Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Transformation Nightmares (Advertising Style)

Advertisers use a diverse range of strategies to get deep within consumer’s unconscious – trying to create and then satisfy constructed desires related to Lacanian lack (the difference between our sense of self, or subjectivity, and the external representations of us). One of the most popular is the transformational advertising that brings in hundreds of billions of dollars a year selling diet, exercise, cosmetics, beauty and other products and plastic surgery procedures. As many before me have noted, the problem with transformational advertising is the way it sells an ideal that is both ephemeral (young) and impossible to achieve (see for example Killing Us Softly or Dove’s Evolution ad).

Transformational advertising starts with the premise that something, or everything, is wrong with you. Look at the cover of just about any mainstream women’s magazine and you will get the message that you a) are too fat, b) have bad skin, c) have a bad sex life, d) are too fat, e) are out of style and f) are too fat. The underlying message is “I’m not thin enough, I’m not sexy enough and doggone it,  no one likes me.” (SNL).Transformation advertising starts with the presumption that people are unhappy, unsatisfied and need to change by spending money, if they are to live the dream life provided by those same advertisers. And the effects are profound – from the low self-esteem so many adolescent girls develop (boys don’t suffer the same fate as often), to the objectification of women by both men and themselves, to the eating disorders pandemic spreading outward from the U.S. to the farthest reaches of the globe.

The latest example of this troubling, though long-standing advertising practice comes to us from the Daily Mail: Who IS that Girl? Is it any wonder girls seem so unhappy, even with the dramatic increase in power, freedom and opportunity the past four decades have provided? Here are the before and after pics …



Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Banksy in NYC

The infamously secretive British street artist Banksy is spending the month of October doing a "residency" in the streets of New York City. While the author is less than impressed with his calling out of the City for failing to rebuild the Twin Towers, you can find 20 of his pieces here: CNN

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bumbling Buffoon Jason Garrett Should be Canned by the Boys

Continuing with the theme from yesterday, let's talk about the American version of football for a moment. I have been a Dallas Cowboys fan since my dad bought me a helmet at the tender age of 5. While it has certainly been less painful than my love for the New York Jets, besides the 90s success of Tony Aikman, it has included a lot of near misses – just missing out on the Super Bowl four times under Danny White, losing a heartbreaker to the Steelers with Staubach and more recently, missing out on the playoffs with a late swan song. In the past two seasons, the Cowboys have lost far too many games late – sometimes based on chokes by Tony Romo, but more often in my mind based on terrible coaching by Jason Garrett. Garrett is an intelligent young coach, but he just doesn’t know how to manage games, particularly at the end, and they too often either blow a lead or fail to get the final score that could have won it.

Dallas was ten up against Detroit after four turnovers in the fourth quarter, gave back a touchdown, got it back up to ten, let Detroit score again and then stopped them with less than two minutes left and no timeouts. Somehow, they couldn’t run the clock down and close out the game. Instead they kicked a field goal to go up six and then allowed Detroit to run down the field for a winning score with only seconds remaining. Garrett seems to take the air out of Romo when he’s playing well, doesn’t understand how to use timeouts to control the clock, fails to make the right decisions in the clutch and watches the team blow games they should have won. This was among the most obvious, but one could include games against the Ravens, Eagles and Giants last year (as well as the Redskins maybe), another against the Browns and two this season.

He might be a great coach some day, but Dallas has a potent offense that is being undermined far too often by his bumbling buffoonery. Enough already!

P.S. Since I'm bashing managers, why not take a cheap shot at retired Manchester United great Sir Alex Ferguson. I've never been a fan of arguably the great coach in the history of world football, but respected his incredible and sustained success. But after bowing out with an improbable title run to finish on top, Fergie's second autobiography came out last week. There were the great stories you would expect, but also a lot of taking down of players -- including those like Beckham and Keane that helped deliver him trophies and others still on the pitch. I know England is among the most sensationalist countries in the world, and these stories will help sell the book, but it just seems in poor taste and lacking the class of someone with his pedigree. Maybe that's the world we live in today, but I really think it was a rather sad swan song for a legend. 

The Day of the Refs and Managers (Gone Wild)

First for the good news. In a sloppy game on the road at Crystal Palace, Arsenal did what title contenders must do: win games ugly when they don’t play particularly well. Arsenal very well could have lost the game but instead walked away 2-0 winners, on a penalty by Arteta (47’) and a late goal from in-form Giroud (87’) on a lovely cross from Ramsey. But in between those two goals, there were two excellent saves from Szczesny and a questionable straight red card for Arteta on a play in which ex-Gunner Chamakh backed into him at least 40 yards out. On top of this, we lost Flamini early, probably for the next two weeks at least, when we will play Chelsea in the Capital One Cup, Liverpool and Man United at the Emirates, as well as Bayern on the road in the UCL. It is a tough run, with many of our starters still injured, but a run where we must perform well to keep ourselves in the hunt for the easiest available trophy, the knock-out stage of the Champion’s League and remain at the top of the table. These less than three weeks will go a long way toward defining our season and one hopes the last two games were but a blip on a fine start to the season.

Now onto the classico, where Real Madrid outplayed Barcelona in the second half after getting thoroughly outplayed in the first, but still lost all three points. The game started with some questionable calls from new coach Ancelotti, starting Gareth Bale, who did little, moving Ramos up to defensive midfield, for the first time since 2005, and leaving Isco and Benzema on the bench. The plan backfired and Real went into the break down 1-0 after a fine, if fortuitous, goal by Neymar (19’). But Real came alive in the second half and should have had the opportunity for an equalizer, but for a bizarre no call on a clear penalty as Ronaldo was taken down from behind in a clear goal scoring position inside the box. This was but one of a number of questionable calls by the referee. But a beautiful chip goal from Alexis Sanchez made it 2-0 and a late goal by wunderkind Jese was not enough to avoid giving three points to Barcelona and a six point cushion in the title race. Bad coaching? Probably an exaggeration, though it was clearly risky. Bad refereeing? No question.

