Monthly Archives: March 2016

The GOP: an engine harnessing ‘white resentment on behalf of higher incomes for donors’

Solid on economic policy but hobbled by a less than felicitous prose style, Paul Krugman nevertheless comes up with as succinct a definition of Republicanism as a columnist can write:

After all, what is the modern GOP? A simple model that accounts for just about everything you see is that it’s an engine designed to harness white resentment on behalf of higher incomes for the donor class.

What we call the Republican establishment is really a network of organizations that represent donor interests because they’re supported by donor money. These organizations impose ideological purity with a combination of carrots and sticks: assured support for politicians and pundits who toe the line, sanctions against anyone who veers from orthodoxy — excommunication if you’re an independent thinking pundit, a primary challenge from the Club for Growth if you’re an imperfectly reliable politician.

To a very casual observer, it may look as if this movement infrastructure engages in actual policy analysis and discussion, but that’s only a show put on for the media. Can you even imagine being unsure how a Heritage Foundation study on any significant issue will come out? The truth is that the right’s policy ideas haven’t changed in decades. Paul Ryan’s innovative idea on Medicare — let’s replace it with vouchers! — is the same proposal Newt Gingrich offered in 1995.

Gore Vidal said the Republicans weren’t a party but a pathology — and he said this in the early 2000s.

Martin Longman’s piece on the GOP disintegration uses the day when Barack Obama invited Republican leaders to Blair House in February 2010 for a discussion on the endangered Affordable Care Act.

Whatever you want to say about the ideology that drove Democrats to support the Affordable Care Act, it ought to be generously recognized that providing people access to health care was the priority, not taxing or spending to provide that access. As for the Republican opposition to the Dodd-Frank bill (and the American Recovery Act), this was more than a remarkable display of party discipline. It was an appalling display of refusal to take any responsibility for running the global economy into the Great Recession. When Dick Cheney justified Bush’s giant tax cuts by saying that Ronald Reagan had proven that budget deficits don’t matter, there was barely a peep of objection from conservative Republicans, but once Obama needed spending to save the economy, they suddenly thought the deficit was the biggest problem facing the country. They did nothing as the housing bubble inflated, pumped up by toxic under-regulated financial products and mortgage lending standards, and they bemoaned the bailout of failing colossal banks, but they couldn’t be bothered to support legislation designed to prevent a repeat of those mistakes.

But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. Women who get abortions are murderers or victims. Democratic enemies are fools and charlatans, therefore Jesus. Epistemic closure, now unto eternity.

And should Hillary Clinton win in November the party is as doomed as it was in 2008, 1964, and and 1932.

How Donald Trump is right

The presumptive Republican nominee for president opened his mouth in front of Chris Matthews (not himself known for discretion) and sounds emerged that assembled into words and possibly sentences about punishing women who get abortions. For the first time in his nearly yearlong Dada exercise in running for leadership of the GOP, he did what Beltway press people call a “walk back.”

If Congress were to pass legislation making abortion illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban abortion under state and federal law, the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman,” the statement said. “The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb. My position has not changed — like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions.”

I’m tickled by the ubiquity of Ronald Reagan as universal balm. I could write, “People should smear mayonnaise on themselves. My position has not changed — like Ronald Reagan, I support individual liberty with exceptions.”

The rest of the statement bears examination. Here’s how I look at it. If you believe that abortion is murder, then you believe that a woman who pays for an abortion or does it herself is guilty of murder and should face felony charges. Trump’s statement calls women “victims.” This implies that they trespassed; that they had no power over their own actions; that men betrayed them. Only these women get abortions. A sage at National Review Online implies as such: if only victims had gotten adoptions, “community support for pre-natal care and both pre- and post-natal counseling.” Should the woman not take heed to counseling, then in sorrow she must bring forth children, and her husband or boyfriend gets to revel in sanctimony, unintentional or not. Either way, it’s the fetus that determines her worth. As Albert Goldman said in The Birdcage, “If you kill the mother, the fetus dies, too. But the fetus is going to be aborted anyway, so why not let it go down with the ship?”

These superannuated appeals to compassion wilt under scrutiny. As many of us know if you’re not the right sort of child (i.e. white), adoption consists of adolescence in foster homes. “Pre-natal care” and “pre-natal counseling” are precisely the kinds of things passed by state legislatures who don’t want women having sex.

