AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR*** Packs a powerful Punch


IF YOU WERE ever minded to ask, “How many superheroes does it take to screw in a light-bulb”, Avengers: Infinity War provides the dizzyingly delightful answer. There are superheroes every which way…tumbling out of the sky, beating around the bushes and appearing out of thin air. It’s an overflowing cornucopia of gorgeous, scantily clad, quarrelsome, prickly mega beings reluctantly banding together to fight off the Ultimate Baddie.

This is Thanos (Josh Brolin), an existentially powerful titan who eats superheroes for breakfast and who has arrived on earth in search of some hidden, glowing, infinity stones. They will nicely complete the trim of the designer necklace on his superhero gown. With a full collection of said stones, no hodgepodge assembly of avengers (not to mention The Earth) will ever stand a chance. OK. Whatever

How can they possibly win?

The clever trick that (Marvel veteran) directors Anthony and Joe Russo (Captain America: Civil War etc) and writers Christopher Markus (Captain America etc.) and Stephen McFeely (Thor etc.) pulls off is that despite such a stellar collection of superegos and super clashes, the forward momentum of the plot remains clear and propulsive. And, more importantly, we get to tarry long enough with each of the heroes that matter to enjoy their very un-super hero frailties and quirks. Each megastar (and the directors err on the side of the really larger than life characters) is given enough screen time to charm, entertain, amuse and tittilate us.

Indeed, the joy with Avengers etc is that, though it’s still about thirty minutes too long, we get just the right amount of time with the likes of Spider-Man, the Hulk, Dr. Strange etc. whose charms are never quite strong enough to last the length of a full movie.
And it is visually quite spectacular, especially the mega battles in Wakanda. This is the twenty first century’s epic equivalence of Ben Hur.

And as to my snide question, “How can they possibly win?”…We’ll all have to wait until Part 3 lands in a cinema-plex near you sometime just in time for Blockbuster Season 2019. All bets are off

 

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR Dir: Anthony and Joe Russo. With: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Evans, Don Cheadle, Benedict Cummberbatch, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Hiddelston, Idris Elba, Peter Dinklage, Vin Diesel etc etc. Writers: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Cinematographer: Trent Opaloch (Captain America, Elysium), Production Designer: Charles Wood (Dr. Strange)

 

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE****


IN THIS FRIGHTENING look at the (parlous) state of American democracy, authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt examine those critical factors that they conclude have been common to all modern autocratic states.

Since the end of the Cold War, they note, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals but by elected governments themselves. Elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Venezuela, Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Ukraine.
“Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box”. Often they note, there’s no single moment – no coup, suspension of the constitution etc – that may set off society’s alarm bells. Democracy’s erosion is imperceptible.

They layer this framework on the present US administration and wonder: how close is the US to those other autocratic states? What happened that the country should be where it now is? And they hazard a guess, based on their reading of other countries, where the road ahead lies.

The framework they use (to identify the typical modus operandi of autocrats) was first mapped out by Juan Linz in his seminal book of 1978, “The Breakdown Of Democratic Regimes”. Building on Linz’ work, they developed a set of four warning signs.

(1) The rejection of democratic rules of the game, such as neutralizing or cancelling elections or the constitution, banning or restricting basic civil rights (such as the right to vote) or undermining the legitimacy of elections by refusing to accept credible electoral results
(2) Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents… by baselessly branding them as criminals, foreign agents or threats to national security
(3) Toleration or encouragement of violence…thru ties to armed gangs, the encouragement of mob attacks on opponents, the tactic endorsement of violence by their supporters and their approval or praise of other political violence in other countries
(4) Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents including the media: as seen thru examples such as the expansion of libel or defamation laws, threats and punitive actions against rival parties, civil society or the media, and the praise of other government’s repressive measures.

It’s not a stretch to see how easily Trump fits the playbill. Even before his inauguration, he tested positive on all four measures:

  • A weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game (when he questioned the legitimacy of the electoral process and even suggested he might not accept the results of the election)
  • He consistently insisted that there would be voter fraud and that millions of illegal immigrants and dead people would be mobilized to vote for Hillary Clinton (so much so that before the election, 73% of Republicans believed that the election could be stolen from him.)
  • He denied the legitimacy of his opponents, first with Obama and his “birther” campaign and then with Clinton who he branded a criminal (with his rally cry of “Lock her up”)
  • Like the Blackshirts in Italy and the Brownshirts in Germany, he tolerated and encouraged violence (as he shouted at one of his rallies, “If you see anybody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them would ya…Just knock the hell out of them. I promise you I will pay the legal fees.”) He even issued a veiled endorsement of violence against Hillary Clinton when he said, “if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks…Although the Second Amendment people – maybe there is, I don’t know”
  • The final warning sign (apart from his praise of other dictators such as Putin and Duterte) was his readiness to curtail the civil liberties of rivals and critics, such as his promise to arrange for a special prosecutor to investigate and jail Hillary after the election and his threat to punish unfriendly media (“among the most dishonest group of people I’ve ever met”) by opening up the libel laws to bankrupt them.