And now to a bizarre but entertaining World Series game in which the Red Sox twice came back from two run deficits before ceding the game on a knuckle-headed play that will go down in the annals of baseball history. It started with men on second and third and one out. First, was yet another bizarre decision by Red Sox Manager John Farrell, deciding to pitch to John Jay rather than load the bases with Pete Kozma and Kolten Wong coming up (two hitters doing nothing at the moment). Jay hit the ball hard to the right side, but Dustin Pedroia dove to his right, snagged the ball, jumped up and fired it home, getting Molina at the plate. Then, with no real chance to get Craig at third, Boston catcher Jarrod Saltamacchia threw the ball down the line anyway. Will Middlebrook, who had taken over at third after pinch hitting and allowed two runs to score after missing out on a very makeable play earlier, failed to come off the bag to get the ball. The ball went off his glove and into left field while he floundered on the ground. But when Craig started to run for home, Middlebrook raised his legs from his belly, essentially “obstructing” the runner and the third based umpire immediately called for him to advance one base. But no one realized what was going on and a throw to the plate beat the runner, who would have been out. So the game didn’t go to extra innings but was instead decided by the call. It was a disappointing end to a gritty performance from the Red Sox, but was just the latest questionable call from their new manager, who has taken them from a terrible season to 1-1 in the World Series in one year.

Let’s look at a couple of those decisions: 1) He pinch hit for pitcher Felix Doubrant in the top of the seventh with two outs, even though he was doing great relief work (and then brought in Craig Breslow, who gave up two runs and the tie – though partially because of below par plays from new third baseman Middlebrook (who pinch hit for Doubrant ) and rookie 8-year old phenomenon Xavier Bogaerts). 2) Then, in the top of the ninth, with one out, he allowed pitcher Workman to hit – leading to a strikeout. After he gave up a leadoff hit, he was pulled in the bottom of the inning anyway, and with Napoli sitting on the bench, one has to wonder what the hell he was thinking. 3) Pitching to Jay, as outlined above. At least three bad decisions in one game is not terribly impressive, though most of his decisions this year have been spot on, and thus it would be harsh to adjudge him as anything but a little off his game tonight – and, of course, hindsight is 20/20. The Cardinals themselves could have won the game running away, but for their failure to bring in a runner on third with less than two outs – on two occasions – and by stranding 12 runners. Now the Red Sox find themselves in a 2-1 hole with a tough pitching matchup tomorrow night.

On top of all this, Man United again found themselves down at home – twice – before pulling off a late equalizer and winner to remind fans of the good-ole Fergie-time days. Yet the equalizer from Hernandez maybe should have never come, as his elbow to the throat might have led to a straight red from a ref following the rules, a few minutes earlier. Not the best day for managers or umpires/referees, but an entertaining one nonetheless. More action tomorrow, let’s hope the players decide the outcome on the field, without any undo help … or hindrance.  

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Arsenal Lose to Dortmund 2-1

It was always bound to happen. Since the opening day loss to Aston Villa, Arsenal has been unbeaten in all competitions, with only one draw in that run. They entered the game at the Emirates last night with the opportunity to all but secure their entry into the knockout stage of the Champion’s League. Instead they ceded a late goal to the world-class Polish striker Lewandowski, losing 2-1. Coupled with the Napoli victory over Marseille, it made our route through the group of death that much more difficult. Realistically, we will probably need to grab at least a point on the road against Napoli or Dortmund and win at home against Marseille. This is not an impossible task, but life could have been much easier, even with a draw. On the other hand, victory at Napoli is certainly a possibility and we must push for a point against Dortmund in the return fixture. Some thoughts on the game …

1.     Tactics: Dortmund overran us in midfield through much of the game, pushing up and challenging us at every opportunity (even in the back). Over the course of the game, Dortmund covered 117,887 metres versus 1006,281 for Arsenal. This strategy worked for opponents last season, until our impressive end of the season run, and the wingers’ return will be anticipated with great relish. With Ox, Pod and Walcott all out, we lacked width, allowing Dortmund to clog the middle and press across the pitch. It did provide opportunities on the wings, but Wilshere and Rosicky were too apt to cut in and, with the exception of the rather fortuitous equalizer right before halftime, Sagna’s crossing was abysmal.
2.     Wilshere: I hate to beat dead horse, but it’s my tendency. Wilshere has been rather average this season, forgoing the two goals in the past two games. In this match, he gave the ball away constantly, either through bad passes (65% completion rate), poor crosses, or simply dribbling into two and three defenders. Don’t get me wrong, he is a very talented young player with major potential, but he has to work on two things – his positional discipline and his thinking on the pitch. Wilshere just makes poor decisions far too often and goes to the ground even more than Bale or Ronaldo, though with much less effect. The fact that we are generally better without him was brought into clear focus the moment he was replaced by Cazorla, who was inches away from giving Arsenal the lead, hitting the top of the post after a nice layoff from Ozil. Arsenal actually dominated the later stages of the match and were unlucky not to take the lead, before a second defensive lapse cost them a point.
3.     Flamini: the original derision that Wenger received for picking Flamini up on a free, after he left back in 2008, has long since faded as the defensive mid has shored up our defense and eliminated one of our biggest problems (being outmuscled from the back). His absence last night was sorely felt, as we couldn’t control the middle of the pitch and were too often disorganized at the back (particularly on the two goals). The question that might come up in the next window, or next summer, is whether we should sign another quality DM to backup Flamini, as Arteta is not as strong in that role and seems to slow down our attack far too often.
4.     Don’t Read Too Much into This One: Arsenal lost to a team that was a late goal away from extra time with Bayern in the Champion’s League final a few months back. But for a weak start and loss of focus in the end, we still would have gotten at least a point (with a rare mistake by Ramsey the reason for the first goal). Once Wilshere came off, Arsenal came alive, and were a better final pass away from taking the lead. The next few weeks will go a long way toward determining whether this is the beginning of the fade, or a stumble along the path to a fine season. The match against a manager-less Crystal Palace should restore our winning ways before a key Capital One Cup showdown with Chelsea Tuesday. After that, we will have to again show our away chops against Dortmund and then Napoli along with matches against Man United and Liverpool. By December 1, we can start to consider where the Gunners truly stand at the moment.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Third Season Jinx?

