Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Towards A More Hopeful World

Update: Amy Davidson's account of President Obama's press conference on the Iran nuclear weapons deal.  "What's your alternative?"

The Washington Post:

"The United States and other world powers reached a historic agreement with Iran here Tuesday, aimed at preventing the Islamic republic from building a nuclear weapon in return for the lifting of sanctions that have isolated the country and hobbled its economy."

“This deal demonstrates that American diplomacy can bring about real and meaningful change,” Obama told a nation that awoke Tuesday morning to news of the accord. He said it would ensure that Iran had no possibility to achieve rapid nuclear weapons “breakout” for at least the next decade.

“Every pathway to a nuclear weapon is cut off,” Obama said.

In Vienna news briefings and Washington conference calls, senior administration officials joined the president in hailing the agreement — which limits Iran’s nuclear capability and imposes strict international monitoring in exchange for lifting international economic sanctions — as a way to make America and the world more secure."

The Post story includes a one-minute video explaining the terms of the deal.  The deal is amazingly good.  It takes away the most prominently known flashpoint that could lead to war, and opens possibilities for different relations over the next couple of decades, enough time for the younger generation in Iran--notably uninterested in confrontations with the West--to graduate into power there.

On the deal itself, the New York Times quoted:This explains why it took so long,” Daryl G. Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, a private group in Washington, said of the negotiation. “I rate this as one of the most complex agreements — if not the most complex — ever to deal with nuclear issues. It’s much stronger that we expected.”

Reuters: Iran and six major world powers reached a nuclear deal on Tuesday, capping more than a decade of negotiations with an agreement that could transform the Middle East. U.S. President Barack Obama hailed a step towards a "more hopeful world" and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said it proved that "constructive engagement works". But Israel pledged to do what it could to halt what it called an "historic surrender".

The agreement will now be debated in the U.S. Congress, but Obama said he would veto any measure to block it.

"This deal offers an opportunity to move in a new direction," Obama said. "We should seize it."

Tactically, Republicans know they can't block this agreement in Congress because they don't have the votes to override a veto.  So in the unlikely event that they wanted to present a cautious, measured, nuanced response, ha ha, they don't have to.  They'll be as extreme as they believe their 2016 primary voters are.

But that's not to say they aren't genuinely upset.  Borowitz in the New Yorker has the true story on that:

"By easing tensions with Cuba and now Iran, President Obama is “recklessly squandering America’s precious supply of enemies,” the leader of a conservative think tank said on Tuesday."

"Regardless of his future actions, Obama’s detente with Cuba and Iran will likely tarnish his legacy forever, Dorrinson said. “On this President’s watch, America lost two of its most enduring foes,” he said. “He’s going to have to live with that for the rest of his life.”

Throne of Cards

As we sampled one of the latest hits in the ongoing so-called Golden Age of Television, I finally realized what these shows have in common: a very old form, born in radio but a staple of television for decades.

The soap opera.

That's basically what Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Mad Men, even Dowton Abbey, and the one we most regrettably watched, The Blacklist, all are: soap operas, with large casts of extreme characters to which seemingly random but extreme things are done in the course of many episodes.  With no reason other than to shock, and create new storylines.

 Mad Men and Dowton Abbey most obviously fall into the category, since their sturm und drang is basically domestic and workplace related, like the daytime soaps.  The others however (and all their close relatives) may be less obvious, because they center on specific worlds, like Washington politics or police, FBI, CIA etc.  And they are incredibly violent.

 They may have elements of thrillers, and resemble latter day Grand Guignol but like soap operas they emphasize sensationalistic grabbers to keep you watching for the next episode, dangling questions and subjecting characters to the most extreme fates, repeatedly. (This sounds like melodrama, but technically melodrama pits good against evil.  These shows don't.  Everybody is more or less evil.)

 Almost by definition, soap operas have no actual center or spine or reason for being, no actual story to tell.  They exist to keep on going, keep people watching and talking, whatever it takes.  Plausibility, let alone integrity, just don't figure in.

The Blacklist stars James Spader, who I've been watching since Sex, Lies and Videotape, and loved in Boston Legal.  But this series is nothing less than a sadomasochistic soap opera, with no discernible purpose other than to light up Twitter with its latest twisted twist.

After seeing the pilot and first four episodes and vowing never to see another, I nevertheless read the plot descriptions on Wikipedia of every episode so far (two years worth; it's been renewed for a third season.) It all becomes quite clear. Spader's character murders somebody in just about every episode.  The female lead (an FBI agent; there's also a badass female CIA agent) is tortured, and tortures people, including her husband, though they later get back together. (?--but why bother...)  One of the key characters is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and then he isn't. A new villain is introduced for each story, each more inventively and horrifically evil than the last. No one is who they say they are, everyone betrays everyone, there is no moral center to any of it.

I'm aware that my response may to some degree be related to age as well as taste.  I also resent all the articles offered on the Internet that are headlined "Shows We Love" or "why we like" etc.--assuming a hive mind "we" on almost any subject.  That the kind of action that appears on these shows every week just doesn't happen in the real world (the multiple times that heavily armed men waylay FBI convoys, kill lots of people and make off with somebody in custody--how many times has that happened in America?  How about never? Is never good for you?) --this is part of the postmodern pleasure for some I suppose.  It just pisses me off.