So what happened? How did a clearly visible autocrat make it all the way to the elections and then the Presidency? Where did the party fail in its traditional role as a steward of democracy?

Democracy, they note, is, in every country, heavily dependent for its continuity on “Gatekeeping institutions” which are aimed at eliminating dictator-leaning candidates at an early stage. These are supported by a series of core shared norms and codes of behavior…what they call “the guardrails”. These, more than constitutions are democracy’s foundations.

Trump was the most successful but not the first extremist to woo and win voters’ afffections.

Such figures have long dotted the landscape of American politics. Men such as Charles Coughlin, an anti-Semitic Catholic priest; Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long (whose intimidation and bribery of the state’s legislature, the press and anyone who opposed him saw him regarded as “the first true dictator out of American soil”); billionaire Henry Forde, widely admired as a plain spoken businessman and who the Nazi government had awarded with the Grand Cross of the German Eagle; all American hero Charles Lindbergh, an advocate of racial purity (who was also awarded a Nazi Medal of Honor…by Herman Goring); Senator Joseph McCarthy whose blacklisting, censorship and book banning, all in the name of protecting America, earned him the approval of nearly half of the electorate; and governor George Wallace who mixed racism with populist appeals to working class whites’ sense of victimhood and economic anger.
None of these men made it through the filter of their party’s powerful insiders and nomination systems.

This changed after the debacle of the Democratic Convention in Chicago and the nomination of Hubert Humphrey in 1968. What emerged was a system of binding presidential primaries (and the Democrats’ undemocratic dependence on “superdelegates”). Though these primaries ostensibly gave the power to party members, delegates depended on their passage through the “invisible primary” (i.e the insider allies of donors, newspaper editors, interest groups, state-level politicians etc) to be considered for nomination. This system successfully kept out the crazies (such as Pat Robinson, Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes). But the dramatic increase in the availability of outside money and the explosion of alternative media, along with the gung-ho radicalism of Fox News, tilted the scales away from ‘party-blessed’ establishment politicians to the rich, the famous and the extreme. Witness the candidacies of fringe politicians such as Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain (The Godfather Pizza CEO) and Bernie Sanders. Sanders was cut off at the knees by Democratic insiders. But the Republican party elders were helpless in blocking the unendorsed outsider Donald Trump.

The long successful barrier of Gatekeeping Institutions had failed. Mainstream politicians compounded this institutional failure by doing nothing. Key Republicans sat back and watched with horror as Trump shredded the usual norms…but Party ideology trumped any fidelity to the idea of American democracy. This did not have to be the case. Levitsky and Ziblatt point to other similarly endangered democracies when politicians put the rule of democracy above that of party politics. For example in 2016, Austrian conservatives backed the Green Party candidate to block the election of the far right (led by Norbert Hofer); in France, Francois Fillon urged his members to vote for Emmanuel Macron to keep Marine Le Pen out etc.

But in the US, there was a “collective abdication”. Some Republican leaders refused to endorse Trump. But none were prepared to endorse Hillary. They all simply fell in line, based on the misguided belief that the authoritarian could be controlled and on an “ideological collusion”: the rationalization that the authoritarian’s agenda sufficiently overlapped with the party’s values.

If the Party’s Gatekeeping role failed, what of the broader guardrails that protect democracy? These the book notes are:

  • mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals;
  • and forbearance or the understanding that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives.

These the authors contend are the only real restraints that prohibit autocrats from using the very programs that define democracy against it.

For constitutions and the safeguards they offer, though lofty, tend to be vague, ambiguous and can easily, legally be side stepped. The clearest examples are those many, mainly Latin American, countries whose Constitutions and even electoral systems are modeled, almost to the word, on the US constitution and model. Such diligence did not prevent electoral fraud in Argentina in 1930 and 1943, or President Marcos’ use of martial law or Brazil’s Gertulio Vargas’ legal maneuvers to stay in power.
Strong democracies depend on these strong, often unwritten democratic norms of mutual toleration and forbearance. When these norms breakdown, so does democracy.

