Thursday, August 11, 2016

My Current Punditry Pet Peeve

I keep seeing it in every single article about Trump that's been published in traditional media or online. This particular one is from a Salon article by Sean Illing, but they all say something similar:

"If any other candidate said what Trump said this week, his campaign would collapse immediately. But Trump has been saying and doing things that would disqualify anyone else for months, and yet he slithers on."

Look. I understand that Trump did defy the political odds during the primaries by thriving despite some glaring and horrible statements. But can we stop pretending that Trump is somehow "normalizing" horrible discourse, or that he's not paying a price for his commentary? His polling numbers are in freefall, he went from dead-even with Hillary to having (according to FiveThirtyEight) a 13% chance of winning, his brand is toxic, Republicans are openly fleeing him in droves, the RNC is being flat-out asked to stop spending money on the Presidential race, every single media outlet is raking him over the coals as an affront to democracy, and he's losing states that haven't gone to the Democrats in 24 years. The only way that he could be more ruined by his Presidential campaign is if he literally burst into flames in the middle of one of his rallies and was dragged down to hell by the fiery claws of the Beast.

(Which may yet happen at this rate.)

The point is, Trump will still be allowed to speak all the way through November, unless he drops out or the Republicans finally come to their senses and lock him in a small windowless room without access to Twitter until November 9th kick him off the ticket. But that's not the same thing as still having a political career.

Monday, August 08, 2016

The Brutal Truth About the "Two Party System"

A lot of people will, as part of the ongoing debate about how miserable and grinding the current election is, talk about how frustrating it is that in America we only have Trump and Clinton as viable options because "we live in a two-party system". (Usually, this is right before they talk about writing in Mickey Mouse, and right before I deliver a long and boring discussion of tactical voting that I'm going to skip this time out, which is kind of a shame because I have a great analogy but I'll save it for later.)

The problem is, this isn't untrue. We don't live in a two-party system. We live in a two-competent-party system. There's no reason encoded into our nation's laws that genuinely prevents a third party from forming, and in fact there are actually something like one hundred political parties currently operating in the United States. But most of them are content to run essentially as ego-stroking campaigns for their members, insisting that they would totally win if not for "bias" and "a rigged system" while ignoring their own clear issues that prevent them from gaining a foothold beyond the occasional Congressperson or state official. Here's why you don't see a national third party that competes with the Democrats and the Republicans, and why it has very little to do with media coverage or any rigging that might be going on.

1. Third parties don't put in the work. The Green Party runs a Presidential candidate every four years, and insists each time that their momentum is growing and that they're going to take back the mantle of "liberal" from the centrist Democrats. But a) nobody has ever explained how President Stein will get her agenda enacted when she has literally no Congressional support, and b) nobody has ever explained how a party with absolutely no track record in government will suddenly do a great job in that field.

The fact of the matter is, a third party needs to be built from the ground up, not the top down. A Presidential run is great press, but any third party that wants to have a hope in hell of enacting their agenda needs to have a full ticket--a Congressperson for every district at minimum, Senators for the 33-34 seats up each year, and probably local representation as well. But that kind of work is boring and low-profile, while running for President is exciting and fun and entails lots of interviews with people who really want to know your opinion! So the Green Party is Jill Stein every four years talking about how unfair it is that she never gets elected.

2. Third parties are fringe. Both the Libertarians and the Greens this year are presenting themselves as alternatives for those in the Republican and Democratic (respectively) Parties who want a candidate who's more true to their beliefs. Meaning more conservative for the Libertarians, and more liberal for the Greens.

The problem is, a candidate who trends toward the far end of the political spectrum is going to have less appeal to the middle, for obvious reasons. And if you have less appeal, you get fewer votes. A third party that gets fewer votes doesn't get elected. Once you start selecting for ideological purity and campaigning for the outliers, you're not going to win. Hell, that's the problem the Republicans have this year, which is why they nominated a sculpture of Mussolini made entirely out of pre-chewed Cheetos.

