Friday, August 24, 2012

Yeah, but is it really like that?

Let me say from the outset that I am a Spike Lee fan. I enjoy every movie of his that I’ve seen (which I think is probably every single one), even if I find his messages a bit heavy-handed. His characters are riveting, even if his stories are somewhat chaotic and hard to follow. His movies are all so personal, and therefore it adds a certain sense of realism (maybe the only sense of realism) to an otherwise completely fictional world.
With that being said, I do have some issues with Spike Lee’s directing style, his characters, and his movies. As I said before, I find his directing to be very heavy-handed. What do you I mean by this? I mean that he consistently uses the same actors, the same character types, and the same settings to beat his audience over the head with his message. This has changed somewhat in Spike’s later career as he’s broadened his cast, his stylization, and his focus to more than just a one-dimensional beat down, letting you know that racism still exists in this country.
It’s understandable why Spike Lee directed his early movies the way he did. For one, he grew up in Fort Greene in the 1960s and 70s; and though this neighborhood may be a contemporary haven for members of the old Brooklyn middle class and yuppy artists, the neighborhood was hit with the same waves of crime and drugs in the 70s and 80s that embroiled the rest of big apple. So Spike probably grew up with some Snuffy’s rolling around the neighborhood, and he definitely had to deal with the likes of Sal, the disgruntled pizza shop owner that Lee’s characters worked for in Do the Right Thing. So his reason for making the movies and characters the way they are is understandable, but it doesn’t necessarily make it right.
Social commentary is certainly made more poignantly with one dimensional characters than with complex, multi-layered individuals. With one dimensional it’s easy to understand who the character is supposed to represent, and doesn’t cloud the overall message with trying to figure out who this character is in the grand scheme of the film. However, one dimensional characters also do not accurately represent the complexity within all of us that is deeply than simply an overtly stated belief. All people are not anything all of the time. Criminals can be kind, drug users can be logical, racists can be thoughtful, players can be trustworthy. It’s important to remember this when we’re pigeonholing people; that though people may openly display seemingly one dimensional characteristics, there is a whole lot going on within that person that we’re completely unaware of.
As a movie watcher, and not someone in the movie industry, my criticism of Spike Lee maybe be somewhat quaint or simple minded, but I think his movie create much too simplistic ill-concieved perceptions of the world around us, especially for people that live in major cities, and especially for people that live in Brooklyn. It’s true that racism still exists, and it’s true that people sometimes (unfortunately) conform to stereotypes instead of create them, but that doesn’t mean that every white cop in Brooklyn wants to bust in the head of a young black man, or that every Jewish club owner is a scheming “shylock” trying to screw over his employees, or that every Korean grocer is hateful and suspicious toward their black patrons.
Spike Lee’s creation of a fantasy world where all black men and women in whatever neighborhood he’s portraying not only get along, but all know one another, is simply a distortion of the depth and nuance that exists within everyone racial or cultural community, and creates the illusion that a) the world is against black people (especially young black men) and that b) there is no way to fight back against it, because the outside forces are too strong to overcome.

As I finished writing this post I realized two major errors that I've made. The first is that I’m criticizing Spike Lee movies that (for the most part) were made around 20 years ago. His perspective has changed a lot, his characters have changed a lot, and his movies have changed a lot. I give him credit for that. The second major error is that while I might want Spike Lee to create a more realistic setting, maybe that’s not what he was trying to do. His intention was not to show reality as it exists, in fact. His intention might have been to instead show reality as it is seem by a specific person or group of people. Therefore, to understand what he was trying to say, you can’t judge against the world we see around us in the neighborhoods we occupy, but instead we have to look within ourselves and interpret the world through our own filtered experiences.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

They've lost their minds...