The third season of a TV show can be a perilous moment in its attempt to stay relevant and hit the all-important 100 episode threshold, which allows syndication and a long-term revenue stream. Moonlighting started to go downhill in the third season, never fully recovering before being cancelled in the fifth. Cheers had to completely revamp the show after Diane left for a failed movie career. And there are a host of other shows that either died in that third season or never fully recovered from the difficulty of maintaining momentum, particularly if there is a requited or unrequited love affair between the two main characters (if the former, how do you replace the erotic and romantic tension, if the latter, how do you keep people from growing weary of the constant near misses and false starts).

Two quality shows have recently embarked on their third season, Homeland and Scandal, and both appear to be suffering from the third season curse. With Homeland, the problem is separating the two main characters and finding a way to restore the tension that made the show so compelling in the wake of a major, still unexplained terror attack. It seems the show was ripe for a riveting third season where Saul (Mandy Patinkin) and Carrie (Claire Danes) pushed to find the real terrorists behind the season two finale and Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) attempted to escape a worldwide search of his capture. Instead, we are a few episodes in with Carrie spending most of her time in a mental ward and Nicholas somehow trapped in a Venezuelan criminal network that has taken over an abandoned high rise. The latter story, played out last week, felt constructed from a recent New Yorker story I read without any rhythm or reason beyond showing how brutal the South American criminals are. The former lacks sufficient suspense to keep it going. And the general tenor of the show has been so ratcheted down that is feels almost soporific, with Brody’s once fascinating daughter now a suicide-attempt-survivor on the run with her boyfriend.

With Scandal, the problem might be the opposite – how to maintain a soap opera storyline about a high-priced crisis manager and President, who with some help stole an election and continue an on-again, off-again affair, without pushing the suspension of disbelief beyond the bounds of reasonable doubt. Maybe that is too much to ask with a show that has already included the aforementioned stolen election, an assassination attempt, a shadow government organization that trains killers and sometimes locks them up in holes in the ground for months, a President who admits to an extramarital affair among other rather major peccadilloes  several near death experiences and a main character who would have to do enough cocaine to kill a horse to act and think at the frenetic pace she maintains throughout most of the first two plus seasons. Scandal has always been a guilty pleasure for me, found while I was stuck in bed sick a year or so ago, and then watched ever since in spurts. While the character development is compelling at times and the constantly rising suspense and numerous subplots make the show riveting, it is starting to feel like too much this season -- Days of our Lives meets Days of Thunder meets Three Days of the Condor.

Maybe both shows will recover in time to save themselves, or at least maintain some semblance of quality, but it is clear that the third season of any show is the moment it marks its destiny and these two could be moving toward the trash heap that covers most of the dial or to the trash heap of television history itself. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Conservative Machine

For the first time in a long time, I decided to watch the morning political talk shows – flipping between Face the Nation, Meet the Press and Fox News Sunday. One reason I no longer watch these shows is the rather skewed and narrow way in which they cover the news and frame larger debates and the lack of any real depth in the reportage or commentary from the many guests (and hosts themselves). But what has always fascinated and infuriated me is the way conservatives so perfectly coordinate their talking points so that whatever channel you are on, you will hear them ad nauseum from the guests, the pundits themselves in some cases and every talking head across the Fox News empire. This week, in the wake of a defeat for the Republican House, it was funny and troubling to watch this trend taken back to the brilliant days of 2000 and the “theft in Florida” as the pundits, particularly at Fox, consistently sold a narrative claiming Republicans are actually in a stronger position than Democrats in the wake of the shutdown – essentially whitewashing the fact the nation is completely disenchanted with not only government in general, but conservatives in particular.

Another key element of this discourse and, essentially, propaganda strategy is to ignore the broader implications of what one of the two parties (or maybe 1 ¾ of 2 to be accurate) in America stands for and what it’s doing to Ameica – for example, the still historically high unemployment rates, the other debt problem (those of the American individual and family), falling wages, worsening benefits and the general decline in quality of life for the 99 percent. There was little to no discussion of how the shutdown undermines representative democracy (with one GOP Senator actually turning the tables and saying Obama was “ransoming” America, without any explanation)Instead the debate revolves around the crisis to come, who won, the strategic implications, a breakdown of every word in Obama’s speech from Thursday, representatives of the shutdown (with one saying that it was actually Reed and Obama who caused the shutdown because they refused to cowtow to GOP pressure to delay Obamacare, among other ridiculous and unfounded commentary).

But to get back to the point at hand, the most interesting thing to me was how often I heard the key GOP talking points repeated. The three main ones revolved around the fact the “Obamacare” website is down for repairs this weekend (they sure like their shutdowns), how the Head of the Department of Health and Human Services was skipping testifying before Congress to go to some Gala (though I seriously doubt they are at the same time!!!!!) and how the Republicans actually won’t be terribly hurt by the shutdown. This last point is, of course, the most important, as it is the “big lie” strategy deployed over and over again by conservative elite who firmly believe, with just cause, that many Americans will ultimately believe just about anything repeated often enough (for example the changing Iraq War rationale, that we found weapons of mass destruction there, that global warming is a conspiracy by scientists to improve the environment, that Obama is a Muslim who wasn’t born in America, that government is always bad and that the American Dream justifies Ancient Babylonian inequality).

Ultimately it is their message control that is the most impressive. They have maintained a consistent message throughout much of the past 30 years that papers over the damage caused by the Reagan-Bush-Bush junta together with a keen focus on the small details whenever the glaring failures of this agenda come to the fore. They are the great conjurers who through sleight of hand rewrite the history of the Reagan administration as a heroic and popular eight years (while he left teetering around 50 percent approval rating), push the blame for the current financial imbroglio onto Obama (who obviously inherited it from Bush II), ignore the successes of the New Deal and Great Society, find fall guys for their failures around every corner (liberalism, affirmative action, feminism, gays and “illegal immigrants”), create fictionalized crises around every corner while ignoring the real ones (for example the consistent lie about the short term sustainability of Social Security or the negative effects of Obamacare) and consistently marshal the corporate-elitist interest convergence while playing at a populism that has little to do with its roots. Reagan once said that facts are stupid things, and this seems to really be at the heart of the bamboozling strategy that has served the conservative revolution for so long. Now more than ever it might be time to reaffirm the sanctity of the truth and what it might do to save this sinking ship we call America. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Arsenal Win 4-1 (over Norwich)

For spells of the game at the Emirates today, Arsenal looked very average. But surrounding those spells was some truly sublime football that showed they can play without any natural wingers and still dominate possession and create goals. Wilshere opened up the scoring in the 18th minute with a wonderfully inventive exchange that started with Cazorla, who passes to Wilshere. He drove forward and passed to Giroud who clipped it back, Wilshere returned it with a back heel and then Giroud swung it back to Wilshere who coolly slotted home. It was his second goal in two and papered over some rather poor passing around that goal. In the 50th minute, Giroud sent in a cross from the edge of the box on a counter and Ozil headed it in. But up 2-0 and maybe ready to cruise to victory, Norwich got back in it.