3. Third parties tend to be single issue parties. This isn't so much true of the Greens and the Libertarians, who are least are making a pretense of caring about actual governance, but something like the Alaskan Independence Party is basically running on the issue of, "Hey, seceding from the United States would solve all of Alaska's problems!" (I assume the "Rent Is Too Damn High Party" in New York state has a similar approach, but I'm not quite sure what their issue is. Probably legalization of marijuana or something.)

The problem is, this is a nonsensical approach to governance. There's no single fix that can be pushed through that will solve the problems the United States experiences on a yearly basis, and generally these candidates tend to be delusional people who have focused their emotional energy on demanding one unworkable fix because it's easier to believe that you can Solve All the Problems with one heroic swoop than it is to deal with the years of constant and unrewarding work needed to make the world a better place. Most people know this, which is why these parties tend to only attract a few true believers who are just as delusional as the candidate. Which brings us to...

4. Most third-party candidates tend to be delusional nutbags who build the party around their particular hobbyhorses, and they wind up more as cults of personality than viable attempts to do the work of governance. The obvious example that comes to mind is H. Ross Perot, whose stated goal was to create a pragmatic third party focused on practical solutions rather than ideology, but that wound up being held hostage to the narcissistic whims of its eccentric candidate. (Yes, I know, it does sound like the Republicans are rapidly descending into third-party status, doesn't it?) But really, I mean something like this guy:

Take a look at those proposals. This is a man sincerely running on a platform of disclosing the Pentagon's secret time travel program and admitting that we're already on Mars. This is the kind of thing that third parties in America are doing right now. They're not out there trying to become a viable alternative to the current two dominant parties, they're out there trying to put Bigfoot on the Endangered Species List. This is why we live in a two-party system. It's not because the Republicans and Democrats suppress the competition, it's because third parties are more interested in being symbolic forms of protest against an unpleasant reality than any kind of actual group interested in promoting responsible governance. Until someone--a lot of someones, really, because a political party isn't just something you make with your buddies in the garage--is willing to change that, a third party won't gain traction in America.

In fact, at this rate, we could be down to a "one-party system" in a few years unless the Republicans get their act together. But that's probably a separate post.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

My One Political Prediction

It, um...seems to have been an interesting few weeks, politically speaking. I believe that since I last blogged, Donald Trump has picked a fight with the parents of an American soldier who died stopping a suicide bomber on the grounds that they support Islamic terrorism, stabbed his two most prominent national political allies in the back, insinuated he would use nuclear weapons as a first resort, asked the Russians to illegally interfere in a national election on his behalf, discussed documents that he claimed were "top secret" (which may not actually exist), and oh yeah he kicked a baby out of one of his rallies.

And then said that he doesn't understand why he's behind in the polls.

With all that, the Republicans seem (unsurprisingly) to be hitting the panic button. There's just one problem--that button's not hooked up to anything. There is no provision for denominating a candidate who has been selected as the Republican standard-bearer once the convention happens. This means that no matter what Trump does--publicly setting fire to Reince Priebus' car, pissing in Paul Ryan's protein shake, playing the "I'm not touching youuuuu!" game with John McCain--all they can do is ask him to drop out. (And Trump knows it, which is why he's doing all this. Trump is only nice to people when he needs to be in order to get something out of them. Voters should remember that in November.)

Which brings me to my one political prediction. Because rumor has it that the Republicans are, in fact, privately trying to get Trump to drop out (a rumor that the Republicans are denying with the same approximate degree of believability that NFL team owners use when insisting that they have full confidence in their 1-11 head coach and don't plan on making any personnel moves until after the season). And those journalists who have looked into this have said that if Trump were to drop out, the Republicans would need it to happen before September 1st in order to be able to put the new candidate's name on the ballots in all 50 states (once they selected him or...oh who are we kidding, become the nominee, which would also need to happen before September 1st).