While I recognize that I, as a man, do not have a lot of insight into what it is like to be sexually assaulted or raped, I think the furor over the politics surrounding the topic over the last several months necessitates a post.
I think President Obama yesterday gave probably the best response a man can give regarding rape, and the politicizing of it; “The idea that we should be parsing, qualifying, and slicing what types of rape we’re talking about doesn’t make sense to the American people, and certainly doesn’t make sense to me,” and followed by “What I think these comments do underscore is why we shouldn’t have a bunch of politicians – a majority of whom are men – making healthcare decisions on behalf of women.” Exactly.
And while I don’t necessarily agree that conservatives are waging a “war on women”, I think their problem is that they’re politicizing issues that are inherently personal, not political. Republicans support the status quo in most respects, and this includes the continued subjugation and control of women by men and policy. That is why Roe vs. Wade was so abhorrent to conservatives, it revoked male control over a women’s right to choose what she wanted to do with her body, and instead gave the right to choose to the person who has the most insight into what is best for her…herself. Conservatives are still clinging to these antiquated ideas of meek women who need guidance from their knowledgeable husbands, fathers, brothers, male friends…politicians. And instead of raging a cultural war on the issue, which at least makes more sense - attempting to sway the majority of the public to feel a certain way – they’re waging a cultural war by proxy, the proxy being an ultra-conservative party platform and implementation of ultra-conservative policies.
With the support of the Republican Party lying mostly with old people, wealthy people, and religious people, all of whom have an interest in the continued subjugation of women, it’s no wonder that they continue to pander to those crowds. But what they’re missing is that regardless of how they feel, or what they say, women are not going to sit idly by while conservative assholes push harder and harder to go back to a time when their rights were limited to what their husbands allowed them to do. We’re in a new era (and have been for decades) where women will stand up for their rights; protesting, voting, running for office, donating to politicians and parties that support their rights. And with old people dying, and their antiquated ideas dying with them, eventually these radical conservatives will realize that they were and are on the wrong side of history. The culture wars WILL BE LOST by conservatives.
Onto the actual comments made by Rep. Akin. The guy represents the party; what he said is what they believe. They put complete intolerance to abortion, regardless of rape or incest, as part of their party platform for the Republican convention. It’s kind of difficult to throw one of your members under the bus for saying something that is part of the open party platform.
But that is where Republicans are these days. They’re clandestinely (or at least they wish they were) pushing for radical right-wing legislation, while pretending they’re moderate. There is NOTHING moderate about “parsing” rape into different categories. Rape is rape. It’s tragic when it happens, and awful that our society is constantly questioning and blaming victims, instead of asking why there are so many rapes that are occurring. The questioning after a rape becomes a woman’s burden to bear, instead of questioning the person who was responsible for the rape. The questions that are asked are ludicrous; what were you wearing? Had you been drinking? Had you been using drugs? Did you know the person? Had you had sex with anyone else recently? These questions are moot. We don’t ask someone who owns a jewelry store that gets robbed why they keep their valuable items on the counter, instead of locked away in a safe. A crime is a crime, and we should not subject the victim to further anguish and diminution by grilling them on what THEY could have done differently.

Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, and the Republican Party support legislation to outlaw a woman’s right to choose what is right for her, even in cases of rape and/or incest. This needs to be known, and Republicans need to be shamed. This is not a political issue, but because Republicans are using politics as a cudgel in the culture wars, Democrats need to strike back by destroying (politically-speaking) the Republican Party.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

But they're more important, aren't they...

Mitt Romney has thus far been unwilling to release more than two years of his tax returns. It’s not that he has to release his returns, but what Romney doesn’t understand is that while no one is going to actually force him to do so, not releasing them keeps the question in the air and will ultimately be answered by the American people during the election. Romney doesn’t get it. He’s whining, as if it’s the Obama campaign that is demanding the release. The Obama campaign knows he doesn’t want to release them, so having someone else like Harry Reid continue to press the issue is brilliant, because as long as people are suspect about why Romney doesn’t want to release them, they’re not thinking about the fledgling economy.
However, Romney’s reticence to release more than two years’ returns is not what I want to take about, it’s more about Romney’s general philosophy on taxation. Romney just released a statement today (unsubstantiated by documentation) that he has paid no less than 13% taxes over the past 10 years. Okay, let’s take that statement at face value; that would mean that Harry Reid’s “source” was lying, and that Mitt Romney had in fact paid taxes. However, 13% taxes is a MUCH lower rate than the majority of Americans pay, especially working Americans.
The standard rate is about 35%. Fair or not, that is what it is. However, most wealthy people pay much less that than, typically between 15 – 25%, if not less. The current Republican position is that capital gains and inheritance should be taxed at a much lower rate than income. Flat – that’s their position. So essentially what they’re saying is that they think that people who make money from doing nothing (and already have a substantial amount of money) should be taxed at dramatically lower rates (or nothing at all) than people who actually work. If I make $10,000 a year, I would pay roughly $3,500 in taxes. However, if I made $100,000,000 from investment income, I would only pay $13,000,000 in taxes (taking home $87,000,000), or none at all under they Romney/Ryan plan.
Romney says that the reason for the lower tax rate is because those people with vast sums of money invested are “job creators”; but Warren Buffet, one of the richest men in the world, makes the argument that people make investments to make money, not based upon what tax they will be paying. The reason the so-called “job creators” are not investing in the current economy is because it’s in the tank and they will not see a return on their investment.
Ultimately, this is an issue of supporting the country that supported you (Obama’s argument). Wealthy people have made vast sums of money over the past 3+ decades because of policies that cut their tax rates dramatically and allowed them to park their money in foreign countries. Also, a lot of their money has been made in investments that did little or nothing to actually create jobs, but instead were specifically made to create wealth (hedge funds, investment firms, etc.). Therefore, while their incomes and wealth have risen dramatically (nearly 400%), the real incomes of the upper middle, middle, and lower classes have either stagnated or even fallen. Literally fallen. The average income has fallen from about $36,000 in 1970 to $32,000 in 2010.
Since the wealthy have benefitted so nicely from these rates and policies over the last three decades, and since their wildcat investments drove our economy over a cliff, it’s time they started paying back. Even making the tax rate even across income/investment levels would be more fair than what we currently have. But what we really should do is cut out tax breaks and loopholes specifically designed for the wealthy, and create a graduated wealth and income tax that forces the wealthy to put in their fair share of income to this country that has benefitted them so much. If they don’t like the tax policies, they can leave. The country could use LESS people who are making vast sums of money toying with the market, but then paying nothing into the public coffers once they get their big payoff. Our country is hurting, and it’s obvious that Mitt Romney and those of his ilk care nothing for this country or the economy, but instead are still looking out for themselves and their wealthy friends.
Newt Gingrich charged Obama with stoking the flames of “class warfare”; and you know what, he was right. But the class warfare is not being waged by the poor against the rich, it’s being waged by the rich against the poor, and has been for generations. It’s about time a leader, and especially a president, highlight this issue and try and open the eyes of the majority of the people in this country who are being swindled by a bagful of citizens.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