Jonny Howson finally made sustained Norwich pressure pay off with a well placed finish off of a poor clearance, with Gibbs failing to close in quickly enough. But sub Ramsey, on for Flamini in the 37’, took the ball from Wilshere, rounded two defenders, brought the ball back to his stronger foot and blasted it past Ruddy from close range; bring his impressive goal total to 9 for the young season. Arsenal made sure of things five minutes later (89’) when Bendtner spotted Ramsey across the box, sent it over and Ramsey assisted an easy tap in for Ozil. The final score might have been a bit flattering to a sometimes jaded Gunner performance, but it puts them two clear at the top of the league, and put eight points between them and Manchester United, who suffered a draw at home after giving up a late equalizer to an impressive Southampton side.

So can we talk of a Gunners title run yet? Arsenal still have to play Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool and Everton twice and must avoid the drop in form that has plagued them for a decade, but they certainly have the talent to give title favorites Chelsea and City pause. The back four is playing well in tandem, Flamini has become the great organizer in front and Ramsey and Ozil are playing like two of the top midfielders in the world. If Wilshere can continue to chip in with the occasional goal and Giroud gets back in scoring form (he is great around the box with his passing but needs to make more and better cuts), together with the return of Ox, Walcott and Podolski, who can argue against ending the eight-year trophy drought this year. The most exciting time to be a Gooner in several years. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Media Newspeak

Yesterday I discussed the GOP tendency to use Orwellian newspeak techniques to mask their radical right wing, corporate agenda. Today I wanted to briefly look at mainstream media and an example of their complicity in these language games (as reported in Salon).

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was the victim of a revolt by journalists over the language he was using in describing the shutdown. Speaking a couple hours before congressional Republican leaders were due at the White House for a meeting on the matter, Carney said it remained to be seen whether the opposition would "put the matches and gasoline aside when it comes to threatening default." He also said the proposed short-term extension of the debt ceiling, which would the government would hit next week without congressional action, was a way for Republicans to keep the "nuclear weapon" of undermining the economy in their "back pocket."

But it was the word “ransom,” one repeatedly used by Obama (and me, to be fair), that got the White House correspondents into a huff. "You see it as a ransom, but it's a metaphor that doesn't serve our purposes ... " NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro shouted back with broad support from other confused reporters. "You guys are just too literal then, right? Carney said.
"We just want to accurately report," Shapiro began before Carney interjected. "We're trying to be accurate in our description of what's going on."

Why would this term strike such a cord of dissent? Some argue that it was merely a plea for more detailed explanation of what would bring the Obama administration back to the table. Others see it as a more sinister turn, highlighting the conservative media bent that generally goes unreported outside of the Alterman/Chomsky set. But isn’t “ransom” an accurate description of what is happening? The Republican House has shut down the federal government unless their demands are met – essentially holding someone hostage (the American people). They will keep those people hostages until their demands are met. Isn’t this ransom? In fact, it seems like the perfect metaphor as federal employees are laid off, food stamp benefits dry up (and people thus go hungry) and national parks close across the country (among a host of other problems). The metaphor was sound, and substantially more accurate than much of the conservative rhetoric we’ve been getting for years. It’s yet another troubling example of the way the media frames the news, undermining criticality and truth in their disingenuous push for “objectivity” and “neutrality.”

And as an aside, I decided to look at my “My Yahoo” page and see what different media outlets are pushing as stories. For CNN, the list looks like this: 1. Democrats More Extreme than GOP? 2. College App Frenzy is Nuts, 3. London Zoo’s Tiger Cub Drowns, 4. Photo: Elusive Street Artist Banksy and 5. 77-lb. Weiner Dog Drops 50 pounds. Wow, what a riveting display of objectivity and having your pulse on what matters to Americans. The New York Times does a better job with: 11th-Hour Senate Fiscal Deal in Works, Viewing U.S. in Fear and Dismay, Debt Default Deadline Clear, but Implications Are Not, With G.O.P. Badly Divided, Boehner Is Left ‘Herding Cats’ and South Dakota Ranchers Face Storm’s Toll, but U.S.’ Helping Hands Are Tied. Then I looked across at Yahoo News, which did cover the crisis along with a few other news stories of questionable value: New House Republican plan dead before arrival as default looms, Wall Street ends lower, futures fall after Fitch rating move, Tiny Homes: Man Lives in Self-Built Hobbit Hole in Rural Oregon, Rielle Hunter apologizes for affair with John Edwards and Senate in spotlight as US on brink of possible default

GOP Newspeak

I’ve noticed in recent months an increasing number of conservative voices animating the political “dialogue” on CNN. This is actually not a new trend, but a response to their losing market share over the past several years to Fox. But the disingenuous nature of so much of this “journalism” is worth considering as our democracy stands on the precipice of becoming little more than a bygone dream. For just one example among many, let’s look at the latest opinion piece from Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, Are Democrats More Extreme than Conservatives?

The piece is based on the tired premise that the new center has always existed and that it is the appropriate starting point for any political discussion. Clinton is sold as a reasonable democrat while LBJ and FDR are the leftist lunatics of a bygone era, when people thought government could, like, do stuff – like temper the magnitude and length of economic downturns, protect consumers and workers and help those most in need. Those bygone days are sold as government overreach and the work of near-communists who almost destroyed the economy, even as one helped save us from the worst economic downturn in the history of capitalism and the other did more than any president to lift up the poor and provide more opportunities for blacks in America. But this strategy is also brilliant and effective – by moving the center ever more to the right, it makes even moderate liberals seem extreme. So Obama, a disappointment to many progressives since his strong first two years in office, seem like a radical leftist hell bent on bringing back the Great Society: “Let us count the reasons: Barack Obama has taken the Democratic Party left of Clinton. He left blue-dog, centrist Democrats to be punished for his sins and they were wiped out in the GOP's 2010 Congressional landslide. All the while, the Internet has empowered and organized the party's remaining and most extreme elements. The Democratic Party can't go left. It is left, in entirety. They already occupy America's left fringe.”