Read the comment sections in any newspaper, daily or national, when an abortion story gets posted. Compassion is not one of the virtues overflowing from the sacred founts of anti-abortion zealots. It’s their political leaders who lie or resort to double talk in attempting to make their positions more amenable to the American public. Make no mistake: whether these people see women as victims or murderers, they don’t much like women.

Lovers love loving: K Michelle and Zayn

K Michelle – More Issues Than Vogue

She missed an opportunity for a killer title track, that’s for sure. On her third album, the R&B singer and TV star settles for at best sturdy songwriting, some of which she contributes herself. She sacrifices the weirdness of sprawl for a tighter piece of work. No performances as searing as 2013’s “I Don’t Like Me,” no material as original as 2014’s “Drake Would Love Me.” More Issues Than Vogue has a smashing start: “I’m coming straight from the gut,” she blasts on the T-Pain-produced thumper “Mindful.” A collaboration with a colorless Jason Derulo does produce the rattling “Make the Bed,” in which Michelle oh-oh-ohs over rattling sequencers suggested an update of Ariana Grande’s “Love Me Harder.”

But fans like me prefer her balladry. Suffering exquisitely while asserting her right to ravish and be ravished, Michelle hasn’t a drop of diva in her blood. If R&B still made pop inroads, female secretaries and clerks would treasure her albums while men would recognize the similarities between their wives and lovers and the women Michelle inhabits and for whom she sings; she’s too practical for self-help bromides. Her priorities are no nonsense and demand resolution yesterday. “This bed is a sinking boat,” she sings on “Sleep Like a Baby.” She’s at her best in “Not a Little Bit,” the sturdy piano hook mirroring her determination to get over it; and on “If It Ain’t You” she blasts a man who accuses her of being complicated – “you can take it,” she assures him. Go with the deluxe edition for “Memphis,” an acoustic envoi to home.

Zayn – Mind of Mine

The influences: Luke James, a Fisher Price version of The Weeknd, gobs of Justin Timberlake, the last a new millennium model for GED programs in post-boy-band education. The One Directioner’s debut presents a guy who want to convince listeners that he likes sex. Asserting a hypersexualized masculinity in which token admissions of kinks denote “adulthood,” Zayn Malik comes off as one of the dudes who wastes K Michelle’s time (the typographical banalities are his idea of daring). When he sings “I think you need a friend” on “rEaR vieW,” the album’s best track, a friend is what he sounds like, or, better, a chaperone for his baby sister. “I’ve done this before, but not like this,” he sings unpersuasively on “BeFoUr.” His croon on “It’s You” mocks desire. XYZ’s production – electronic undulations punctuated by discreet guitar and the occasional vocal gremlin – provides no tension; Malik performs in a padded cell. Burying a track sung in Urdu beneath the ooze is the foulest mistake. Perhaps Malik meant to suggest that his Pakistani roots are no less vital than his English ones. But the results suggest all parts of his identity are fungible for the sake of international pop.

Love on the rocks: Brokeback Mountain


Many budding gay men learned about the power of spit lube from Brokeback Mountain, for which we should be grateful to Annie Proulx and director Ang Lee. In 2016 it’s hard to believe this Hollywood weeper started such chatter in early 2006: talk show appearances in which an uncomfortable Jake Gyllenhaal and less uncomfortable Heath Ledger laughed off their kiss; thousands of words of slash fiction exploring every doomed facet (I read one where livid rancher Joe Aguirre, played by Randy Quaid, does unspeakable things to Jack Twist because he’s more repressed than Ennis Del Mar); and an Oscar ceremony proving with the coronation of Crash that the worst Hollywood partisans are Hollywood partisans. They got something right, though: insiders will take the message picture over the romance. Sam Goldwyn and Louis Mayer knew. It even won an Oscar for Best Cinematography because Academy voters confuse National Geographic nature photography for compositions.

In my series of Stylus Magazine excavations I’ve republished my review, written the day before Christmas Eve. I liked the movie so far as it went, recognizing its absurdities and limits. For a while, however, Brokeback Mountain became one of those decent movies that affected me. I got defensive when people knocked it. In 2005 and early 2006 I referred people to Tropical Malady, aware damn well that it was all for nought. Now the picture looks like what David Thomson predicted: a curiosity.

Brokeback Mountain

They meet, they herd, they fuck, they marry women, they die. Looming before Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) is Brokeback Mountain, in whose shadow they’ll remain for the rest of their rather miserable lives. On the slope which gives Ang Lee’s film (based on E. Anne Proulx’s 1997 short story) its name, Ennis and Jack revel in the love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name, with the full awareness that what began as a impulse born of loneliness will remain so.

