The best blog from the best author you've never heard of. Assorted thoughts ranging from comic books to politics. Sometimes I even talk about writing.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

On Brexit: Let's Ignore the Angry People Some More!

Angry people in the UK seemingly got their way last week when the referendum on EU membership favored Leave by a slim margin. Disagreement on the long term consequences is widespread, but the immediate result was clear: the UK was cast down into the deepest level of hell while the delicate seams of the remaining EU began unraveling and Vladimir Putin laughed a super villain laugh somewhere off camera. But every breakup has an initial rough patch filled with blackout drunkenness, and before I knew it columnists everywhere were spouting reasons why Brexit might not happen—“It’s not really over. She still loves me!”

I for one hope they’re wrong.

The Brexit results seemingly caught everyone off guard—even Leave campaigners. I’ve been scratching my head wondering why. A number of EU countries have seen dissatisfaction over the EU—fusions of extreme right and left that at the very least wants Brussels to ratchet down the regulating and at the most want their countries to exit, stage left, right along with the UK. Journalists are already handicapping whether additional Brexit-like referendums will happen in other countries. Months ago when Greece’s economy teetered on the edge of a black hole, the voters tried their hardest to send the EU a populist message by electing the most anti-austerity guys they could find only to have the iron-spined, pro-Grexit, willing to go all in before the flop Tsipras government bend the knee and accept arguably humiliating terms to remain in the EU. For all the talk among the political elites of an ever closer union, the sentiment is having as much success reaching the people as wealth did with trickle-down economics.

Meanwhile across the pond a virtually unknown socialist from Vermont and widely loathed businessman from New York read history’s cues perfectly and dusted off the handbook for American populism. Thanks to a crowded field and winner take all rules, Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination while Bernie Sanders was reminded that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Both men, despite a myriad of policy differences, have been running on the same idea: that ordinary people can’t get ahead because the system is rigged by an elite class. They’ve sounded off against free trade and its impact on the domestic job market. Trump has thrown down a wall-shaped gauntlet on immigration.

As the UK ramps up toward the historic referendum, it’s watching populist anger rear its head in multiple western countries. The motives are different but the scapegoats are the same: the unaccountable elites in charge of the system. And have there ever been more unaccountable elites than there are in Brussels—bureaucrats and regulators elected by no one who make decisions that impact the laws of 28 countries?

David Cameron, despite the pasting he’s taking from some critics on holding a referendum that he couldn’t win, may have started out as the cleverest guy in this whole affair. By promising the referendum he captured voter discontent and made it work for him. He also claimed a weapon to use against the EU in negotiations—a smart move given Boris Johnson’s statement that the EU only negotiates when they hear the word “No.” But either the weapon was less impressive than Cameron hoped or he wielded it poorly because he didn’t win the concession—his “emergency brake” on immigration—that many believe would have led to a Remain victory. The referendum Cameron promised is a perfect example of handing someone a gun when one doesn’t know where the gun will get pointed.

But it’s the aftermath of the vote that interests me. The last couple days have seen piles and piles of spin over how Brexit might not happen. Cameron won’t start the process before he resigns from office—arguably a move of political cowardice that underscores his late stage failure in losing the vote. There’s question over whether or not Parliament has to consent. It’s been suggested that the referendum, which technically isn’t binding, should be treated as advisory and then ignored. The idea of a second referendum has been floated—no doubt because Remain voters are certain they can win it. Someone must be watching Dumb and Dumber because I can here Lloyd saying, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”


These machinations in support of a Remain result rising out of a Leave victory remind me of the American Republican primary—and not because various commentators have tried blaming both on xenophobic white people. But rather that as the campaign went on and Trump picked up a little speed and then a little more and then a little more, the “establishment” darlings—Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and (to a degree) Chris Christie all tried pushing back only to be rewarded with electoral smackdowns; the darlings would hit Trump on his lack of Republican bona fides only to be rewarded by shrugs from voters who either didn’t agree with those supposed bona fides or simply didn’t care about them anymore. As the field winnowed down conventional wisdom suggested that Trump would hit a ceiling and voters would rally behind a remaining establishment candidate. But there was no ceiling, and as Trump’s foes diminished his victories became more impressive. Prominent Republicans talked (and some still do) of using convention shenanigans to avoid nominating Trump only to see polls underscore that Republicans in general think the winner should, in fact, win--that even if they don't support Donald Trump they don't support a cabal of GOP politicians stealing the nomination from him in some back room. I wonder how UK voters would feel if polled on a similar question about the referendum; I'd be willing to bet that some Remain voters would grit their teeth and respond identically.