In every case of democratic breakdown – from Franco, Hitler and Mussolini to Marcos, Pinochet, Putin, Chavez and Erdogan- the justification for the consolidation of power has been accomplished by the replacement of mutual toleration for a norm where opponents are labeled as existential threats.

Similarly, the second critical guardrail of institutional forbearance or “the action of restraining from exercising a legal right” collapses when parties engage in “constitutional hardball”… when the intent is to permanently defeat one’s partisan rivals – no matter the effect on democracy.

When Presidents and parties view (elected) opponents as mortal enemies; when politics becomes a zero sum game (where for one side to win the other must lose), then the mutual toleration, respect and forbearance necessary for the compromises of the political process turn politics into warfare.

In recent times, Nixon never embraced norms of mutual toleration. He viewed sections of the public as opponents and the press as enemies…threats to the nation. He told his aid H. R. Haldeman, “We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy”. But then the guardrails held.

By the time US politics had reached the stage when in 2016, for the first time in US history, the Senate refused to even consider an elected president’s nominee for the Supreme Court, the guardrails had well and truly been dismantled.

The key point they note is that Trump’s autocratic tendencies found fertile ground in the no-holds-barred divisiveness of American politics where your opponent is your enemy and compromise is a dirty word. This divisiveness, a sharp tact away from the civility and mutual respect that tends to be the underpinning of democracies, was sharply escalated after Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America.

Gingrich exacerbated the already increasingly hostile nature of US political debate to the level of virulent partisanship that defines its present war-like norm.
“You are fighting a war. It is a war for power” he said. He questioned his Democratic rivals’ patriotism and accused them of trying to “destroy our country”. As House Speaker, his ideological aversion to compromise and his willingness to obstruct legislation spelt the end of that body’s traditional collegial combativeness.
Politics had become warfare; the use of the filibuster and later (in Bill Clinton’s case) impeachment and the debt limit had become weaponised.
This intense partisanship meant the beginning of government dysfunction.
And it escalated markedly under Obama’s presidency. Gingrich called him “the first Anti-American president”. Egged on by Fox News (whose “no compromise” views viciously attacked any moderate Republican) as well as by Trump and the Tea Party movement, 37% of Republicans believed that he was not born in the US.

Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude that the intensity of partisanship has meant that being a Democrat or Republican has become not just an affiliation but an identity. They identify that the seeds of this mutual distrust predate Gingrich. They point to the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Act. Their thesis is that until then both parties were “big tent” parties. They were divided on issues such as taxes, spending, government regulations etc. But they overlapped on the potentially explosive issue of race. Both parties contained factions that were for as well as against civil rights.

It was the Civil Rights Act that redefined the parties: Democrats became the party of civil rights and Republicans became the party of the (white) status quo. Conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans (who in the past were able to broker compromises) gradually disappeared. Add to this the huge influx of new Latino immigrants and the Democrats have become a party of ethnic minorities while the Republican Party has remained almost entirely a party of whites (90%).

The other issue that further sundered any overlapping of the parties was Roe v Wade. The Evangelicals, embraced by Reagan, flocked to the Republicans (76% identify as Republican) pushing that party to positions of anti-abortion, anti-gay Rights and support for school prayer…even as the Democrats have become an increasingly secular party.

The two parties are now deeply divided over race and religion – the two most deeply polarizing of issues…which tend to generate the greatest intolerance and hostility. From a Republican perspective, well aware of the growing percentage of non white voters, and aghast at the presence of a non white (and therefore not a real American) president, the need to “Take our Country Back” set the terrain for a populist to “Make America Great Again”, even if this meant (further) trampling on democratic norms.

They write, chillingly:
“If, twenty five years ago, someone had described to you country in which candidates threatened to lock up their rivals, political opponents accused the government of stealing the election or establishing a dictatorship, and parties used their legislative majorities to impeach presidents and steal Supreme Court seats, you might have thought of Ecuador or Romania. You probably would not have thought of the United States”

The authors note that Trump’s first year in power follows the archetype of power consolidation as evidenced by Chavez, Fujimori and Erdogan:

  • Capture the referees
  • Sideline the key players
  • Rewrite the rules to tilt the playing field against opponents.