Left fringe? If this is the left fringe, then there really is no hope for the future of the country. What is so leftist about this government? Is left of Clinton even necessarily liberal? Lest us forget the triangulation strategy that said let’s act like Republicans on economic issues while maintaining our liberal values – which led to media consolidation, the privatization of prisons, banking reform that hurt everyone except bankers and Wall Street and a false fiscal paradise that came crashing down seven years after he left office. But more to the point, what is so radical about Democrats today? Have they increased spending dramatically? Have they helped unemployed workers beyond extending their meager benefits so they don’t become homeless? Have they helped minorities to gain financially or academically? Have they helped the millions of families who lost their homes? Have they done enough to help stem the tide of global warming or anything to push for election finance reform? Have they done enough to regulate Wall Street in the wake of almost destroying the global economy?

The work of Obama only looks radical to radicals, who believe that Reagan was a great President, Bush’s only sin was not cutting spending and the Tea Party radicals are heroes (even if they need to beat them up a little to sound reasonable themselves). Really the argument just boils down to tired rhetoric with no substance like “Bill Clinton's New Democrats are dead. This is not Hillary Clinton's Democratic Party. Today's Democratic Party belongs to Elizabeth Warren. It is the party that just nominated a Sandinista trainee who returned from Nicaragua with "a vision of unfettered leftist government" for mayor of New York City, according to the New York Times.” Or “They dream audaciously, as Ruy Teixeira wrote in the Atlantic, of a new ‘Emerging Democratic Majority.’ As Peter Beinart noted in a Daily Beast piece, ‘The Rise of the New New Left,’ ‘Bill de Blasio's win in New York's Democratic primary isn't a local story. It's part of a vast shift that could upend three decades of American political thinking.’ The Democratic Party is now animated by the "mobilized left," Beinart writes, emboldened by Internet activism. Their cause was galvanized by President Obama's seemingly impossible re-election.”

Where’s the beef here? Oh my God, Democrats actually think they can win and actually challenge the 30 year rightward turn in America that has helped the rich and super rich but few others? How dare they! And was it really impossible to believe Obama could beat a guy who called a large minority of Americans lazy bastards who wanted to live off the government? But more acute analysis must be in the offing, to back his point, right? No, just more senseless piffle like this gem of reasoned analysis, “As Fred Thompson has noted, Barack Obama has been "George McGovern without the experience." Obama's answer to every economic challenge has been top-down. Our governing class knows best, he believes, especially since Washington's elite now includes him.
If the world has changed in eight decades, our President hasn't noticed. His view of government is cast from the bronze of Franklin Roosevelt and the '30s. He puts our big, dumb, inflexible public sector at the top of American life, to mandate redistribution and prosperity.”

Wow, he actually thinks our “big, dumb, inflexible public sector” can solve problems? No, he’s right – let’s continue to count on those corporations who really do have our best interests at heart; though when we’ll see the benefits is left to our imagination alone. But there’s more, of course: “His government doesn't govern education: The U.S. educational system barely edges out nations such as Slovakia, in international rankings. His government doesn't govern retirement: Our public-sector retirement system is akin to an unsustainable Ponzi scheme. His government doesn't govern health care: The Affordable Care Act is making health care more unaffordable for many seniors. His old government doesn't govern our economy: A record high 89 million Americans don't participate in the workforce and 300,000 more dropped out this August. Barack Obama is building the largest public sector since World War II and, yet, our government governs nothing. Still, an intellectually exhausted Democratic Party proposes nothing new. If at first you don't succeed, keep trying until you are $20 trillion in debt and failure litters your streets.”

In one sentence Obama runs a “do nothing” government and in the next he is growing the public sector without results. But what can we say of Reagan or the Bushes? They grew the debt (Reagan from a manageable level to heretofore unseen levels while moving the U.S. from the biggest creditor to debtor in the world), helped accumulate more and more wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people, reduced regulation leading to more financial crises and scandals, turned back the advances of affirmative action, attacked feminism relentlessly, sped up the destruction of our environment and made the world a less safe, less friendly and less free place for the many.

Essentially, Obama is supposed to fix the mess of thirty years of Republican rule by simply doing more of the same. This appears to be the argument. And if he doesn’t, he is a radical leftist that is undermining not only GOP orthodoxy, but some new American political philosophy that is heretical to challenge. And apparently it is he who is heralding tired old ideas, “While our world transforms itself through revolutions in energy, technology and communication, the ideologists of the left stagnate. Barack Obama's Democratic Party is intellectually exhausted. Their old Democratic Party has nothing up its sleeves but more of the same.”

So what is his alternative? Apparently a Republican party with exciting new ideas about shrinking government, dismantling the welfare state and successful entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, cutting taxes to the wealthy, more deregulation and destroying the last bastions of democracy and the environment with great aplomb, “A Republican Party advocating a path to fresh, natural, economic growth? Or a Democratic Party offering young voters the outdated economics of conformity, artificially imposed by Washington's elites?”

This is newspeak in its purest form from beginning to end. Remember the three central tenets of that Orwellian world: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength. Bush had us fight a war to “protect the peace” and then told us that “freedom isn’t free.” But what the GOP counts on more than anything is that ignorance is strength. It is certainly their only strength staving off irrelevance in the future political scene. Let’s hope the public isn’t buying anymore. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

The New Insurrection

One question that often animates contemporary political debates is how the South and large swaths of Middle America became such willing advocates for the conservative revolution, most recently found in the Tea Party. In What's the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank argued that wedge issues were at the heart of the matter, with abortion, religion and battles over other social issues surrounding how to save a fictitious “American culture” brought to the fore by the triangulation strategy of Clinton and the New Liberalism (essentially removing the liberal adherence to the belief that government could solve social problems and replacing it with neoliberal ideology). Yet Larry Bartels provided a rather compelling empirical refutation of this claim in his famous essay What's the Matter with What's the Matter with Kansas?, even as I believe there is still some truth to Frank’s argument. Others have argued that the victory of conservatism relates more to a backlash against the New Deal and particularly  the Great Society of LBJ and a belief America had gone too far down the road toward equality. A more balanced argument suggests that it is a combination of these trends, with the falling quality of life for many white, middle class Americans in the 70s reframed as the result of government overreach and the victories of the Civil Rights movement, feminism and liberalism in general.