If Trump and Leave are what happens when voters—feeling ignored by politicians and pundits and elites—are no longer willing to simply go along with what leadership tells them and instead register their dissatisfaction by voting for extremes, then what happens when the politicians and elites simply ignore the voters’ choice? What’s the response from the Leave camp if the UK government ignores them? What’s the response from people in other EU countries if a referendum on EU membership is disregarded? All these people dismayed by a looming Brexit who seem to think—and maybe hope—it won’t happen should cast their eyes down the road a little ways toward what happens if this great mass of angry people continue to feel ignored or betrayed by their leaders. The implications of Leave may be frightening now, but imagine the thing that comes after it if half the UK feels betrayed.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Bags & Boards 6/8/16

Sharing my thoughts on the weekly comic book haul. The issue that most holds my attention (and not always for good reason) lands the Book of the Week, and I offer brief takes on everything else. Spoilers likely.

Old Business: To finish my thoughts from last week on Civil War II #1, the apparent deaths of Rhodes and She-Hulk feel blatantly manipulative—meant to galvanize both sides of the argument but most especially Tony. That Rhodes was essentially killed “off screen” simply reinforces the sense of it as a nuts-and-bolts plot decision that wasted a good character.

Book of the Week
 Civil War II: Amazing Spider-Man #1
“With your help we could save money and man-hours by not running down dead ends, and instead focus on what’s most likely to succeed.”
Landing the top spot not because it was a particularly inspired read or because it portends great significance, this Civil War II tie-in grabs the honor because it highlights the most serious flaw in the new Amazing Spider-Man concept: Peter is too successful. A disclaimer first: I have enjoyed the new Amazing Spider-Man. Reversing the so-called Parker Luck and putting Peter in a position of success is the freshest take on the character in a long time. The fresh take on Spider-Man creates a weird dynamic in this issue, though, and I found myself feeling that part of the story was lifted from some other series. The plot is straightforward. The first half of the issue sees Spider-Man working with Ulysses to stop a relatively simple crime—an action that convinces Spider-Man both of the authenticity of Ulysses’ powers and the goodness of Ulysses’ character. This whole opening subplot feels redundant after Civil War II #1 and unnecessary since this story isn’t hijacking the main Amazing Spider-Man series—an intrusion that might confuse readers who aren’t following Civil War II. The next day Spider-Man spins a scenario where Ulysses could use his powers to help guide research at Parker Industries, promising that Ulysses’ help with the medical and security fields will lead to countless lives saved. A cliffhanger ending spins a standard jeopardy scenario where Ulysses warns Spider-Man that a Parker Industries employee will don a costume and fight him in the near future. I could be a victim of my own expectations (though the issue’s cover certainly invites big expectations) but I had imaged a little more introspection from Peter before he jumped on board with divining the future. Here’s a guy who’s been haunted his entire life by the unexpected consequences of one decision—to say nothing of the chaos he found himself in when he sided with Tony Stark on Stark’s last great moral flag planting. While there’s an argument that Ulysses, burdened by great power, is burdened by great responsibility, the question remains whether that responsibility is toward action or inaction. Unfortunately the issue goes nowhere near those ideas as Peter, perhaps a little too carefree in his role at Parker Industries, sees only the benefit to his company. While his goals are arguably philanthropic, this Peter Parker feels incalculable distances removed from the perpetually down on his luck young man who worried about the moral implications of almost everything. It’s possible that the depth I’m seeking will come in future issues, but the story in this first issue has such a paint-by-numbers feel to it that I have no desire to bring home the second.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Hints of a Campaign Strategy in Trump's Speech?

Trump subdued his scrappy, junkyard dog campaign style last night for and engaged the teleprompters to mark the end of his primary campaign. Subdued or not, though, it was still Trump behind the podium, somehow remaining the gruff populist—a man standing on a car talking through a bullhorn rather than a presidential candidate at a podium—despite being tied to a teleprompter.

Trump started by reassuring Republicans that he understood the responsibility of being the nominee, effectively telling them not to worry. It’s almost a pointless exercise at this point. For most Republicans in office, the decision to endorse Trump or not is going to come down to a tactical analysis of which choice is more likely to keep them in office. Trump’s reassurances about his own behavior are immaterial because by now we all know—if not what he believes—what he is willing to say.

But lest the GOP forget who’s in charge, couched in Trump’s words of reassurance was a statement that he would make Republicans proud of “our movement”—a cautionary reminder that a large share of his support isn’t beholden to the GOP and to keep them they have to keep Trump. Trump’s own association with the party is a marriage of convenience—one-sided though it may be. Regardless of what he needs from the GOP in a logistics and infrastructure capacity, Trump is happy to run his train right over the odd Republican politician if need be.

The meat of the speech started with an attack on politics in general. He borrowed from Bernie Sanders’ playbook and lambasted a rigged political system. When he asks why politicians would “want to change a system that’s made them and their friends very, very wealthy” and asserts that “we can’t fix the rigged system by relying on…the very people who rigged it,” his disagreements with Republicans lend him a perverse credibility. In a naked bid to aggrieved Sanders supporters he appealed to disaffected Democrats by recycling the complaint about a rigged system of superdelegates—a fallacious charge Sanders never grew tired of spouting. Then he tied President Obama into this argument, reminding the audience that the president promised change but that the system remains the same.