The year is 1963. Hired by a scowling rancher (played by Randy Quaid, chewing a toothpick with quiet menace) to tend his flock of sheep for the summer—an idea that rightly confounds a contemporary audience—Ennis and Jack’s days mostly consist of smoking and cutting trees for firewood. What little talk occurs comes in grunts from the reticent Ennis, whose year in high school and miserable childhood (he was raised by a sister and brother) don’t give him much to talk about anyway. On a cold night, awash in whiskey, Ennis crawls into Jack’s tent; Jack, the more brazen of the pair, makes the first move.

Their relationship—I use the term loosely—will mimic the clumsy groping of their first sexual experience. Each acquires a devoted wife (Michelle Williams) who, in Ennis’ case, will care for ailing children and register with devastating quietude the sight of her husband making out with another man; and in Jack’s, the heiress of a farming equipment fortune (Anne Hathaway, of whom there is precious little) whose increasingly outré hairdos have more verve than Jack himself.

A director almost sunnily at ease with repression, Ang Lee can’t make Brokeback Mountain very erotic, let alone funny. So let’s get this out of the way: there isn’t enough sex in this film, and I wanted more of it. Just a handful of scenes between Ennis and Jack show the gingerly, coltish affection that only two young men in love can project; never let it be said that homosexual courtship follows hetero patterns. The actors (Gyllenhaal in particular) are game; Lee and screenwriters Larry McMurty and Diane Ossana don’t match their daring. If we are to believe that Ennis and Jack’s love hollows them, Lee must trace how a physical attraction deepens into this earthshaking phenomenon. These are, after all, two men, not a man and woman, and as such the feel of flesh should provide the metaphysical elements Gyllenhaal’s Jack yearns for, and the didactic screenplay makes explicit. Your mother wouldn’t get offended.

It’s strange: in films like The Ice Storm and this one Lee subverts his gift for narrative by resorting to rather portentous symbolism (remember all those shots of frozen flowers?). For Lee, block-letter narratives bespeak his commitment to maintaining the integrity of his source material, and it lets the audience off the hook much too often. The contrast between the airy, green vistas of Brokeback (where Ennis and Jack did their foolin’ and fuckin’) and the dank rented rooms and trailers in which Ennis and his family live is reductive (to be fair, this hobbled the Proulx story too). The obvious answer is the old adage: if repression’s your theme, you probably wear a corset yourself.

Heath Ledger has generated a lot of acclaim for his ay-yup performance, and he’s certainly memorable: Ennis is like one of those men you meet casually on an airplane whose craggy sullen faces disguise a lifetime of sorrow. Ledger makes us understand that Ennis’ reserve is actually a distortion of his homosexual panic, as well as a shield which attempts (and fails) to hide the fact that Ennis is essentially a ne’er-do-well. Around his children he’s stagy and awkward, with a forced good cheer a lot like Ronald Reagan’s. He can barely muster the libido to nuzzle his wife (although with all those kids maybe he thought he didn’t need to). Even his relationship with the increasingly desperate Jack never breaks the harmless rhythm of a strong platonic attachment, and it’s here, in the picture’s last third, when Lee taps Gyllenhaal’s strengths to create something truly sad.

Given his weakness for characters of vaporous sensitivity that prefer the company of talking rabbits and Jennifer Aniston, it’s a relief that Gyllenhaal actually gives a performance instead of relying on those doleful and admittedly beautiful blue eyes. Brokeback Mountain is the first film in which he’s tacitly acknowledged that nothing gives us as an audience greater pleasure than to admire gorgeous people. He’s never been sexier than in the scene, barely five minutes into the movie, in which, leaning against a trailer, he sizes up Ennis as if thinking, This will do. It’s worthy of Montgomery Clift (who no doubt writhed in sodomic longing too). To the audience (and probably Ennis too), Gyllenhaal’s Jack seems the most obviously gay—at least that’s how Lee tags him. His father-in-law can barely conceal his contempt for the ex-rodeo star; he visits Mexico to pick up hustlers; and even, in a manner of speaking, comes out to his parents when he shares his dream of tending a ranch with Ennis. But essential to Gyllenhaal’s acting is the naiveté that is as much a tragic flaw as Ennis’ self-hate.