He’s demonstrated striking hostility toward the referees – law enforcement, intelligence, ethics agencies and the courts by firing those who stood up to him (FBI Director Comey and US Attorney Preet Bharara), attacking them (He called the judge who ruled against his initial travel ban as a “so-called judge”) and even threatening to use the FBI to go after Democrats; or by simply bribing them (evidenced by his huge tax discounts to the powerful and wealthy, who can now shut up and count their cash)

He continues to try to sideline the free press by branding them “fake news”, “enemy of the American people”, pledging to “open up the libel laws” and “challenge the license” of NBC and other networks. In similar vein he’s tried to punish critics by withholding funding from “sanctuary cities”.

He’s created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity run by one Kris Kodach (described as America’s “premier advocate of vote suppression”). The aim ostensibly is to cut down on voting fraud (of which there’s none) but with the real mission of making it harder for low-income minority citizens to vote. The new laws which mandating strict voter ID’s favour whites five times more than blacks, and will in effect disenfranchise over 21 million Americans. To date fifteen states have adopted these laws.

Trump’s norm breaking has been breathtaking and groundbreaking.

  • Among these are the long-standing norms of separating private and public affairs, such as those governing nepotism and financial conflicts of interest.
  • He continues to question the integrity of the American electoral process (84% of Republicans believe “meaningful amount” of fraud has occurred)
  • Continues to attack Hillary Clinton and Obama
  • Brazenly lies (only 17% of his statements have been classified as true)
  • Has abandoned any presence of respect for the media (more than 50% of Republicans now favour shutting down critical publications)
  • And routinely bullies and insults anyone he chooses including foreign heads of (friendly) states.

So far, some of his more egregious anti-democratic attempts (such as packing the FBI with loyalists or blocking the Mueller investigation) have been thwarted. But the authors are concerned. Presently his popularity is very low. But with continued improvements of the already strong economy, this can quickly change. And should there be any crisis triggered by war or terrorism, Trump like every other authoritarian leader will exploit it fully, “using it to attack political opponents and restrict redoes Americans take for granted. In our view, this scenario represents the greatest danger facing American democracy today”

Chilling words indeed

ANDREA WULF: THE INVENTION OF NATURE**** Just Brilliant

This gallery contains 4 photos.


A hundred years after his birth, in 1869, almost every major city around the world celebrated the man who, at his peak, was the most famous man alive: Alexander von Humboldt. There were fireworks, street parades, speeches and festivities. He wasn’t a soldier, or a politician or an artist. The world was celebrating the anniversary […]

DEMOCRACY IN CHAINS. Nancy MacLean**** Absolutely compelling


NANCY MACLEAN’S BOOK, “Democracy in Chains” is a frightening look at the intellectual and ideological base of what she concludes is a long history by the Right to subvert democracy in the U.S.

The book argues that the recent antagonistic, self destructive politics of Washington – where cross-party compromises have been replaced by an ugly politics of obstruction (government shutdowns, the ideological rejection of anything Obama proposed etc.) and the consistent attacks on swaths of increasingly disenfranchised Americans – is the result of a party (the Republicans) co-opted by an ideological base controlled by the Koch brothers and intent on crippling the government. This, in the pursuit of unrestrained wealth, or “economic liberty” as they regard it. The “free” referred to in the U.S.’ boast that it’s “the Land of the free” to them, refers not to the idea freedom v slavery, but to the freedom to make as much money as possible without government interference [or what in the U.K. is called an “open economy”]. What we’re witnessing now, led by these brothers is, MacLean contends, a stealth take over of the Constitution…a Fifth Column* assault on democracy.

Taxation is nominally at the heart of it all [I am reminded of Trump’s boast that only fools pay taxes].
And ‘it’ – the battle lines – began some time ago, even before the ink on the Constitution was dry. For John Wendell Holmes Jr., taxes were, “the price we pay for civilization”. His opposition was John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina cotton planter, who saw taxation as a form of government-sanctioned theft. “A government based on the naked principle that the majority ought to govern” he wrote, was sure to filch other men’s property.

This line of thinking was codified and formulated into a strategic program by James Buchanan (whose career and thinking much of the book is about). Buchanan was a Nobel laureate, brilliant economist and academic (initially) at various universities, who helped legitimize the libertarian cause: a dream society where there were few rules to constrain how a man might get wealthy, and where there would be “great restraints on the government in asking for some part of that wealth, other than for the maintenance of order and military defense.”