So here's my one political prediction. I'm not saying that Donald Trump is going to drop out and fail to finish what he laughably calls a political campaign. (Although it's not an impossibility. If you quit, claiming that the game is rigged and people aren't giving you a fair chance to win, you can always claim you would have won.) But I will say that if Trump does drop out, it will not happen until at least September 2nd.

Because if there's one thing that the Ryan/McCain episode has made clear, it is that Donald Trump never does anything gracefully when he can achieve the same outcome while avenging imaginary slights against him. If Donald feels like the Republicans have insulted him (which, although entirely justified on their part, they have) he will exit the race in a way that makes it as clear as possible that the blame for his failure rests on them, and in a way that does as much damage to them as a party as he conceivably can. In this case, that means shifting his campaign message to suggest that he's being sabotaged by his own party, then dropping out after it's too late to find a replacement and watching their electoral strategy crash and burn.

I realize that "Donald Trump does something spiteful and petty to his allies in order to salvage his ego" is not exactly going out on a limb as far as predictions go, but I feel that it will at least help you during this uncertain period to know that we are stuck with Donald for another month at least. Beyond that, it will depend on which kind of humiliation he hates more--the humiliation of losing to Hillary, or the humiliation of not even trying.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Review: The United States of Arugula

It's strange--looking back on our nation's history, we can collectively remember a time when TV dinners were new and exciting and frozen food was a miracle and SPAM was something to be lauded and celebrated. But somehow, it's difficult to connect our modern day Instagramming of "food porn", 24-hour food-based TV networks, celebrity chefs and McDonald's arugula salads to the days when the most exciting thing about food was how well it kept and how easy it was to make. What happened to bring us from food as a grim necessity to food as an epicurean delight?

That's not just the question I ask myself every time I walk past a Hungry Man TV dinner and wonder who still eats those, it's the basic premise of David Kamp's book 'The United States of Arugula'. The book starts in the 1950s, the era when fast food and processed food was at its ascendance, and introduces the key characters responsible for transforming our cultural understanding of food. He covers fine dining, cookbooks and cooking shows, and the process of food sourcing and how it changed slowly but surely over the decades.

There's a lot of interesting stories in the book, many of which show how the counter-culture movement of the 60s intertwined with the push for ethically-sourced and healthy cuisine, and he highlights a number of important figures in the history of the culinary arts that might otherwise have gone forgotten. In addition to obvious stars like James Beard and Julia Child, he covers Craig Claiborne, Jeremiah Tower, and a host of other people known primarily to foodies who he feels influenced the development of modern cooking and taste-making.

In a way, this is also probably the book's weakness. Because he wants to cover the breadth of the transformation of food culture as well as the depth of it, there's a lot of jumping around to focus on figures within the industry who play only a minor role, or who are more remembered for their influence on other famous chefs. Towards the end, without the organizing principle of "how did this person's legacy contribute to food culture as we know it?" (because as the book ably shows, it's hard to tell a food fad from a cultural contribution to our national cuisine right away) the book loses focus rather badly. The last few chapters are a dizzying leap from chef to chef to celebrity chef, with no real explanation given as to why some merit consideration within the book's pages and others are a mere footnote.

Still, the overall theme comes out very well despite that--the last fifty years have seen a national conversation about what we eat and how to make it better tasting and healthier. And while that's occasionally descended into faddishness, snobbery, scolding and absurd levels of bacon worship, it's still a conversation worth having. Kamp makes that case very well indeed.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

My Brief Take on the New Trek Fan Film Guidelines

There is exactly one thing you have to understand about the new Star Trek fan film guidelines. They are a promise, not a threat.

