Thursday, August 24, 2017

Unforeseen Consequences: Economic, Racial, Tribal

The great Bernie Sanders, too smart and idealistic to be an American President, impressed me during his run for office in 2016 by talking about unintended consequences of high-level political decisions. This is impressive thinking because it shows a sense of nuance, complexity, depth, and even counter-intuitiveness: American politicians, even ones who apologize for mistakes or admit changing their thinking on an issue, often go into a rhetorical bravado that we claim we want in them -- confidence, vision, direction, strength, etc. In other words, leadership. But many don't cop to seeing how some ideas, however good they look on paper or however in vogue they are at the time, produce unforeseen, unpredictable, and negative consequences. (Bernie, if I recall correctly, was talking about American foreign policy, occupying foreign lands, and the unintended consequences thereof.)

I've been thinking about unintended consequences a lot lately in light of our current political scene, with its horrific emboldening of American white supremacy and the way white liberals are shocked-- and people of color are not. Two things come to mind: unintended consequences of the Clinton-Gore years, and UCs of the Obama-Biden years.

Although the right and even the "alt-right" have demonized the Clintons over the years, with a fair amount of mistreatment, misinformation, and BS, it's fairly apolitical to admit that Bill Clinton's pro-business presidency and his signing of legislation overturning Glass-Steagall is a direct cause of the economic meltdown of 2008. Glass-Steagall had long enforced a division between speculative, obscure, at times manipulative Wall Street machinations, and the more-straightforward economics of Main Street: mortgage lending, home ownership loans, etc. Glass-Steagall existed in the first place because America saw that mixing the two financial worlds could wreak havoc on the economy, but Clinton overturned it, and, while not showing immediate impact, lending to high-risk borrowers in the early 2000s and obscure, illegal Wall Street operations (think of Michael Moore asking random Wall St. people what "derivatives" are in his Capitalism: a Love Story) led to the "economic downturn" or outright Great Depression of 2008 and onward. Sure, the Clintons have long been picked on and targeted by the Right, but overturning Glass-Steagall was risky in the first place.

I am not just being academic and abstract here: at the time it hit, I was working at a junior college in California -- normally insulated from economic ups and downs, bubbles and bursts -- and had my pay cut exactly in half, for the same exact work performed, absolutely unrelated to performance. That stung a bit. I once heard the Clinton-Gore years described as a almost a decade of peace and prosperity -- but what about the UCs down the road?

Another UC is more relevant to the ugliness going on today at contested sites where white supremacists and their resistance are squaring off. The Southern Poverty Law Center published an intriguing report a few years ago showing how membership in hate groups -- largely underground, mind you, as this was pre-Trump -- was fairly steady/predictable during the Dubya years, but rose dramatically during Obama's double term. When I look back on how we arrived at a rise in neo-Nazi and white supremacist hate groups in the US -- emboldened of course by Trump's campaign and presidency -- I can see, with only the hindsight of retrospectiveness, how it didn't happen overnight. This had been brewing for awhile, and it was only when Trump became President that the festering wound exploded open. This is not to say that we shouldn't have had the precedent of a half-nonwhite President or that Obama did anything wrong by being himself, just that the last 9 years have shown that America is still a deeply racist, even bigoted, country, a certain faction of whom detested Obama simply because he was the first nonwhite President. But why are we surprised? America was founded on the genocide of one people and enslavement of other. You can't accomplish that without a sense of supremacy, or at least righteousness.

I was talking with a friend who is a dyed in the wool Democrat about current events. We were talking about how anyone defending Trump at this point is defending his white supremacy. My friend called it racism, but there's a difference between racism -- which I think we all struggle with to some degree -- and the deeply intolerant, violent bigotry going on today.

But what is racism at root? What is bigotry?
Is it not tribalism, with all the good and bad that tribalism imparts?

I've long been a fan of the film Quest for Fire not just because it was a surprisingly accurate portrayal (for the time) of the co-development of different pre-human and human groups in the Stone Age, but because it illustrates something that exists even today: human beings are at different stages of development. In QFF, we saw four distinct groups: totally fur-covered hominids representing a blend of simian and pre-human qualities; cannibalistic pre-humans (with a surprising amount of ginger hair); Neandertals (the film follows this group the closest); and the Cro-Magnons, anatomically modern humans who both laugh at the primitive Neandertals but also show them how to make fire from scratch. The Cro-Mags are the most advanced.