But I do think it is worse than that.  Though it may express a pervasive anxiety in viewers, it also creates that anxiety big time, which bleeds into anxiety about the real world.  Everyone on the street becomes a potential psycho-killer terrorist or sadistic, super-intelligent serial killer.  All done with the purpose of manipulating viewers, which is apparently what passes for innocence in Hollywood.

  Though the intention may be just ordinary cynical manipulation for ratings, the worldview that gets expressed is fascistic.  Various excesses by "law enforcement" on various levels is a staple of every such show, to varying degrees, which makes real world police excesses less of a mystery.

 But shows like The Blacklist (the name itself defiles the name of an historically significant and actually fascistic phenomenon and time in America) promote torture, first by showing it as a regular investigative tool, and by suggesting that it works in extracting good information, which of course is its justification.  That's not debated, it's part of these shows. (That this show is a child of 24 is obvious even if you don't know that the producers' first choice for the lead was Keifer Sutherland.)

This portrait of torture is wrong factually, not to mention morally. How many times did it work in the war on terror?  Check the studies and it's never.  Is never good for you?  It seems the Bush administration really isn't over.  It's alive and well in the Golden Age of Television.

That honorific was previously given to TV's earliest days--the Golden Age was live TV in New York, dramas by real dramatists, comedy by geniuses like Sid Caesar, Ernie Kovacs, Jackie Gleason, Steve Allen.

Though I fondly recall the latter part of that period from my childhood, and know how formative some of the 1950s shows were for me, it's not the period of my viewing I'd call the Golden Age.  That would be the late 80s, early 1990s, with Northern Exposure, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Twin Peaks, Moonlighting, Thirtysomething, even Miami Vice.

While some of the more recent, much praised shows that I nevertheless choose not to watch may be very good in some respects, I also suspect that there is a vicious cycle now involving social media, the media that now reports on social media as a main focus, and the shows themselves.  The ability to instantly text your did you see that? and the amped-up social pressure to watch the shows so you've got something to say on Facebook as well as at work the next day, give these shows maybe more buoyancy than they might otherwise have.  

All that self-involvement may be creating a bubble, that will eventually burst.  As a form, ultraviolent soap operas don't interest me.  They are a huge waste of time and emotion.  And some are worse than that.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The European Nightmare

Things are getting a little too interesting in Europe.  The European bailout deal with Greece, dictated by Germany and the big banks, is getting some very bad reviews.

Writes Suzanne Moore in the Guardian: "By infantilising Greece, Germany resembles a child who closes its own eyes and thinks we can not see it. We can. The world is watching what is being done to Greece in the name of euro stability. It sees a nation stripped of its dignity, its sovereignty, its future."

John Cassidy in the New Yorker called it "an agreement that is perhaps the most intrusive and demanding contract between an advanced nation and its creditors since the Second World War."  He characterized it as a Greek "surrender" to the demands made principally by Germany and its allied banks,"at great cost to the country’s [Greece's] political sovereignty, the political landscape of the continent looks different, and not a little ominous."  The headline on the article reads "A Humiliating Deal for Greece."

In general, these articles support the basic pattern which N. Klein exposed in The Shock Doctrine, in which entire nations are forced into policies and debt that enriches the rich, the banks and big corporations, at the expense of the 99% and the nation as a whole.

It has been contrasted to the forgiveness of German loans after World War II that enabled Germany to prosper.

The new and perhaps most unsettling element is the role these articles attribute specifically to Germany and its Chancellor Merkel.  Cassidy's article ends: "But if what happened over the weekend doesn’t quite amount to a coup, it has nevertheless been a ruthless display of power politics on Germany’s part and a chilling reminder of the remorseless logic of a monetary union dominated by creditors and pre-Keynesian economics. In the words of Paul De Grauwe, a well-known Belgian economist who teaches at London School of Economics, a “template of future governance” of the eurozone was written over the weekend: “Submit to German rule or leave.” In the years and decades ahead, Germany may discover that many Europeans would prefer the second option."

According to the New York Times:"The strict terms of the deal imposed on Greece by fellow members of the eurozone on Sunday inspired hundreds of thousands of comments on social networks deriding the agreement as the equivalent of a coup against the left-wing government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras."

An unsigned editorial in UK's Telegraph also refers to the deal as "nothing less than national humiliation. The country that quarried the foundation stones of Western civilisation is now humbled, forced to impose more austerity measures and allow billions of euros of state assets into an internationally-controlled trust because its creditors do not trust its politicians to keep their promises. All this only days after the Greek people clearly voted against austerity as a condition for international bailouts."

Later this editorial also puts its finger on the nature of the crisis precipitated by the deal itself: "There is a certain bleak irony to the Greek agreement. Europe has gone to extraordinary new lengths to stop the integrationist project falling apart, yet never has that project looked so unstable and unsustainable as it does today."

There is more turmoil to come as the government of Greece will debate accepting these terms.  But at first blush this looks like the most serious challenge to what had been the most hopeful international project of the past 100 years or more: what Jeremy Rifkin called "the European Dream": the peaceful, democratic unification of Europe, previously the center of centuries of war, culminating in the two most destructive wars in human history.

Update/Last Word: In a Washington Post piece entitled "Greece has surrendered but Europe loses too" Matt O'Brien begins: "At least they still get to call it Greece."