The promise is actually pretty impressive. Not quite unprecedented--Lucasfilm embraced the fan film community, albeit with a few reservations--but this is a pretty big deal. Paramount is saying that they will let anyone, for free, make their very own short film based on one of the four biggest entertainment properties in science-fiction (Marvel, Star Wars and Who being the other three), for free, gratis, so long as certain rules are adhered to. Are those rules pretty stringent? Sure. Do they let you make your very own Star Trek with absolutely no threat of legal action by the holders of the IP? Sure.

And if you don't want to adhere to those don't have to. Sure, you could be sued by Paramount, but what people are forgetting in their initial judgment of the new policy is that this was always the case. All Trek fan films prior to this point, every single one of them from the officially unofficial series that used Trek actors playing their copyrighted characters down to the guys wandering around in their heavily wooded backyards in pajamas yelling, "I AM KIROK!"...they all risked a lawsuit. Because they were infringing on someone's intellectual property. They had no legal defense against that, none of them. It wasn't fair use, it didn't matter that they weren't making a profit, it didn't matter how it was distributed. They all were potential targets.

So nothing has changed for these people. Officially, 'Star Trek: New Voyages' is operating outside the guidelines and is vulnerable to a lawsuit should Paramount decide to go after them. Officially, Paramount can't say to them, "Hey, we don't really care, you're not making any money and your show is good PR for us so knock yourself out." But that was the case yesterday too. All this is, when you boil it down, is a way for Paramount to cover their butts so that when someone like Alec Peters comes along and raises a million bucks to make a feature-length movie while selling bootleg merch, he can't say, "Well, I had no idea that I couldn't do it!"

Of course, that won't stop fans from freaking out about it, but hey. Fans gonna fan.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Review: The Tropic of Serpents

After gushing about Marie Brennan's first book about the intrepid Isabella, Lady Trent and her voyages to discover dragons, I felt like I would be remiss if I didn't spend at least a little bit of time talking about the second book in the series. This one focuses on her journeys into the swamps of Mouleen (an ahistorical continent with clear parallels to colonial Africa) to study swamp dragons, during which she gets unavoidably swept up in local politics.

It's the local politics that take up a lot of the book, which is a little disappointing if you come to the novel looking for dragons, dragons and more dragons. On the other hand, Brennan does a good job of conveying, through Isabella's slow realization that her country may not have the finest interests of Mouleen at heart, the contradictory and messy interests that lie at the heart of the colonial mentality. Being something of an outsider in her own homeland due to her decision to pursue a traditionally male career, she's positioned perfectly to notice that the Scirling (read: British) promises of aid and comfort tend to come with a lot of armed men, and not a few concessions to a superior military force. Her decisions regarding that ugly truth behind the "White Man's Burden" myth form the narrative's spine.

There are also further developments in the slightly ominous metaplot that was seeded in the first novel--having discovered that preserved dragonbone is as light as aluminum and durable as steel, Isabella spends no small amount of time in the book attempting to avert a resource war over the rare and endangered dragon species that we already know (since this is presented as her memoirs) has already happened. This book keeps that to the background, but it informs the entire story with the slow drumbeats of impending conflict. There's a lot of very clever metaphor going on here, with dragons standing in for any number of precious and irreplaceable natural, they're freaking dragons, which is always cool.

I'd recommend the second book just as strongly as the first. It takes a bit longer to get to the dragons, but the time it develops other themes is time well spent.

Thursday, June 16, 2016


Is it wrong that I really hope Tom Hiddleston turns out to be gay or bisexual so that he can be linked with Benedict Cumberbatch romantically (whom I also hope turns out to be gay or bisexual) simply so they can have the "power couple" nickname "Hiddlebatch"?

I would accept, as an alternative, a romantic liason between Tom Hiddleston and Mark Ruffalo, who would of course be "Hiddleuffalo". (I suppose technically they could be "Ruffleston", but I feel like that lacks the quiet dignity of "Hiddleuffalo".)

EDIT TO ADD: I would also be satisfied if Mark and Benedict caught each other on the rebound from that serial cad, Tom Hiddleston, and formed the power couple "Cumberbuffalo".