We have to be careful, living today, with two things: thinking that white culture represents the most advanced form of culture that other cultures are striving/struggling to attain (for this is basically white supremacist thinking), but also becoming so bleeding heart that we think Darwinism applies to all of nature except for humans. Am I defending Social Darwinism? In a way, yes, but in a way, no.

It's always amused me when I see a liberal-mobile plastered with stickers on it defending liberal causes while also displaying Darwin's fish. I do agree that, unlike just about everything else in/of nature, humanity has some control over how it fashions the (socio-economic) game of survival, and we can't be so cold-hearted as to see people struggling in this game while shrugging our shoulders and saying "well, that's just nature, nature's rough." Because often who struggles is people of color and people of disadvantage, be it historical or current. (Yes, I know, there are poor whites, disadvantaged whites, poor Jews, etc.)

Also, while we've designated "first" worlds and "third" worlds and "developing" worlds and ways of forming a hierarchical human society -- education, health, status, and monetary power are key indicators/divisors -- we need to remember that, just like in QFF, the most advanced tribe has its problems, the lesser-advanced tribes have their strengths, and feelings/perceptions of superiority and inferiority can arise. The 1990s and onward saw the rise of Political Correctness and gains made by nonwhite cultures, tribes if you will, and with the election of Trump in 2016 we saw a hostile and significant pushback to these gains.

So it's like Mr. Byrne said: Same as it ever was.
Tribes at different stages of development, with much hostility betwixt them. Where's Rodney King when you need him?
Poor John Sayles: his films have been stolen -- er, borrowed from -- twice: Return of the Secaucus Seven became the baby boomer film The Big Chill, and his Brother from Another Planet was a film dealing with racism-vis-a-vis-sci-fi long before District 9

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Season of the Wall Street Witch

Halloween 3: Season of the Witch is an orphan film in the franchise, and there are a lotta films in the franchise. Halloween (1) filmmaker John Carpenter originally envisioned the Halloween series as going in different directions with each film, rather than turning into a franchised series about the killer from the first film, Michael Myers/The Shape. However, audience popularity and ticket sales (and to some extent film critics) tend to rule the day, so when H3 didn't do so well at the box office and fans were left waiting for when Michael Myers was going to appear -- and never does -- in the film, H3 was left as a one-timer while the series got back on track with ol' unstoppable MM returning in part 4.


H3 gained a cult following and presages a direction Carpenter would go in with some of his later films, moving from the horror genre of a single killer/slasher to films dealing with larger societal terrors, such as They Live (1988) and Escape from New York (1981). The former deals with a society-wide conspiracy unearthed by Rowdy Roddy Piper, the latter's a dystopic tale of a police state who deal with high crime by turning the entire island of Manhattan into one big open-air prison. H3 is interesting because it gives hints of this later-developed type of horror from Carpenter: it concerns a sinister toymaker trying to revive the ancient ritual of Samhain by selling time-bomb masks -- a pumpkinhead, skull, and witch -- that kill the wearer when a pumpkin flashes on tv in a specially-made commercial from the toymaker that the children will tune into, which we assume would lead to all kinds of global panic and destruction on Halloween. Perhaps like many people who lived thru that time -- the 1980s -- Carpenter channeled nuclear fears into films about catastrophic societal upheaval via the backdoor rather than going in the front. Many of his films, despite their differences, share the theme of a kind of unraveling of society.

H3: SOTW does not have a titular witch to speak of except for the one mask variety, so it's a bit misleading, however cool-sounding that title is. It's also a pretty hokey story: an eccentric, wealthy toymaker steals a Stonehenge stone (!), mines it for its magical evil, then puts a little of the magic evil in each mask as the conduit to let evil invade the mask-wearer. I mean, come on. It's a big-budget movie with real actors and decent cinematography etc. etc. etc., but it has a very low-rent plot.