Scapegoating is certainly at the heart of the new conservative discourse with affirmative action, feminism, gays, immigrants, the “liberal” media, educational progressivism and progressivism in general blamed for our collective decline. The discourse is decidedly values-based and equally founded on a series of displacements that move blame from corporations and economic transformation (including the abandonment of manufacturing toward a service-based economy with extensive outsourcing and overseas production, declining real wages and benefits and the accumulation of wealth in the hands of financial, media, corporate and entertainment robber barons together with the decline in government intervention in markets and abdication of its role in addressing social problems) toward the aforementioned evils that conservative talking heads constantly attack with the vitriol of fascists. This displacement is arguably effective mainly because it feeds on deep historical trends in American culture including a distrust of government, racism and religious transcendentalism.

Another argument centers on the ideological end, claiming people are simple pawns unable to discern fact from fiction in the new spectacle society. It is easy to argue that many people vote against their economic interests because they have been bamboozled into doing so by the values agenda or the displacement of blame. But the reality is decidedly more complex. For one thing, the poor and working class do often vote for Democrats and more and more upper class whites vote for Republicans, thus reflecting their narrow personal interests perfectly. For another, the American voters have elected a Black president by decent margins in two successive elections and could very well make the legislative and executive branches Democratic next year. And finally is the rather interesting argument about where federal and even state funding goes and how this might elicit political cynicism over time (accented by the media’s framing of social crisis as the new normal and the selling of government as innately corrupt and inept in film after film since the 80s). But this still leaves the question of poor and working class whites in the South, Central and Midwest states who do vote for a party that not only works against their economic interests, but seems to hold them in deep disdain? Why are they so easily transformed into the corporate-sponsored armies of the Koch brothers (aka the Tea Party) or such willing advocates for right wing lunatics in the media and political arenas (7 Crazy Right Wing Statements Last Week)?

Henrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker offers further thoughts for consideration in his comments for the upcoming issue (Impeach Obama), claiming that we are witnessing a new insurrection that can be compared to the Confederate South. While the old South wanted to destroy the government, Hertzberg claims the new one merely wants to decimate it – based not on violent civil war but “mendacity, demagoguery and obstructionism.” Yet he also points out a number of similarities between the old separationists and the new including their belief that federal law need not be repealed to be nullified (a belief also reflected in the obstruction of the Brown decision in 1954) and an inability to reconcile with the will of the people reflected in an election. Rather than licking their wounds, doing some soul searching and figuring out how to convince more citizens in this democracy to vote for them, the party has instead decided to hold the government and country hostage until their demands are met. As I’ve noted over the past two weeks, this undermines the idea of representative democracy and the will of the American people, replacing it with blind fundamentalist and the belief their agenda is right no matter what America wants.

As Hertzberg notes, however, there is not even a consistent message of what this conservative fundamentalism wants. At first it was appeal of “Obamacare,” the 40th time the House has voted to overturn the act. Then it moved on to include a whole host of GOP pet projects including still more tax cuts for the rich, Medicare means-testing, loosening of environmental regulations, financial regulation rollback and the end of Net Neutrality. In essence, the GOP is attempting to undermine democracy completely to further their agenda, even as they only control one of the three bodies that make and enact laws.

Yet the current political grandstanding has finally seemed to snap many people out of the gilded haze that has colored their politics for so long. Sure some will continue to vote for the corporate-sponsored party attempting to destroy America one cut in spending or regulation at a time, but many more might finally be waking up to what they are voting for. If that is the case, maybe we can finally move beyond considering What’s the Matter with Conservatives to invoking real and reasoned debate on what Americans want and how we can get there.  

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Death & Taxes: GOP Decline

For the last 30 years or so, I’ve often wondered if a time would come when people finally grow weary of the small government, hate mongering, anti-tax, corporation and elite-sponsored Republican party. Has that time finally arrived? Polls show approval ratings for the GOP at all-time lows (SF Chronicle) and the old guard has certainly gotten in on the critique over the past year. Today, they are holding America and the President hostage to undermine legislation passed by all three branches of the government. What are the people to think? Sure the lunatic fringe is happy, but what about everyone else? Can we really have altered the social contract this much? Do we really want to have our parents and grandparents moving back in with us as retirement funding dries up? Do we really want people dying in the streets and even more homeless? Do we really want the general quality of life to decline as democracy becomes yet another meaningless buzzword? These are serious questions that must be answered as people go to the polls in November. Let’s hope they can remember their collective anger that long …


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Reality: Tea Bagging Style

Corporate Takeover: Retirement

A recent article in Salon, “Exposed: Enron billionaire’s diabolical plot to loot worker’s pensions,” highlights a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts in May 2013 about the lack of retirement savings and “the real possibility of downward mobility in retirement.” This is a story that has been gaining steam for some time now, with the recognition that savings levels are way below where they should be to sustain lifestyles into retirement along with the false apocalyptic visions of the imminent collapse of Social Security.

Since the 80s and conservative revolution began, the GOP has been ceaselessly attacking labor and unions to and decrease labor costs and thus increase corporate profits. As I’ve mentioned endless times on this blog, this attack has worked with arguably the single largest transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to rich in history. Yet is the battle against labor about wages and income alone? Certainly not. Among the other elements of this multi-front attack are increasing the burden of healthcare coverage, reducing job security, increasing debt ratios, undermining worker safety laws and, of course, transferring the responsibility of retirement from business to individuals.

This strategy began in the 80s with the shift from defined benefit to defined contribution plans like 401(k)s and 403(b)s. These plans were sold as providing employees with more freedom in moving from one job to the next and more control over their own money. But what was not said was that the cost of retirement, and the risks associated with investment, were also being passed on from employers to employees. Now they want to go a step further and end Social Security as we know it in the long run and cut public employee pensions in the short run.

