s consumption and debt-ridden lifestyle for the last decade or so, the fact is that we need foreign investments to bail out our own financial corporations. Furthermore, we can only hope that the weakening dollars will increase our export revenues and hopefully shift the balance of payment positively, if only for a little bit.

But lest one forgets, a weakening dollar means all of our imported commodities become less affordable, and the most important import commodity that every single American, no matter how rich or how poor, will always need: OIL.

So all this talk about giving everyone a tax rebate ignores two considerable facts. First, the rebate (which looks like it will realistically be about $500 to $600 per household) will not make a huge difference considering the weak dollar. Second, the tax cut does not cover people who don’t make enough to pay income tax, but precisely because they make so little, they are more likely to spend whatever tax rebate they do receive, thus more likely to pump that money back into the economy.

This is why I get exasperated when I watch presidential debates, because nobody has the balls to say anything based on actual economic analysis. Instead, we get vague answers like tax rebates, “green-collar” jobs, and stopping free trade.

In the words of Arrested Development, Come On!

The Savages

I really liked The Savages, a movie written and directed by Tamara Jenkins. It’s one of the better movies I have seen in recent memory, and it would have been almost perfect had not the last 10 minutes of the movie shifted the tone of the movie so much. But more on that later.

The first thing that struck me about the movie is just how natural it seems, almost like a lived-in kind of feeling. It captures ordinary people and their lives very well, with equal amounts of humor, misery, and absurdity. When I first saw the trailer, I was afraid that Jenkins would make yet another absurdist black comedy movie about dysfunctional families.

Sure, the movie does make you laugh at uncomfortable places at things you are not supposed to, but it also realistically portray the lives of its characters, all of whom are minor and do not stand for some symbol or archetype. This is a movie about real people with real problems, most of them minor but consequential to the people involved, and it probes familial dysfunction in depth.

None of the characters are stock characters; instead, each has his/her own personality, mannerisms, and tics. And these characters are well portrayed by the actors involved. Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman (who seems incapable these days of turning in a bad acting job) are two of my favorite, semi-underrated character actors, and each does a great job of playing siblings who love, hate, annoy, and console each other. They have great chemistry on screen.

But what took me by surprise is Philip Bosco, who plays the patriarch of the titular family, Lenny Savage. The character is an abusive father who neglected his children for so long but is losing his mind to dementia. This is not supposed to be a sympathetic character, but Bosco nevertheless plays him in a way that gets the audience to care. He doesn’t try to win the audience’s sympathy, but neither does he ham up the abusive father stock type either. He does a good job balancing both the humane part of Lenny and his more abusive inside, infusing his character with the irritability, the misery, realization, and the regret of someone who’s about to die and realizes that he has been bad to his children but can’t quite say it.

In essence, The Savages is a small movie, but I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense. It is only small in that it’s a movie about small people dealing with the fact that old people die in loneliness in some forgotten nursing home. It deals with the fact that most children of dysfunctional families are in some way always affected by their childhood. That the movie does this without being so obvious is a great achievement, and it is one of the major reasons why I enjoy it so much. The movie doesn’t make any grand revelations about mortality, or sibling dynamics, or family–that is not its aim. Rather, it just portrays, in a realistic and understated way, how a family interacts and all the equal measures of humor, anger, humiliation, love, and sadness that all family life consists of.

This is not a movie to watch if you are looking for uplift, because you will get none. There is no epiphany, no life-changing lessons at the end: just regular people with ordinary, mediocre lives trying to get by.

That is, until the last 10 minutes. Had the movie ended right after Lenny’s death, it would have been nearly perfect, which, coming from me, is high praise, since I never say any movie is perfect out of principle. It was apparent from the beginning that only after Lenny has died can his children move on with their lives again. There is nothing wrong with this message, but what is wrong with how the last 10 minutes dealt with this claim is the tone: it becomes too triumphant.

Instead of taking the understated, realistic, and natural tone of what came before, the last 10 minutes turn into something like an epiphany or neatly-wrapped resolution that the movie has been wise to avoid. The sudden transformation of the siblings is just inconsistent with the rest of the movie because it’s too obvious, not subtle at all. Instead of acknowledging life’s complexities, the ending seems to pat the audience on the back and tells them that these characters’ lives turn out to be happy after all.

Of course, even this “happy” resolution is not as blatantly optimistically sappy as most Hollywood movies, but it’s enough of a change in tone that it feels jarring. I really don’t understand why Jenkins chose to go with this tone for the ending. It’s if at the end, she decided that maybe the audience just needs a little bit of uplift. But if this is the case, why subject the audience to the previous 90 minutes with a much different tone? Anyways, I just felt like the ending was a cop out. While it did not significantly compromise the integrity of the rest of the movie, it nonetheless deviates from it.

In reality, however, this is just my nit-picking, but nit-picking is what I am trained to do with my “useless” humanities education.

What Is Wrong With Being Sad?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a great article up today on the value of melancholy and tragedy, which today are considered “negative” and treated as a disease. I saw this on Arts & Letters Daily, which I cannot recommend people to read enough.

The gist of the article is that Americans today are obsessed with eradicating all signs of melancholy, or all feelings of dissatisfaction. I cannot emphasize enough, as the author does, that there is indeed actual cases of clinical depression and that they should be treated professionally and medically. However, I do agree with the article that Americans have an unwarranted prejudice against people who don’t seem “upbeat” all the time. Also, I agree with the distinction that the author makes between melancholia and clinical depression. According to the author, the difference is one of degree.

“Both forms are more or less chronic sadness that leads to continuing unease with how things are — persistent feelings that the world is not quite right, that it is a place of suffering, stupidity, and evil. Depression (as I see it, at least) causes apathy in the face of this unease, lethargy approaching total paralysis, an inability to feel much of anything one way or another. In contrast, melancholia generates a deep feeling in regard to this same anxiety, a turbulence of heart that results in an active questioning of the status quo, a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing.”

I wouldn’t go so far as to characterize it as sadness, since I do not feel “down” whenever I am confronted with how the world actually is. But I do, as the author states, feel that the world we live in is not quite right, that there are indeed things below, above, and aside from the surface.

Having just read The Birth of Tragedy, I feel that the author makes a somewhat Nietzschean claim–that beauty cannot exist without tragedy, that the attempt to eliminate all feelings of dissatisfaction and pessimism will eliminate beauty altogether.

This explains in part why I have trouble hiding my disdain towards people who are “sunny,” “happy-go-lucky,” and “upbeat” all the fucking time. Life is far more than happiness, and I might even go as far to say that the purpose of life isn’t to be happy–in fact, there is no purpose, other than living itself.