So what makes it worth one's time? Namely, what it reveals via metaphor. While not as brilliantly subversive as They Live, there is a thread running through H3 that's critical of 1980s materialism (the protagonist's children prefer the name-brand, oft-advertised masks over some competitor ones dad brings home), all-powerful corporations ("Silver Shamrock" in the film), and the way television bombards us with the same, simple message over and over. "This commercial never stops!" says Dr. Challis, played by 1980s horror-film-guy Tom Atkins. At one point, the jingle even overrides a public safety announcement, which could be read as capitalism taking precedence over, well, public safety. Safety first! Er, capitalism first!

Dr. Challis and his love interest spend most of the movie trying to figure out what Silver Shamrock's titan of business CEO, Conal Cochran, is up to. The small Humboldt County town of Loleta was used for the location of the fictional factory, a "factory town" whose inhabits have to abide a strict curfew, find themselves watched by security cameras -- prefiguring the rise of surveillance in the United States, now commonplace -- and deal with automaton bodyguard-businessmen who work for Cochran and enforce his secrecy and agenda, to the death. It's hard to tell if the filmmaker(s) (not really John Carpenter, who only helped produce and write some of the film) were trying to send a message or just make a horror film in a then-new franchise; I don't want to read too much into H3, whereas Carpenter has blatantly said that They Live is really about "yuppies and unrestrained capitalism." (What does restrained capitalism look like?) But we certainly get some images that signify a subversive spirit in the film. There's leisure suit-clad Buddy, whose bratty family is on vacation to Loleta while Buddy is at the factory for a tour, since he's the number one Silver Shamrock mask salesman in the country. There's the town drunk, who in a strange scene staggers into his little makeshift dwelling in a junkyard and makes a sandwich with cheese-in-a-can (remember the 80s film The Incredible Shrinking Woman's spray-cheese scene?). There's Cochran himself, who we learn was that kind of traveling carnival snake oil-guy who struck it rich with Halloween supplies and cheap amusements, including the "dead dwarf, soft chainsaw, and sticky TP." Cochran seems to have Samhain wrong, describing it as a seasonal time of human sacrifice (at Stonehenge), where the "hills ran red with the blood of animals and children." From my research, it was a pagan ritual in the Fall in preparation for winter, involving slaughtering animals for winter food, but no children that I know of.

Unlike They Live, I just don't get the sense that H3 was/is social commentary couched in horror/scifi fare, predating the work of Neil Blomkamp's District 9 and Elysium. It perhaps dabbled in a bit of criticism of America, while mainly focusing on its plot. But its irony is that its strongest criticism may be its symbolism warning people of becoming couch potatoes and slaves to the commercials of corporations, while counting on that same medium to show its own trailer and one day appear therein (back in the day before Video on Demand/streaming, it was a big deal when theatrical movies appeared on tv). Kinda like Rage Against the Machine having a good message, but spreading that message via being on a major record label. (RATM's demo tape had an actual match taped to its cover depicting financials from the Wall Street section of newspapers, but I suspect their own major label was publicly traded on the Stock Market.) The robot businessmen assassins could be easily read as unthinking/unfeeling slaves to the corporations that employ (program) them. The film has an ambiguous ending where we aren't quite sure if Our Hero, Dr. Challis (with his functional alcoholism, smoking, womanizing, and sweet mustache) has saved the day or not, kind of like the spinning top at the end of Inception. We don't find out, because by Halloween 4 it was back to the slasher pic. H3 hints that Dr. Challis did not save the day, thus the triumph of the destructive corporation.


Though seven years "late," I recently watched the comedy film The Other Guys (2010), made a couple years after the mortgage/Wall Street speculation economic meltdown. It's about two underdog cops who uncover a massive white-collar crime involving Wall Street and their very own police pension fund. It's actually a pretty subversive movie, but it too goes in via the back door: first and foremost it's a cop-buddy comedy, with crude and surreal moments of humor. It, like H3, shows that the little guy -- well, a doctor in H3 or cops in TOG -- can take on large and powerful parts of society, and triumph, or at least make a dent. (Or can they?)