Buchanan could not abide the idea that, through taxation, individuals of wealth had to pay for those public goods and social programs (schools, courses for black students, textbooks, medical care etc.) they had no personal say in approving. Why, he argued, should I have to pay for services that ‘they’ should be paying for themselves? Fellow economist, Milton Freedman, went one step further. “The full burden of education should be borne by the patents of children”, not the state, he argued. “That would promote personal responsibility…through birth control”

Buchanan’s papers and books were the ones that led the chorus which divided the population into the “takers” v the “makers”; between the hardworking people who are forced to pay taxes and the layabouts who spent them; or as the Tea Party ideologues refer to them, the “moocher class”…part of the “parasite economy”. [The present Conservative party in the U.K. – who seems to have swallowed Buchanan’s thinking entirely – divides their electorate similarly: between the “strivers” and the “shirkers”].

Buchanan amplified this ideological perspective in an (quasi) economics theory (he offered no tangible proof for these theories) in his highly lauded book, “The Calculus of Consent”. There he ‘proved’ that majority voting favored politicians who would keep spending (and taxing) in order to ensure reelection. This, he wrote, held down private capital accumulation and therefore the overall economy. And since the problem was systemic, the only brake on such willy-nilly public spending was a curtailment of majority rule.

Democracy as we know it was counterproductive to the accumulation of capital. As John C. Calhoun noted a hundred years before: “Democracy is a threat to economic liberty”.

The problem Buchanan faced was that of execution. How could an academic ensure that his ideas saw the light of day? His initial champions – politicians such as George Wallace and Barry Goldwater (the man who said, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”) – proved useless. They were defeated by voters who actually benefitted from these programs. The same voters who Buchanan felt voted themselves into a living instead of having to earn it.

No matter; this kind of thinking struck a chord with Charles and his brother, David Koch, two entrepreneurial billionaire geniuses** who Buchanan got to know when he taught at Virginia Tech. The Koch’s realized that in order to ensure the absolute, unquestioned supremacy of capital, they would have to put in place the long game and operate outside what they regarded as “the prying eyes of the media.”

To start with, they would need to eliminate the poor (whose electoral clout too often shaped the voting patterns of their Representatives and Congressmen) from the equation. These poor would need to be disenfranchised, a process that’s now as much a reality as during the days of the Jim Crow South. For, as Buchanan concluded, too large an electorate was a problem for the white, property owning class of men like himself, especially in the South where popular voting rights would put “colored heels upon white necks” and create “negro supremacy” (and let’s face it. All American citizens weren’t allowed their full voting rights until 1965. Even today the U.S is still 138th of 172 democracies in terms of voter participation.)

No wonder Obama was such an existential threat. No wonder also “the cadre” (as Koch’s army refers to itself) continues to kindle the irrational conviction that he won through massive voter fraud. Indeed, so avidly has this lie been perpetuated that nearly half of registered voters and even federal judges and Supreme Court justices have come to believe that voter fraud is a big problem.

And it was no surprise that the brothers poured more than $100M into opposing him. They now employ more than three times as many people as the Republican committees have on their payrolls. Their ever expanding network, knitted together to fund this “long game” include the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, the State Policy Network, the Competitive Enterprise, the Tax Foundation, the Reason Foundation, the Leadership Institute and the Charles Koch Foundation.

Their first, and so far, according to MacLean, successful mission was to wrest control of the Republican Party (as evidenced not only by the money each of last year’s Republican presidential hopefuls received from them, but also in the debates, when every contender paid allegiance to the Koch agenda: climate change denial, the sanctity of gun ownership, antipathy toward public education and teachers’ unions – indeed all unions – the need for radical tax changes (i.e. a Flat tax whereby both rich and poor pay the same tax rate…Trump’s present mission) the need to discontinue Medicaid (and later Obamacare) and the need to privatize what they reframe as a looming crisis facing Social Security (salvageable only via private, Wall Street-led investments).

Only then – with a chastened and corralled Republican party – could there be the beginnings of true “liberty”, which is seen as the insulation of private property rights from the government and the takeover of what was long public (such as schools, prisons, state lands etc.) by corporations.

For MacLean, the ideological schism seeded so long ago and actively encouraged by the Koch’s has hardened into two clear world views: collective security (“we the people”) v individual liberty. Collectivism was seen as the key menace to liberty, one that “undermines individual responsibility…and weakens the moral fiber of the people” (Milton Friedman)

The “I” v “we” dichotomy has an even darker twin: the white majority, the forebears who made the country…the ‘real’ Americans v the ‘others’…in Virginia’s J. Addison Hagan’s words, “the minorities such as Farmers, Unions, Negroes and Jews”. Individuality (or the right to discriminate) was seen as a higher good than racial equality.

The problem however remained. The reductions (or, rather, abolishment) they sought in government taxes, social programs, even public owned and enjoyed parks and open spaces, would never be voted in by the majority of people (who actually enjoy these programs). One of Buchanan’s later books, “The Limits of Liberty” made the point abundantly clear: there was simply no way to reconcile individual property rights with universal voting rights.