Brokeback Mountain ends with Ennis worshipping Jack, a memory now as worthless as the ashes of those fires they lit on the side of their beloved retreat. Everybody’s got his number now: his wife, his oldest daughter (a lovely performance of benumbed alertness by Kate Mara), the girlfriend he won’t marry. Earlier in the film Lee had shown us the wages of fear: Ennis, framed like a parody of John Wayne in the last shot of The Searchers, vomiting at the conclusion of his and Jack’s golden summer. This was most unconvincing; Ennis would as soon throw up as read Proust for solace. Brokeback Mountainis effective and hence affecting when Lee swallows his characters’ suppressed ardor in his austere conceptions and compositions. It’s a curious achievement, alright: a powerful film celebrating renunciation. On second thought, forget Mom and ask Pope Benedict XVI to be your date.

Torture comes and torture goes

When the junior senator from Florida ran for president, I made sure to note the number of times this lazy-eyed schemer repudiated modernity. Of course Ronald Reagan was an idol, for the Reagan whom aides pushed as a symbol was immovable on matters of war and peace until he coaxed Mikhail Gorbachev into reading the same script about ending the Cold War.

But the Reagan administration also issued an important agreement committing the United States to repudiating torture and prosecuting those who carry it out, directly and indirectly. In the same dizzying eight years, during which the administration’s heroic conception of itself considered the methods of the abbatoir as public relations, these same West Wing operatives and their smiling figurehead left a declassified CIA Central America training manual in Central America detailing torture methods and looked the other way when their Salvadorean clients raped American nuns.

Today the Guardian reveals that the CIA took naked photographs of people it sent to its foreign partners for torture.

In some of the photos, which remain classified, CIA captives are blindfolded, bound and show visible bruises. Some photographs also show people believed to be CIA officials or contractors alongside the naked detainees.

It is not publicly known how many people, overwhelmingly but not exclusively men, were caught in the CIA’s web of so-called “extraordinary renditions”, extra-judicial transfers of detainees to foreign countries, many of which practised even more brutal forms of torture than the US came to adopt. Human rights groups over the years have identified at least 50 people the CIA rendered, going back to Bill Clinton’s presidency.


The rationale for the naked photography, described by knowledgeable sources, was to insulate the CIA from legal or political ramifications stemming from their brutal treatment in the hands of its partner intelligence agencies.

It took a British newspaper to break a story whose grisliness will surprise no one and will lead to no prosecutions — a reminder that voting for Donald Trump or Ted Cruz means employing Marc Thiessen.

Trump and the ‘cloak of American protection’

I can’t imagine the fun David Sanger and Maggie Haberman had writing the lead and supporting paragraphs:

Donald J. Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner, said that if elected, he might halt purchases of oil from Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies unless they commit ground troops to the fight against the Islamic State or “substantially reimburse” the United States for combating the militant group, which threatens their stability.

“If Saudi Arabia was without the cloak of American protection,” Mr. Trump said during a 100-minute interview on foreign policy, spread over two phone calls on Friday, “I don’t think it would be around.”

He also said he would be open to allowing Japan and South Korea to build their own nuclear arsenals rather than depend on the American nuclear umbrella for their protection against North Korea and China. If the United States “keeps on its path, its current path of weakness, they’re going to want to have that anyway, with or without me discussing it,” Mr. Trump said.

And he said he would be willing to withdraw United States forces from both Japan and South Korea if they did not substantially increase their contributions to the costs of housing and feeding those troops. “Not happily, but the answer is yes,” he said.

What they’ve described is the foreign policy equivalent of a president smilingly placing a can of kerosene in an oven preheated to 475 degrees.

Asked when he thought American power had been at its peak, Mr. Trump reached back 116 years to the turn of the 20th century, the era of another unconventional Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, who ended up leaving the party. His favorite figures in American history, he said, include two generals, Douglas MacArthur and George S. Patton — though he said that, unlike MacArthur, he would not advocate using nuclear weapons except as a last resort. (He suggested MacArthur had pressed during the Korean War to use them against China as a means “to negotiate,” adding, “He played the nuclear card, but he didn’t use it.”)

Not much has changed since the photo posted above. Douglas MacArthur was never president of the United States. Yet Trump talks as if he believed MacArthur had the power to order DEFCON 1. At any rate it fascinates me how Trump cites approvingly a general whose defiance of President Harry Truman is legend as if Trump’s leadership style as perceived by his followers wouldn’t demand the drawing and quartering of Douglas MacArthur.

Plus, never forget:

TRUMP: No, I condone strong law and order. I’ll tell you what they —

HIATT: Rip him out of his seat, punch him in the face, isn’t that violent?

TRUMP: Well he punched other people.

HIATT: No, I understand that.