The villain in TOG is Ershon, first seen speaking at an event for "The Center for American Capitalism" (in reality, thinktanks aren't usually that overt) and later implicated in dubious Wall Street transactions involving foreign countries (Nigeria, Chechnya). In an interesting scene where he reveals he keeps a secret NYC apartment "for prostitutes and parents' visits," Ershon hears himself put those two camps in the same sentence and tells the two cops (Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg) "but not at the same time, that'd be wrong." This reveals a dynamic that Zizek talks about in his recent critique of capitalism, Trouble in Paradise, namely that we exist in a culture that largely condemns small-crime acts by individuals, but not large-scale "obscure financial transactions" and manipulations that can nearly bankrupt the entire economy or at least cause major financial havoc leading to bailouts.

Ershon has an instant and strong moral compass about not mixing prostitutes and (his) parents, but he has no problem for most of the film doing illegal acts with financial manipulations that can impact millions of people negatively. In one background moment of the film, an Asian tourist flashes the peace sign while standing in front of the metal bull near Wall Street, showing not only ideological confusion but that Wall Street is okay, whereas she'd never take a picture with a small-time criminal who robbed her, and flash the ol' peace sign. If Wall Street robs people, it's part of capitalism, but if someone mugs you, it's a crime. To the film's credit, they show this, with repeated messages that the police stories that make the news are for relatively small amounts of criminal actions, be it an opening destructive chase scene over a small amount of marijuana, or a diamond heist later in the film that comes in under $100,000. While these stories make the news, the real crime is happening on Wall Street.

Interestingly, Ferrell and Wahlberg's captain could be seen as one of the true bad guys: he really doesn't care if Ershon is brought to justice -- he's more concerned with media coverage, a DA on his back, and his own personal life (including his bisexual son at NYU and his second job at Bed Bath and Beyond). Deep down he wants his staff to bust white-collar crime, but he knows it's messy, risky, and disruptive. His ambivalence is truly scary. The other bad guy (beyond the obvious Ershon and his people) is the guy who merely presses buttons, authorizing financial transactions -- he even asks at one point whether or not to put a criminal transaction through and would obviously do whatever someone tells him to do, either way. It is not so much the obvious bad guys in the film who are bad, but the apathetic and ambivalent people in power, police captains and Wall Street stock-jockeys/bankers.

Ershon repeatedly throws the cops off his tail by distracting and entertaining them (with show and sports tickets), until the cops realize the ploy and refuse to be distracted anymore. Very symbolic of people in a so-called democracy being distracted by entertainment and "trickle-down" gifts they get from higher up the pyramid, keeping them placated. Even one of the cops, Terry Hoitz (Wahlberg), though excited by the prospect of busting the white-collar crime ring, gets demoted to being a traffic cop and begins to enjoy the simplicity of his small world: he doesn't have to take on Wall Street, just direct traffic. The latter's a lot easier than the former. But this is an optimistic, big studio movie, so in the end the good guys win, and while the credits are rolling, there are infographics about Ponzi schemes, Wall Street misdeeds, and troubling economic disparities and practices in the ol' USA. Ultimately, the movie gives the message that America has a check and balance system, the cops are good and trustworthy, and crime of any kind -- petty, white collar -- will be dealt with. If only this were the case. Zizek is fond of quoting Brecht: "What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of one?" The bank in question in the film is called Endemic Bank, which didn't strike me as coincidental: risky Wall Street shenanigans are prevalent, and the film also ends with a nod to how difficult it'd be to bust/take down Goldman Sachs.

I first found out about TOG from a punk band called Dirty Mike & the Boys (a direct reference to a homosexual hobo group in the film). I wasn't quite sure at the time why they not only sampled audio from the film on their but went so far as to name themselves after it; once I saw the political nature of the film, I got it. DM & the Bs wear their DRI influence on their sleeve, and DRI were/are an extremely political band.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

On the Mentors, a banned band

Punk culture in general has long thought of itself as a place where the unwelcome are welcome, where outsiders, misfits, nonconformists, and failures can find a community, a home. Because of this, punk sometimes catches things in its wide net that go against what is thought of as punk itself. Here we have to be careful, because although punk is often thought of as lefty, rebellious, nonconformist, even unAmerican (whatever that means), etc., it has some interesting players: a pro-Republican member of punk legend The Misfits, Darby Crash of The Germs advocating for fascism as the best means of social order, controversial anti-homosexuality in some of the music of bad brains, the singer of Fang strangling his girlfriend to death, and, ah... The Mentors.