“The Clintons have turned the politics of personal enrichment into an art form.” Easily the best line of the speech, this led into Trump’s Clinton-specific attacks and played right into underlying concerns about Hillary Clinton: that she’s beholden to people who give her money; that she sells access; that she cares about herself and uses politics as a means to an end. As much as this is red meat for Republicans, it is not far removed from Bernie Sanders’ case against Clinton as a politician who takes expensive speaking gigs and big fundraising dollars and whose judgment is corrupted by that money. Trump ties the personal enrichment charge in with Clinton’s email server—something  there’s as yet no evidence to back up—and basically accuses President Obama, “a president in a corrupt system,” of keeping her from being indicted.

This line of attack—and variations on it—is probably Trump’s best bet in the general election. In what is sure to be a scorched earth total war campaign that will make Sherman’s March to the Sea look like a square dance, Clinton will hit Trump with everything she can (and certainly he won’t pull any punches). Trump’s erratic statements, penchant for insults, and stoking of racial animus offer Clinton quite the grab bag to choose from. Clinton’s trust issues, though, give Trump the perfect opening to assert that she will say and do anything to be elected president because she is only out for herself; it’s an effective shield against her attacks if he can make his case.

The speech rounded out with much ado about nothing on Trump’s America First platform. He spoke in broad generalities, never nailing himself to a specific platform. He came the closest I’ve yet seen to tying together opposition to illegal immigration and reclaiming jobs for Americans out of work. What little he’s made (sort of) clear about his policies suggest these would be natural companions—and maybe his best bet at winning some goodwill among the minority voters he continues to alienate—but he never quite connects the dots.

The America First section of the speech also brought the most awkward moment when he said “we’re going to take care of our African-American people.” Trump too often refers to minorities in a way that sets them apart as a kind of “other”—a distinct subset that’s not quite part of the whole. At the very least it’s a clumsy example of the patronizing that all politicians engage in when they play identity politics. At its worst this is more evidence to back up a racism charge.

This is the kind of performance Trump probably should have sprinkled in earlier. Even on teleprompter Trump let fly little extemporaneous burps. He was still Trump—just a Trump less likely to get into trouble. The question is whether he can balance performances like these with the big rallies that are his bread and butter—where he can tell it like it is and punch the establishment in the nose. As a standalone performance this wasn’t his best. But as a taste of things to come it hints toward a more formidable than expected general election candidate.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Democracy for Thee but Not for Me

I’ve spent no shortage of time and energy complaining about Bernie Sanders over the course of this election. Part of my dislike for Sanders is motivated by a general opposition to heavy handed government intervention in free markets; part of it is motivated by a concern that the numbers he’s presented, either by accident or by design, do not represent the true cost of his programs—a concern given weight by looking at the cost to European countries that offer similar programs; and part of it is motivated by a sense that Sanders is not truly conversant on the issues he talks about. But all along, as I’ve complained about Sanders, I’ve been assured—both by his supporters and critics—that he’s the only candidate who can save our democracy from a developing oligarchy of the wealthy, that he is most concerned by the actual will of the people, and that he is the most authentic and least opportunistic of the candidates. How ironic, then, that as Sanders’ campaign has stretched on it has more and more revealed itself as an agent opposed to the will of the people—an ends justifies the means struggle to stoke the political revolution necessary to achieve Sanders’ goals.

One of Sanders’ chief arguments on the stump is that money has to be removed from politics. He distrusts Super PAC’s (never mind that he has at least one supporting him and advertising for him). He rails against big donors contributing to campaigns on the suggestion that candidates would be beholden to them. He opposes self-financed candidates because they can effectively buy the election. Meanwhile, while speaking often and loudly about these campaign financing evils, Sanders has outspent every other candidate in the race. Supporters will often claim some kind of moral high ground on this point—citing the great number of small dollar donations from ordinary people. But if it’s unacceptable to buy an election in the first place, how has the candidate who spent the most not been trying to do just that? Sanders has condemned big money in politics while lavishing in the largest pile of it.

Sanders’ excess spending has unfortunately not catapulted him quite high enough in the esteem of registered Democrats, and back in April during New York’s primary he lamented the fact that the state barred anyone other than registered Democrats from voting in the Democratic primary. Sanders combined this argument—speciously claiming non-Democrats had been somehow disenfranchised—with his contention that he wins when voter turnout is high. The implicit suggestion was that Sanders fares far better in states with open primaries. This of course is not true; Hillary Clinton has won the majority of open primaries. Where Sanders does excel, however, is in caucuses. For anyone not familiar with a caucus, the basic process is as follows.