Democracy was inimical to individual liberty.

What was needed was a program or programs that would accelerate the pace of disenfranchisement and would ‘mainstream’ these ideas. What was needed was more akin to a revolution. Indeed, Koch’s Cato Institute alluded to Cato the Elder, famed for his declaration that, “Carthage must be destroyed”. The Cato Institute’s mission was one of demolition: it sought nothing less than the annihilation of statism in America. And while that radical long game was put in place, another Koch enterprise, the Reason Foundation proceeded along more covert lines.

It’s director Robert Poole Jr. mapped out the strategy clearly.

Revolution by incrementalism.

“You can hack away at government” he said, “by privatizing one function after another, selling each move as justified for its own sake rather than waiting until the majority of the population is convinced of the case…” [This neatly summarizes the ideology of the present U.S. ‘corporatizing’ of public lands…and here in the UK, of the Conservative sell off of anything they can get their hands on, from the Post Office to prisons to NHS properties to policing]

It was in 1973, when these ideas were initially fully put into action…in Chile. 1973 was the year General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. Impressed by his ideas, a devotee of the Virginia school, one José Piñera, later Pinochet’s Minister of Labour (and still later an executive of the Cato Institute) invited Buchanan to advise and guide the new dictatorship in helping to rewrite the Chilean constitution. The rewritten constitution defined, and codified into law, Buchanan’s mandates on how to limit the reach of democracy, the role of privatization, deregulation and the state-induced fragmentation of group power. Chile’s dictatorship became the American libertarians’ play school.
Back home, the Koch’s expanded the role of their think tanks (referred to as the “Kochtopus”) to become “think and do” tanks: their strategic mission evolved as one that would begin to train as vast a cadre of ‘foot soldiers’ as possible via the universities and academics funded by them.

Call them the “message multipliers”.

He also by then decided on a strategy of dissimulation and misinformation. His programs (such as, for example, the removal of Medicaid and Social Security) would be presented to the public as the opposite of what they were; they’d be framed as intending to reform and shore up these services when the intent was to kill them.

Their (familiar) targets (all of which were seen as interfering with business) were clear: government regulations, environmentalists (who had to be defamed not only defeated – mainly by insinuating they were only interested in monetary rewards -, government backed heath and welfare, education (“the most socialized industry in the world”), the graduated income tax and feminists (“heavily socialistic for no apparent reason”)

This approach, exemplified by the likes of Koch-funded Dick Armey, the man who, with Newt Gingrich wrote the infamous “Contract with America” has been so successful that by 1990, 40% of the US federal judiciary had been treated to a Koch-based curriculum. Koch’s “think and do” tanks now exist in all 50 states.

The Koch’s anti-environment funding is also now beginning to pay off big time. Only 8 of 287 Republicans in Congress acknowledge that man-made climate change is real. The number of Americas who believe in man-made climate change has fallen from 71% in 2007 to about 40%. Koch and his paid-for Congress would rather invite global catastrophe than allow regulatory restrictions on economic liberty.

Public health budgets have been systematically cut. The result has been disasters like Flint, Michigan, where the Koch-funded Mackinac Centre (“When the Mackinac Centre speaks, we listen” said Michigan governor John Engler) ensured that their proxies saved money by switching the source of the city water supply to the polluted Flint River. For 18 months, 100,000 residents (mainly Black) were systematically poisoned.

The Koch-funded State Policy Network have also been able to convince a sizable segment of the American population that the problems in schools today are the result of teachers’ unions. The result is a gutting of schools’ budgets [or… Betsy Devoss!]. Where is the money going? To a new education industry of private schools (following the same rule book that has corporatized the prison service)

Following the Pinochet-trialed formula, over the last decade, multiple laws have been put into place up and down the country to hobble Labour unions

Remember their mantra: Collectivism or anything that smacks of collectivist action is bad. Remember also their stealth strategy to force disenfranchisement at all fronts.

MacLean quotes an investigation by the New York Times which examined the increasingly far-reaching power-play by American corporations. The articles point out that included in the fine print of applications for, say, employment, credit cards, cell phone service, medical practices or long term care, is language that prevents the signers from participating in any form of collective action, such as class action lawsuits over corporate malpractice. Consumers have willingly and unknowingly signed away their constitutional rights to sue in court.