 
An interesting meta-level Mentors logo, from their Facebook page, in which they appropriate another punk band's (Dirty Rotten Imbeciles) logo for their own

The Mentors formed in the late 1970s -- as the feminist movement, after seeing civil rights movements before it and the social protests and upheavals of the 1960s, began to voice their own discontents -- and certainly are, without question, a punk band with street cred. They have done extensive touring and survived the test of time, even after losing their leader, Eldon Hoke (aka El Duce) in a bizarre accident in which he walked across some railroad tracks to greet fans, got his foot stuck in the tracks, and was struck and killed by a train.*

They have weathered controversy and even government harassment/scrutiny during the Parent Music Resource Center trials of the 1980s; they also very openly invite controversy. And, perhaps most evocatively and disturbingly, they play what they call (here's a two-word Trump-esque zinger) "rape rock," in which they make music and create an aesthetic about the denigration and objectifying of women.

Mentors-Nirvana connection

When rock journalists posit that much of Pacific Northwest grunge bands were rooted in feminism (even all-male bands) rather than the "pale and male" 2nd wave of American hardcore who often -- unintentionally, I hope -- marginalized women and people of color, I'd have to slightly disagree. The Mentors are from Seattle, for one, and are connected to much punk rock/rock in general, like the underbelly of a more "wholesome" or well-known, mainstream scene. There is even a weird Mentors-Nirvana connection that you can explore on yr own, ripe with a conspiracy theory that El Duce was asked by Courtney Love to kill Kurt Cobain for $10,000. (I suspect it's conspiracy theory BS, but, interestingly, El Duce passed a lie detector test when asked about his claim, if we assume lie detector tests are reliable. Which they aren't.) If Nirvana was Establishment Grunge, the Mentors (or at least El Duce) was the Mafia. The two are natural partners.

I first remember learning about the Mentors when a friend in high school showed me an album. 3 white dudes in black executioner hoods, a general vibe of both misogyny, parody, and an obvious love of the (dominated, sexually objectified) female form (thus an anti-gay sentiment, as well). A certain sleaziness I recognized from growing up in the era of Grindhouse cinema. The executioner hoods were intriguing because they certainly, when worn by white people, bring to mind the KKK, but the hoods were black, and executioner hoods pre-date the Klan.**

So what have we got? 1980s hair-farmer band groupies at the altar of the Mentors. Note how it's just "mentors", not unlike (the) melvins, the latter whom were probably influenced by the former. Also note the "beef curtain" vinyl. 

"Rape rock" 
 
I've never been real into the Mentors, although I appreciate that they have exercised their 1st Amendment Rights (use 'em or lose 'em, folks), stirred the pot without running away from it, stuck to their guns, and served as the dark side to punk's more noble side. (The whole yin-yang thang....) They exist in that universe that's home to GG Allin and the Murder Junkies, where sleaze and drugs and white trash and deviant sex and violence and punk music all blend. It's not my favorite place, but it is interesting. I'm not real crazy about any thing or any one who seriously -- without complexity, irony, parody, or intelligence -- advocates rape. Because although I believe in humor and I believe in art being important humanistic forms of dealing with taboo topics, rape is far too common in our culture, and does incredible psychological damage.

We can all throw the term "anti" around
 
The Mentors are currently on an "Anti-Antifa Tour" (antifa = antifascism, often associated with violent Black Bloc techniques), and I think there's room in this world for us all. The Left often takes itself far too seriously (the South Park episode where Prius drivers smell their own farts, satisfyingly), so I do appreciate an "anti" movement to something that's already "anti-." It's clever. It makes people think.