And leading this effort to cut state pensions is an odd and troubling collaboration, between Enron billionaire John Arnold and Pew – the same organization warning us about the peril facing future retirees. For over two years, this nefarious partnership has helped push retirement benefit cuts (to varying degrees of success) in California, Florida, Rhode Island, Kansas, Arizona, Kentucky and Montana. They issue joint reports and conduct joint legislative briefings essentially pushing to privatize these accounts, cut overall funding and, of course, enrich Wall Street hedge fund managers.

What is surprising is how partnerships like this are allowed to form and generally go unreported. Pew’s mission is, among other things, in “laying the foundation for effective governments solutions” while the Arnold Foundation appears to be to continue to do the “work” he did at Enron – destroying the pensions of his workers, undermining public sector pensions to the tune of $1.5 billion (as Enron’s share price fell and then collapsed) and enriching himself in the process. It is yet another example of corporate and public sphere power working together to enrich the few at the expense of the many and should remind all of us to be vigilant in the face of statistics and the opinions of experts who claim to support our interests. Particularly as our futures literally depend on it!

Monday, October 07, 2013

Time Cover Says it All


West Brom 1 Arsenal 1 (Tottenham Lose)

Early in the game at West Brom, it looked like Arsenal would dominate the proceedings, passing the ball around and pushing forward at will. But a funny thing happened on the way to victory – West Brom maintained their defense discipline and formation throughout, made it hard for Arsenal to press forward and were excellent on the counter. Arsenal thus found itself in a halftime hole for the first time all season (1-0), after Claudio Yacob headed in a cross from the impressive Morgan Amalfitano in the 42nd minute. It could easily have been a two goal deficit, as Anelka went just wide from the left side with only Szczesny to beat.

After several missed opportunities, it was the unlikely Jack Wilshere to the rescue in the 63rd minute, sending a powerful volley in off a Rosicky pass outside the box. Ozil started the counter, laying it off to Giroud who passed it on to Rosicky on the wing. It was the first goal for Wilshere since 2010 and covered over a rather poor performance in the first half, where he gave the ball away 8 times and overcommitted on a challenge that left Arsenal short at the back. Wilshere continues to show great promise, but his tendency to dribble into multiple defenders or fall too easily looking for free kicks (and a penalty on 76 minutes), makes him a liability often leading to counterattacks by opponents. In the end, given the number of chances West Brom accumulated, it was a good away point and kept Arsenal in first place, though now tied with Liverpool on points and ahead on goals scored. A few short thoughts on the game …

1.  Giroud: the striker has improved dramatically this season, particularly with his holdup play. This was evident throughout the contest, with many attacking moves cutting through him. But he still needs to finish his chances, scorning three that could have given Arsenal the early lead or finished the comeback. The most glaring was in the 76th minute, when a beautiful long pass from Wilshere left him one on one with goalkeeper Boaz Myhill. But a heavy touch and attempt to round the GK failed and the opportunity was lost.
2.  Ozil/Ramsey/Flamini/Wilshere: why change a winning formula? That might be the question Wenger is asking himself after the shift he made in the midfield, dropping two points unnecessarily. Wenger pushed the hottest player in the EPL, Ramsey, to the right, limiting his effectiveness, while lining Arteta and Flamini up next to each other, arguably slowing down the attack from the back. This is not to take away from West Brom, but it appears Arteta and Flamini with Wilshere in front allowed too many counters to emerge and limited our offensive prowess. Ozil was great yet again, to me, but he needs someone to push the game forward. I thought that began to emerge when Rosicky replaced Ramsey, but it was only able to create the equalizer. I believe our best formation at present is Flamini and Ramsey further back, Ozil further forward with Cazorla on the left and Walcott on the right (upon their return) in a 4-2-3-1. Wilshere will get time, but he really needs to improve his game and stop flopping around.
3.  Bendtner’s Return: Nicholas Bendtner made his EPL return in a late game cameo and performed adequately, showing he could serve as the backup until the January window. His holdup play is above-average and he can certainly score goals (around 50 in 120 if I remember correctly at Arsenal).

We now have a couple of weeks off while England and many clubs on the edge of qualifying struggle to make next summer’s World Cup in Brazil. Gunners Wilshere and Gibbs are called up for the crunch clashes against Montenegro and Poland and one hopes no new injury troubles emerge. COYG and good luck to England!

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Zombie Apocalypse … GOP Style

From the epic World War Z (and I mean epically bad) to the comedic Shawn of the Dead and The World’s End (kind of) to the romantic Warm Bodies to the downright terrifying 28 Days Later to the wildly popular Walking Dead, zombie apocalyptic visions have become a genre unto themselves over the past decade or so. They seem to indicate two visions of the West at once: 1. a sense that the future is wrought with peril and that there is little hope of turning things around (particularly if we expand out to include the endless lineup of dystopian films in recent years) and 2. the idea that technology, television, the spectacle society, consumer culture or some combination therein has taken away our individuality and made us into unthinking consuming machines metaphorically walking the street eating the brains and hearts out of those around us. From the very beginning, this has been the subtext of these films, with George Romero always sending his zombies to the mall at some point along their reign of terror.

And it occurred to me as I considered the current GOP-led government shutdown that this is also the unspoken strategy of the Republicans. Constantly speak of apocalypse right around the corner and feed on the unwarranted fears of their zombie-like constituency. From illegal immigration to gay marriage to affirmative action and government intervention, any attempt to improve the lives of some, or most, Americans is sold as eliciting a crisis the moment it is implemented. The most obvious of these appears to be gay marriage with the absurd argument that it will somehow destroy one of the oldest institutions in the history of civilization – marriage itself. Never is there an explanation of how in the world two men or two women being allowed to marry would somehow lead to others abandoning the practice altogether, but plenty of people believe it anyway. In economic terms, it’s called an identification problem, where cause and effect are confused with correlation, but has the divorce rate even risen since “gay marriage” was allowed in several states. I doubt it, and even if it has, it is hard to believe that men or women will suddenly give up their own marriages simply because others are allowed to share in this critical rite of passage that serves social reproduction and stability so well.