As one Reagan-appointed federal judge summarized, “Ominously, business has a good chance of opting out of the legal system altogether and misbehaving without reproach”

It is here, at the point of the law that the rubber hits the road. As one North Carolina insider summarized: “Lose the courts, lose the war”

The Koch’s clearly see control of the courts as the critical key to getting around the intractable problem of voter majorities. As a result, their donor network has pumped hitherto unheard-of sums into state judicial races. The intent was to deny municipal governments the right to make their own policies. In other words, should a democratically elected Congress pass laws inimical to any of Koch’s programs, they’d have the power to bypass those laws locally. GOP –controlled states have been passing what are called “pre-emption laws”. These deny localities the right to adopt policies that depart from an imposed model; as a result, GOP states’ governments are preventing city and state governments from enacting such measures as raising local minimum wages, protecting the environment or enacting antidiscrimination measures that would protect LGBT citizens.

Worse than this, the disenfranchisement program continues to be a wide spreading victory for “the cadre”. By 2012, Republican legislators in fourty-one states introduced more than 180 bills to restrict who could vote and how…mainly affecting low-income voters, young people and Blacks. This is the most aggressive attack on universal franchise in the U.S since the mass disenfranchisement instituted by southern states a century ago.

Two journalists, Jane Mayer and David Daley (hounded by Koch’s investigators intent on finding dirt on them…or what is referred to as “upping the transaction costs on the other side”) further have pointed to a plan called the Redistricting Majority Project or REDMAP. This has been what MacLean describes as a cunning plan aimed at boosting the power of Republicans even where majorities backed Democrats.

Author and magazine editor (of The Salon) David Daley has made the ‘state of the union’ abundantly clear: the GOP is an election away, he wrote, “from achieving an unimaginable goal in a country that sees itself as a beacon of democracy: a veto-proof supermajority operating without majority support” [Indeed Trump is the second president in the last ten years to have been elected with a minority vote]

MacLean’s conclusion is sobering.

The U.S has reached a point, she contends, where it is being run by an oligarchy in all but the outer husk of representative form. Its leaders, she notes [and which we’ve recently witnessed in Charlottesville] “have no scruples about enlisting white supremacy to achieve capital supremacy….And today, knowing that the majority does not share their goals and would stop them if they understood the endgame, the team of paid operatives seek to win by stealth”

“Is this the country we want to live in? If we delay much longer” she laments, “those who are imposing their stark utopia will choose for us”

* The Fifth Column refers to the covert insiders who align with outside forces to destabilize the status quo
** Charles Koch turned his dad’s $70M oil company into one now that has annual revenues of over $115b and employs over 67,000 people in 60 countries.

 

BABY DRIVER*** High Octane


 

“Baby Driver” is a charming, amped up, non stop, music thumping, machine gun syncopating gangster, heist, rom-com, wanna be Bonnie and Clyde, kinetic explosion, sort of movie.

There’s a vague plot about a jive walking, withdrawn, tinnitus plagued youth – his “real” name is Baby- who’s forced into a life of crime (He’s the getaway car driver) as re-payment to a debt he owes to a soft-spoken crime kingpin (Kevin Spacey oozing avuncular menace). He falls for Debora (lily James from “Downtown Abbey”), a waitress in a diner –  an icon of guileless sweetness; a shining light in his dark violent life – and their grand, existential plan is to high tail it outta town…to anyplace that’s not “here”.

Baby seeks to drown out the tinnitus from which he suffers (the result of a car crash, fatal to his arguing parents) with a steady, carefully curated music mix; a beat that locks him away from his gangster surroundings and drives the rhythm of his life… as well as the tempo of the movie.

Director-writer Edgar Wright is mapping out an interesting space for himself in the Tarantino dominated world of pulp-fiction moviemaking. His previous movies, “Hot Fuzz” and “Dawn of the Dead” seamlessly morph into “Baby Driver”. These movies all take their cue from well-seeded movie tropes: the zombie movie, the cop movie and now the car chase/heist movie. Hs talent is to then turn clichéd convention on its head. The result are movies that are both pastiches of movie conventions as well as (his) launching pads. This is the heist movie as music video on steroids (with a riotous nod to the grisly killings you expect from the “Final Destination” franchise)

His cast of characters – all badass gangsta types (played without much humor in the “Fast and Furious” money spinners) – are all slightly crazier versions of a type…as if to draw attention to the silliness of the type, even while revelling in the silliness. The stand-out bad guy by far, from whom Baby must escape, is Buddy. This is John Hamm with a bad haircut and a Terminator’s refusal to stay dead. If ever he had to kill off his suave Don Draper character, “Baby Driver” delivers in spades.