It doesn't seem so, but it is important...

Paul Ryan is a hack. Mitt Romney is a weather vane. Together they lack both experience and substance at a very important time for our country. Certainly I won’t raise the specter that this is “the most important election of our lifetime”, because frankly, I don’t think it is. Even with Romney being a boring, take-no-stance candidate, and Paul Ryan being a fake budget hawk, there is probably not a huge difference (in the short term) in how a Romney presidency would run the country versus how the Obama administration has run the country.
Now, that is not to say that there would be no difference. And when it comes to fiscal and foreign policy, nuance is very important. The lack of foreign policy experience for both Romney and Ryan is troubling, especially considering their hawkish views with little to back it up. In fact, part of Ryan’s “budget plan” is to continue increasing the military budget, while slashing funding for the State Department and diplomacy. While the State Department might be somewhat more low profile than the DOD or War Department, it’s role in foreign policy is paramount to walking the delicate line in international diplomacy. We’ve already seen how effective “gunboat diplomacy” is, as displayed during the Bush administration. Two unsuccessful wars with no diplomatic efforts, lead to continued fighting and strife with virtually no end in sight. And Republicans are still talking about making a move against Iran (or at least supporting Israel in doing so); reminiscent of the definition of insanity…
Anyway, back to Romney and Ryan. While I actually do think that Romney as a person is a moderate, his political winds (or constituent winds) strategy of politicking scares me. Romney will say and do whatever he has to to get elected (which actually makes the Ryan choice a bit odd), and therefore while he himself may be a moderate, he would kowtow to the hard core Republican base as president, nominating far right ideologues to cabinet positions, and pushing ultra conservative legislation, much of which he himself personally does not espouse.
That is the difference in this election. While certainly most Democrats and liberals will allow that President Obama has been hit or miss, the fact is he’s trying to do right. He’s a pragmatist, and as a pragmatist he’s not going to make everyone happy; and occasionally is going to piss people off – even his own supporters. But also as a pragmatist, that means that he’s principled enough to realize the realities of a situation and look for rational, well thought decisions. He doesn’t bend the wills of his party’s extreme every time a tough question comes up. He instead will make the decision he believes to be right (and by right here I mean what he believes to be best for the country), and then pays the political price for it afterward.
This president has been very good (or bad, depending on how you look at it) at using his political capital. He doesn’t keep a lot in reserve. He’s constantly make concessions that will make one group happy, just to turn around and piss them off with his next decision. But what is great about this is that it shows his ultimate goal is to get things done, even if he’s not leading all of the polls. A great gauge of this is that even while poll numbers might show that a particular policy of the president, or how he’s dealing with a particular issue, may be low, overall his approval ratings remain very high (relative to the myriad of problems that our country currently faces).
I guess the point of my post is that while President Obama has not done exactly what I would do as president, his overall goal has been to improve the economy and make our country great again. Mitt Romney cares nothing for the country, and instead would govern by the  mantra that he’s lived by of “everyone for themselves”; which he’s blindly followed despite being assisted throughout his life by other people. "We've always encouraged young people: Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.” Because we all have parents that can just hand us $25,000 to start a business. Mitt Romney is a shell, nothing more. And once he’s attained the office that he feels he’s always deserved, he’ll move on to something else. The presidency is not Mitt Romney’s way of improving the country or the lives of the people in it, but another trophy to show everyone what an important person he is.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