Mustaches and gay panic: The Killers

For a couple years I got more hate mail for this piece than anything I’d written to date. I was happy to be proven right: Brandon Flowers’ queer envy and talents finally meshed on the daft and intermittently powerful The Desired Effect, and he shaved the mustache.

The Killers
Sam’s Town

More than a few critics have knocked The Killers for recording a soupy version of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, but they haven’t suggested which Springsteen albums the band should have been emulating. I suggest Born in the U.S.A., 12 synth-anchored nuggets which get down to basics instead of shilly-shallying with poesy as unfathomable to Springsteen as it is to Brandon Flowers. Face it: “She’s the One” and “Jungleland” are silly songs no matter whose neck veins are straining at the mic. Whatever Sam’s Town’s scant merits, the album reminds artists to be more careful about their role models—and to avoid Bono’s phone calls.

While promoting 2004’s Hot Fuss, Flowers’ interviews proffered a hermeneutics of Mormonism acceptable to Teen Beat subscribers and fans of Duran Duran’s first eponymous album: he drank and smoke on occasion; he admired the Pet Shop Boys and Morrissey; he tacitly acknowledged that, while the Killers may have been his first band, he’d had the smarts to hire three of the ugliest men in rock so that only he could hog the spotlight. If Hot Fuss was intermittently powerful enough to support Flowers’ pretensions, the album’s uncertain amble signaled that either The Killers didn’t believe a fucking word of their interviews or that they could mime New Order performances like their namesakes when the albums don’t ship platinum.

Sam’s Town
puzzles, like Flowers’ new mustache. It is simply appalling that no one reminded the band about the album’s ridiculous sequencing. A reminder, kids: an “Enterlude” should be, you know, the first song, not the second. Burying “Read My Mind,” the album’s only surefire hit, in the second half when it should have followed first single “When You Were Young” smacks of carelessness or stupidity: Flowers can spell “hurricane” but not “gestalt.” The spectacularly named “Bling (Confessions of a King)” is a showcase for guitarist Adam Keuning’s imitations of The Edge, not Flowers’ duet with Jay-Z. The cautionary tale “Uncle Jonny” fails to work up a sweat about drugs or rhyming dictionaries (“When everyone else did cocaine / My Uncle Jonny did refrain”); it must rankle Flowers that Justin Timberlake’s recent “Losing My Way” deploys anti-crack bombast more affectingly.

Romantic tropes, as Byron and Kate Bush understood, are useful simulacra for coitus. If Flowers has had sex since the release of Hot Fuss, Sam’s Town is a woeful advertisement. The low bass throb of “Read My Mind” evokes the cumulatively desperate crawl of Jacques Lu Cont’s Thin White Duke remix of “Mr. Brightside”; but where Flowers limns the latter’s paranoid scenario in garish three-dimensional hues, the former has restless-hearts, promised-lands, and other Springsteenian table scraps that won’t impress anybody on a first date. It doesn’t help that Flowers sings his big numbers like a soccer ball had winded him a minute before opening his mouth—a damn shame, since a pip of a tune like “All the Things That I’ve Done” showed what a singer whose emotional range compensated for a limited physical range can do. In a touching display of solidarity with their leader’s hysterics, the band insert awful fills and accelerate the tempos on sex-jive like “Bones” and (really) “The River Is Wild.” It’s not that Flowers writes songs he’s physically incapable of singing; he writes songs that no one wants to sing.

An album as straight as Sam’s Town forces one to deploy grad school jargon like “hetero-normative,” but from the new influences to the performances this is a classic example of gay panic. Perhaps Flowers was genuinely unaware of how many men watched the “All The Things That I’ve Done” video just to swoon at the sight of him washing his hair (I’m not one of them, but he was dorky-cute in a ten-gallon hat like Dave Gahan’s circa 1990). Perhaps he fails to note the relish with which he bites down hard on the “beautiful boy” line in “When We Were Young.” Perhaps he forgets that he used to wear makeup and love the Pet Shop Boys and Morrissey. Their susceptibility to a homo reading lent those early songs their soupcon of subtext. Despite Flowers’ gaseous poetry and weedy melodramatics he carried the flag for a new prototype: the straight guy who wishes he was as cool, stylish, and awesomely self-assured as he imagines his gay best friend to be. To realize this synth-swish/muscle-queen mythos, he will have to understand that Born in the U.S.A. showed a more variegated Springsteen than its mega-sales (not to mention Born to Run) suggested. The Boss also had the foresight to wear jeans as tight as the gates on Max Weinberg’s drums—the little boys and girls understood.