The same can be said of “illegal immigrants” and the rather obvious subtext that too many of them – from Mexico and South America, to make specific what is rarely mentioned – will undermine what American culture is and means. Over time this may be true, but while the Irish, Italians, Jews and other non-Wasps that have stormed our shores over the past 180 years have certainly influenced our culture, it is hard to argue it has not been in positive ways. The equally absurd argument that they steal quality jobs is belied by the reality of their economic and vocational status and the fact that this is the essence of the fading American dream from our very birth.

On the question of the shutdown specifically, Republicans warn that more people having insurance will lead to the very destruction of American culture. But what is this based on? Presumably it is the tired old argument that government influence of markets in any instance is implicitly bad and auguring of future despair. And yet a careful analysis of the past 100 years tends to show exactly the opposite. When government intervenes in the market, as they did most obviously in the Great Depression and then through to the Great Society of LBJ, there is more equality, a larger middle class, more stability, less economic crisis and a better quality of life for the many.

At the most basic level, healthcare defines the skewed thinking of so many Americans. While we hear terrifying tales of educational systems across Europe and their “socialized medicine,” the reality is that America has the lowest life expectancy, highest infant mortality rates and largest expenditures on healthcare of any industrialized country in the world. And Obamacare is not socialized medicine. It is simply an attempt to provide reasonable rates for all Americans to get coverage. Why contest something that seems so just and democratic? Well, it will hurt the insurance companies. And the Republican Party today is little more than spokesperson, advocate, lobbyist and legitimator for the corporate takeover of America. If we continue to act like zombies, that apocalypse will find us!

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Arsenal 2 Napoli 0

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! This was the best game Arsenal has played in some time, a display of excellent possession football, creativity, pressing and then sitting back and absorbing pressure. The final score was actually a disservice to the dominance the Gunners displayed throughout, starting with a first half that has to be one of the best displays in Europe this season. Arsenal got on the board early, with an eighth minute majestic finish from Ozil after a great cutback from Ramsey in the box. But the play was started by Olivier Giroud, who must be reading my blog (just kidding), as his hold-up play was excellent in this game after a rather paltry display against Swansea. Giroud goes for the more aggressive approach to stopping the ball and starting the attack and when it works, it is something to see. The second goal was Ozil at his exceptional best, getting down the right hand edge of the box, after Arsenal’s pressing led to dispossession and then slotted across for an easy, but impressive Giroud finish. From there, Arsenal continued to control possession (70 percent in the first half) and regularly push forward with purpose and finesse. The understanding between Ramsey and Ozil is something to behold, and this also appears to be developing with Giroud.

It was also great to see Rosicky back in the fold and he provides something that Wilshere does not, driving forward runs with pinpoint passes and a higher tempo approach. Wilshere came on in the second half and had some nice passes, but his passes around the box were again wanting and I still wonder if this is a better team when he is on the bench. A great save by Reina around the 60th minute kept the tally to 2-0, but Arsenal could easily have scored five but for fatigue and a more organized defensive scheme in the second half. The contest overall showed a team with more balance, more physical strength, better play on free kicks (came close twice off of Ozil FKs) and a more organized defensive approach with more pressing outside the final third that constantly dispossessed Napoli or broke up their flow. Some thoughts on the game …

1.  Luck may be the residue of design, but some questionable decisions by Wenger over the past few seasons are starting to bear fruit. Forced to replace some of his stars, Wenger went for more physical midfielder who play on both sides of the pitch. Sure we miss Fabergas and Nasri, but neither were terribly impressive going back. That cannot be said of Ramsey, who Wenger stuck with when everyone including me was calling for his head. And Arteta has shown that he can push back into a more defensive position very effectively. Wenger went out and got Mertesacker when many thought he was too slow for the EPL, and he has now become one of the best in the league. Wenger stuck with Koscielny through some tough times last season and he too has supplanted our team captain for our best center back pair in many years. Wenger pushed Sagna to stay after his form dropped and he suffered through two leg breaks and he has returned to his old self, pushing forward on the right side with purpose throughout the game. He recognized the ascendancy of Gibbs’ game and allowed him to develop even as the more stable Monreal sat in the wings. And he picked up a striker few were impressed with in Giroud, and one many thought didn’t fit the Arsenal model, but has transformed him into a more complete player who is contributing across the pitch. And he picked up ex-player Flamini on a free – which could be the most important piece of business if Arsenal do go on to win a trophy. But the real masterstroke was keeping under wraps his pursuit of Ozil, who has brought belief, class and confidence to everyone on the team. Watching them pass the ball around the pitch and burst forward with speed and creativity was truly something to see and since the “sack Wenger” din grew last March, Arsenal have gone on to lose but one match. Impressive stuff for Wenger on the 17th anniversary of his first game with the North London outfit.
     2.  There is more to come: it is hard to believe that these performances have occurred without Podolski, Ox (who looked great until his injury) and, more recently, Walcott. As I’ve argued in recent weeks, Arsenal suddenly have depth everywhere except at the striker position. And even there, we do have Bendtner, who looked more than adequate against West Brom in the Capital One Cup. Ramsey appeared to take a knock toward the end of the first half and never looked the same after, before finally being subbed out, but with him, Ozil and Rosicky moving the ball around, Arsenal looked sublime. Add Ox, Podolski running down the left, Walcott down the right and/or Cazorla and his creativity and you have a team that is multidimensional and hard to defend. It is certainly early, as Wenger warned us a day ago, but this very well could be the year we finally end the drought. And by the way, to return to item #1, Walcott has been a substantially better player since Wenger dropped him to the bench and made him wrangle to get that new contract.
     3.  Ditching the deadwood was a great idea: One of the problems Arsenal faced last year was players on the bench who generally made the team worse, and starters who brought the team down. Gervinho has talent but his poor decision-making and finishing seemed to bring the whole team down at times, in addition to costing us a great chance at the Capital One Cup. Arshavin is a creative genius, but is terrible defensively and apt to make awful mistakes, including his pathetic mistake that cost us points against Manchester United in one of RVPs final games. I’m not sure the rest are even worth mentioning, but freeing up the wages and getting these negative presences away from the Emirates has seemed to lift the spirits of everyone else. Ozil has a lot to do with it, but looking around at quality players on the bench certainly breeds confidence as well.

Sunday we head to West Brom and a victory there heading into the next International Break would certainly send a notice to the rest of the league – Arsenal are a team to contend with in the title race and Europe.