Gilman Street in Berkeley is a legendary punk venue -- I lived in Oakland for years, but never somehow went -- but they tend to ban things that don't fit with their beliefs, including Green Day (?!). Unsurprisingly, Gilman St. banned the Mentors, but it did warm my heart that my old hangout, Eli's Mile High Club in a frankly sketchy part of Oakland***, was willing to host them. 
Not sure if I'm getting more conservative as I age, but I'm not so sure the Mentors defending their rape rock, in an era of Trumpian pussy-grabbing, rape culture, and white male-emboldening, is the most ethical or strategic move. (I also have reservations about Eli Roth remaking white vigilantism movie Death Wish. Come on, Mr. Roth: social responsibility!) But ultimately I am a defender of the 1st Amendment over pretty much anything/everything, and as I said I like when liberal taboos are challenged, especially if there is a complexity to the stew involving parody, theatrics, and button-pushing, which I suspect there is with the Mentors.

I am troubled by the Mentors posting a fan letter they got from a 13-year old male fan who hand-wrote (in bad handwriting, natch) to them saying "rape rock is where it's at." Does an average 13-year old know the nuance of parody, theatrics, and shit-stirring over what is explicit and face value? Then again, I wasn't but 16 or so when I first encountered the Mentors, but I'd been raised exposed to controversial things by parents who believed in free-range parenting and trusted my maturity level (perhaps over-trusting it at times, but there are worse flaws to have). As filmmaker Scott Derrickson said, it's better to have youth experience adult/edgy things and then have a thoughtful conversation about what they experienced, rather than banning things, creating taboos, and sheltering/mollycoddling. One close look at the Millennial Generation and you can see the effects of some very questionable parenting. They've just been too sheltered.

Hell, we live in a time when the President of the Fucking United States of America was caught talking like a frat-boy rapist about women. Slavoj Zizek might argue that there is an honesty, however repulsive, in Trump that's lacking in a corporate Democrat like Hillary Clinton, but it's been sad seeing, post-election, how people on the street have been emboldened in their backlash racism and sexism against vulnerable peoples.

Conclusion 

I guess "inna final analysis" I have to side with Frank Zappa, who was read Mentors lyrics during the PMRC trials and found the whole thing rather farcical and a bit creepy -- creepy in what the government was doing, not the Mentors. A wide-net thing like punk, in a free market society like capitalism offers, is going to turn up fish like the Mentors. You don't have to like them. You don't have to listen to them. You don't have to agree with them. You don't have to worship at the Church of El Duce (a real thing) or even go once. But it is our fringe-dwellers, our boundary-pushers, our controversynauts, who we need to both listen to, defend, and engage in healthy discussion -- and disagreement -- with.
Do I think women should be picked up, sexually used/abused, then "dropped off at Jack in the Box," as the Mentors believe (or are playing a role and saying they believe)? Of course not. But as Zizek noted, there is something fishy and duplicitous about Hillary Clinton -- he likened her being a "progressive" to Lehmen Bros or Goldman-Sachs sponsoring Occupy Wall Street -- and with Trump, or the Mentors, however revolting: WYSIWYG. I'd rather have a guy wear a swastika tattoo on his face and be upfront about it, than learn that a captain of industry or someone with immense political/institutional power is secretly a raging racist or misogynist. I can protect the women in my life from those who act openly, like the Mentors; I'm more worried about the frat-boys who appear on the outside to be decent and wholesome but are internally far more sinister.

Is it the most socially responsible what the Mentors do? No. Is it inevitable? Perhaps. If they don't do it, will someone else? Probably. Are the Mentors hiding behind the First Amendment? No, I think they're utilizing it; that's what it's there for. Do someone like the Mentors strengthen the First Amendment? Ultimately, yes.



* This story comes from Ministry's Al Jourgensen, who strikes me as an honest guy, but who also has no memory of recording certain Ministry albums due to drug abuse/addiction; the official cause of El Duce's death is the weird "misadventure."

** In doing some research, apparently the well-known image of the hooded executioner is largely a myth; actual executioners throughout history did not wear hoods.

*** I once walked home after a show at Eli's and was offered both sex from a hooker and crack from a dealer on the same block. I politely refused both. Eli's started as a small club where Blacks from the South who came to the Bay Area to help build ships for the war (WW2) effort could hear Blues and other traditionally-African-American musicians play. Over the years it mutated into a punk/metal/alternative club with a different crowd.

Some better than others