The movie revolves around and dances to the beat of Ansel Elgort (from the vapid “The Fault is in Our Stars”) as Baby. He’s tremendous: a lithe, rhythmic presence, whose expressionless almost autistic look masks an unflinching determination and an ability to elude the tall shadows cast by his fellow powerhouse actors: Spacey and Jamie Fox.

Edgar Wright (who also wrote the funny script for “Ant Man” and Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin”) is a tremendous movie-maker: the breathtaking stunts, the whiplash editing and the good natured energy of the whole enterprise make for great fun.

Though I do admit, the five-star reviews and the suite of accolades the movie garnered, prepared me for something different and lead to some disappointment. Some of Tarantino’s movies are themselves five-star worthy…because they frame the experiences – of slavery, of naziism – through a lens of real insight and rich thematic seriousness…all as part of the gungo-ho carnage that mark his oeuvre.

“Baby Driver” certainly has a fresh distinctiveness to its style; and it’s endearingly engaging.
But it’s nothing more than that.

High craft, yes. High art, no.

 

BABY DRIVER. Dir: Edgar Wright. With: Ansel Elgort, Jon Hamm, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx. Cinematographer: Bill Pope (“The Jungle Book”) Editors: Jonathan Amos (“A United Kingdom”) and Paul Machliss (“The World’s End”)

 

WONDER WOMAN*** A Woman Worth the Wonder


WHEN IN THE dying months of the Great War, Diana (aka Wonder Woman) loosens her hair and, sword in hand, strides fearlessly into No Man’s Land, this just about OK movie, earned its price of admission. Israeli ex-soldier Gal Gadot (from some of the endless “Fast and Furious” moneymakers) is Diana, daughter of Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) queen of the Amazons…crafted in clay and brought alive by Zeus himself. She’s a statuesque beauty that exudes an on-screen presence that’s simply Wowza. More than that, she makes for a thoroughly convincing Amazon. Beauty meets badass like never before.


The movie was directed by Patty Jenkins (‘Monster”) and has, so far, proven to be the highest ever, grossing movie by a woman. To borrow from the old Virginia Slims slogan, “We’ve [OK, they’ve] come a long way babe!” Here’s a super-hero action movie that’s about a colony of warrior women who have chosen to do without men; and that features a fearless woman who doesn’t need the strong arm of a man to help her out as she does battle with the god of war (and most of the German army).

And one that’s had an opening weekend of +$180M.

“Wonder Woman” is both an origin myth (usually the strongest of the superhero tropes, which almost always trail off into repetition thereafter) and a coming of age story. We first meet Diana as a (rebellious) child, desperate to learn the pugilistic ways of her tribe of Amazons. They live in a sort of time-warp bubble in the paradisiacal island of Themiscyra… where they mainly seem to train in mixed martial arts (in a sort of Amazonian fitness centre); all in preparation for the possible return of Ares, the (defeated) god who brought war to the world. War comes to their paradise when Steve, an Allied fighter pilot (Chris Pine) somehow crashes through their invisibility shield. By now the child has morphed into a woman, well capable of plunging deep into the wine dark sea to rescue him. He speaks of a world at war; of terrible loss of life and human suffering. Perhaps the dread Ares (David Thewlis) has retuned. Diana feels she must leave her paradise and return with Steve to kill Ares and end the war. Or maybe she’s just motivated by the sight of her first naked man. He is, after all, above average he tells her, a piece of boasting she no doubt feels compellingly motivating.

And so it came to pass, Diana grew to experience both war and love.

Many battles ensued.

Director Jenkins stages some really impressive – often slo mo- battle scenes as Diana spins and somersaults her way to taking out legions of bad guys… with her sword, shield and Olympian lasso.

The weak link in the whole enterprise is its uninspired script. Alan Heinberg, whose main claim to fame is the ABC crime drama, “The Catch” is credited with the screenplay along with Zac Snyder (credited as story creator and director of the dreary Superman reboots and the turgid “300: Rise of an Empire”) and Jason Fuchs (who wrote “Rags: The Movie”, one of those movies seen only by his family). This trio never quite manage either to attempt at plausibility or even to give Diana’s character, character.

Thank the gods, Gal Gadot manages to pull it off despite them.
And now she’s off for lunch with Bruce Wayne. Those Amazons. They do get around

 

Wonder Woman. Dir: Patty Jenkins. With: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Danny Huston. Writer: Allan Heinberg. Production Designer: Aline Bonetto (“Pan”). Cinematographer: Matthew Jensen (“Fantastic Four”)