It should be shocking, but…

How many mass shootings have we had this year? Maybe three, four, five…and the year is a little more than half over. While the circumstances and locations may be completely distinct, the scene is all too familiar. Young men – I’m not sure if I’m aware of a mass shooting carried out by a woman, yet – who for whatever reason are suffering from some psychological issue that never gets addressed, somehow manage to stockpile a cache of weapons without anyone being the wiser. Sometimes the guns are bought from friends or illegally; sometimes they’re purchased (along with rounds and rounds of bullets) from the local Walmart. But somewhere along the line the dangerous thoughts and plans turn into a reality. I don’t know what that point of no return is. Maybe for some of these young men it was purchasing the gun. Maybe it was just deciding one day that they were going to go through with it. Maybe they didn’t actually make up their mind until the shooting actually began.
I read a very powerful book about the Columbine shooting by journalist Dave Cullen. Cullen attempted to get more to the heart of the who the two gunmen were, rather than just paint them as mass murderers. Certainly Cullen was sensitive to the fact that the town of Columbine still had to live with the losses they suffered that day, and so did not try and justify or explain their actions, but instead tried to understand at what point they had made the decision to go through with their plan to kill their classmates and destroy their school. To use the Columbine shooters as an example, it seemed that the two boys made this decision at vastly different times. Eric Harris seemed to make the decision long before Dylan Klebold did. Harris did most of the planning, and seemed to be determined to carry through with it from the beginning. Klebold, on the other hand, seemed much less hell bent on killing his classmates and suffering the consequences of those horrific acts. But whatever the timing, this plan went into action long before the events unfolded. So it begs the question, how many other people have plotted awful crimes of this nature, but simply didn’t follow through with it? What stopped them? What didn’t stop those that did follow through with it? What happened to those that felt that way at one time, but stopped before killing someone? Did they go on to lead “normal” lives? Are they still plotting? Or are the type of people who carry out these acts determined from start to finish to follow through on them?
These are the scary questions that I think we as a society need to answer. Because the reality is that there are people out there right this minute that are plotting the next Columbine, or the next Virginia Tech, or the next Oikos University, or the next Aurora, or the next Sikh temple. Whatever the motivation, they’re planning these attacks; so the question is how do we prevent it? For most that are planning, they will hopefully just give it up, and move on. But for those that are determined to carry out these acts, what can we as a society do?
I think the problem is that our society has gone off the rails, and these people are the unfortunate culmination of a society that embraces guns and violence as a cultural norm, while at the same time repressing individualism and open expression. People are told that to be stoic is good and that showing or expressing your emotions is bad. So we have bred multiple generations of pent-up, angry teenagers who feel that their only outlet to let society know how they feel is by killing someone. Add this to the fact that young men are returning from war with terrible PTSD, but are unable to receive the treatment they require, so instead of turning the gun on a crowded movie theater are all too often killing themselves.
The question of what to do is not an easy one to answer, but the fact is that an answer needs to be found. The issue of guns is part of it. The second amendment (in fact NO CONSTITUTION AMENDMENT) gives carte blanche to carry any type of weapon, anywhere, at any time. All of the amendments to the constitution have limitations; so limiting access to handguns, assault rifles, huge magazines, rocket launchers, landmines, tanks and nuclear weapons are all perfectly within the scope of the legislature (I guess unless the Supreme Court decides otherwise). But limiting access to certain types of weapons won’t do it alone; the problem is much larger than that. We need to allow our society as a whole to express their feelings in an open, non-judgmental way. It’s not unusual for young men to have homicidal fantasies, but when they’re being treated as freaks or murderers for expressing these fantasies with words or pictures (instead of violence), this turns them off to talking about how they’re feeling; which is something that might potentially prevent them from carrying it out. As with all generations before, we have a lot to learn, but the only way to learn about why people are feeling a certain way, or why people do certain things, is to listen to what they have to say.

I leave you with a quote from The Dark Knight that I think is apropos:

“Nobody panics when the expected people [get] killed. Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plans are horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will get blown up, nobody panics. But when I say one little old mayor will die, everyone loses their minds!! Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos.” ~ The Joker