The caucus begins at a set time. Everyone who is going to participate in the caucus has to be inside at that time. People sort themselves according to their chosen candidate. The first ballot is taken. Then people re-sort themselves for additional ballots and candidates below an arbitrary viability threshold are eliminated. The caucus can take up to several hours, and leaving early risks having one’s vote not counted. It forces face to face interaction with voters and robs people of the anonymity of the voting booth. And thanks to the viability threshold it can prevent people from voting for their chosen candidate. The caucus process by design is highly exclusionary, certainly far less democratic than a closed primary, as it rewards only the most ardent activists. Senator Sanders has no negative words for the inherent undemocratic nature of the caucuses, though—likely because he has won so many of them.

Unfortunately for Sanders, his ongoing success in caucuses—mostly taking place in smaller states—has been unable to change the fact that as the contest has gone on, Clinton’s lead in pledged delegates and the popular vote has held steady and increased. This has left Sanders’ campaign performing rhetorical gymnastics as it pursues a strategy of convincing Democratic superdelegates to switch their vote to support him as the party’s nominee. This strategy, pursued since the end of March when Clinton’s lead cemented her as the probable nominee, runs counter to his months-long insistence that superdelegates shouldn’t vote counter to their state’s voters. His argument is that polls show him to be a stronger opponent against Donald Trump, and the superdelegates should give the party the best chance to win in November; an unkind person might translate that as Sanders claiming to know better than the voters. Meanwhile Sanders has already stated that he will carry on his campaign beyond the end of primary voting to the Democratic convention, promising a contested convention weeks after the people who make up the Democratic electorate have finished choosing their preferred candidate.


A few months ago, in a debate prior to the Florida primary, Bernie Sanders was asked about remarks he’d previously made regarding Fidel Castro, leader of a revolution and oppressive authoritarian government; Sanders had spoken positively about the revolution and policies enacted since while ignoring Castro's atrocious human rights legacy. When pressed on those earlier remarks with regard to Castro, Sanders managed a brief criticism before immediately following his criticism with praise for Cuba’s healthcare system under Castro. I argued at the time that this praise for an ends-justifies-the-means authoritarian ruler offered a glimpse at Sanders’ priorities, and while I don’t think he has the makings of a late-blooming Castro, Sanders’ own behavior has shown us just how much he values the voice of the people when the people don’t see things his way.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Bags & Boards 6/1/16

We're back! Kind of sort. Hopefully. Anyway...comic book reviews! Beware spoilers.

Book of the Week
Civil War II #1
“Let’s say the guy here comes running up to us and says: ‘Oh, my God, I just saw a vision of the Hulk making out with Ultron and a baby popped out and the baby was a reincarnated Hitler’?”
In a light week this lands the top spot if only for its level of consequence. Marvel has found a new reason for its heroes to pummel each other. And I have to say, as logically challenged as the plotting of the first Civil War series was, at least that one had a relatable premise. On a tip from the Inhumans, Earth’s heroes team up in the right place and right time to save the world from annihilation (again). In the aftermath a group of them (with Tony Stark and Carol Danvers taking lead) learn that the Inhumans got their information from one of their newly hatched members (is hatched appropriate for a Terrigen induced cocoon?)—a man named Ulysses who can see the future. This sets up pages of dialogue—mostly between Ulysses, Stark, and Danvers—over the nature of his powers and whether or not they should be acted on. Since the world ending apocalypse Ulysses saw was averted by the heroes he warned, Stark points out that Ulysses is only seeing possible futures. Danvers doesn’t care; she sees an asset who can help her Ultimates stop threats before they emerge. The two argue their way down a rabbit hole of whether someone can be imprisoned before they commit a crime and then Stark storms off. In a philosophical, metaphysical, and science fiction sense the discussion between Danvers and Stark—abbreviated though it is—makes sense and does invite the reader to consider what makes a criminal and when that happens. The problem is that it’s all theoretical and hardly the kind of wrenching disagreement we expect for an event called “Civil War.” I’m sure that’s why this book has its sensational end with two apparent fatalities—both pretty major characters despite not quite being top tier. They died because Danvers got a tip from Ulysses and acted on it. No doubt this will be Tony’s causus belli. The recent Captain America: Civil War movie highlighted several things the comic book story it was based on got wrong—not least among them was ignoring the personal stories in play and focusing on big fights that, in their ferocity, were hardly believable. It’s hard to believe that a second Civil War, based not on an honest disagreement of heroes’ responsibility to society versus privacy and autonomy concerns but on a debate of when thought becomes criminal action, will fare any better than the first. I suspect this is the reason one of these two characters had to die at the end. And rather than include a huge spoiler this week, I’m going to put a “to be continued” on this review and finish up closing thoughts next week.