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300: Rise of an Empire – The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War

10 August 2014

Summary:  Today we have a guest post by film critic Locke Peterseim, a review of 300: Rise of an Empire. The film provides a mirror in which we can see the dark aspects of ourselves and our culture. 300 and its sequel show how the big screen illuminates the darkness in minds.  Setting half-historical “facts” against beautiful vistas, this “fantasy war film” about the Battle of Salamis makes the horror of war not just noble, but almost sensual as it suggests that killing is fun as long as you have a righteous reason for it.

300: Rise of an Empire

Post your comments about the film — and this review!
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300: Rise of an Empire:
The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War

By Locke Peterseim

Posted at the film blog of Open Letters Monthly
25 March 2014

Reposted here with his generous permission

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The moment you point out the howling historical inaccuracies and possibly harmful over-the-top fantasy violence in a piece of super-stylized hard-core war porn like 300: Rise of an Empire (or in its equally offensive predecessor 300), some pundit or punter with one hand in a bucket of bloody popcorn is going to whine, “You don’t go see a 300 movie expecting subtlety, intelligence, restraint, or historical accuracy!” Which is like saying you don’t eat bacon-onion-ring-cheeseburgers expecting a healthy life free of coronary issues.

The problem is that a steady diet of either poison — popular junk-foods full of heart-stopping grease, fat, cheese, sodium and red meat; or popular junk-food movies like Rise of an Empire that slate only our basest, most blood-thirsty instincts — will slowly, eventually, insidiously kill you — either your body or your soul.

There’s an unspoken code among many film critics (let’s say, primarily under 50 and publishing on the Internet) to not be a moral scold about movies. Some of us grew up in the ‘80s, the era of Tipper Gore and the PMRC, roll our eyes at the “demons are everywhere!” anti-pop-culture ravings of the Pat Robertsons of the world, and are still treated to Bill O’Reilly’s attention-desperate pulpit pounding about the evils of rap music. Most of us critics want to grow up to be Roger (Ebert) not Rex (Reed). So the general rule is to review the film, not the film’s ideas.

300: Rise of an Empire

Zack Snyder’s original 300, based on Frank “the Fascist” Miller’s graphic novel, visually bulldozed its way into almost seeming like a great “movie”: It was (too) easy to get so caught up in the stark and striking (and often shocking) imagery that you ignored the repellant, racist, pile of laughable crap that passed for the film’s “message.”

That, of course, is what makes 300 — which remains a powerful visual “treat”—so utterly repugnant: It uses the cloak of “historical legend” plus wowsa chiaroscuro CGI battlefield tableaus and male musculature (including a sexily vicious Michael Fassbender in a loin cloth—and he’s the least of 300’s homoerotic manqués) to not just sell but fully fetishize The Glory of War (against barbaric, mystical, almost inhuman Persian [Iranian] hordes) to testosterone-jacked young men in Ed Hardy T-shirts. It’s fascist, pro-war propaganda packaged as delightfully over-the-top, fist-pumping Cineplex entertainment.

To no one’s surprise, 300’s sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, is more of the same. Except now, with Snyder serving only as writer and producer and without the admittedly gripping and narratively compact legend of the fall of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, the film itself feels more of a creatively unfocused mess.

Read more…

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A warning from Germany about our new cold war: “The West on the wrong path”

9 August 2014

Summary: The publisher of a major German newspaper wrote a bold, brave editorial about the emerging Cold War 2. He identifies the useful idiots in the media who help drive this conflict, and places this madness in a historical context. Can you imagine the publisher of a US newspaper writing something of this depth? Time will tell if this he writes as an individual, as spokesman for a fraction of Germany’s elites, or speaking for German’s leadership.

Relive the cold war

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The West on the wrong path

Gabor Steingart (publisher)

Editorial in Handelsblatt
(Germany’s leading financial newspaper)

8 August 2014

Summary: In view of the events in Ukraine, the government and many media have switched from level-headed to agitated. The spectrum of opinions has been narrowed to the width of a sniper scope. The politics of escalation does not have a realistic goal – and harms German interests.

Every war is accompanied by a kind of mental mobilization: war fever. Even smart people are not immune to controlled bouts of this fever. “This war in all its atrociousness is still a great and wonderful thing. It is an experience worth having“ rejoiced Max Weber in 1914 when the lights went out in Europe. Thomas Mann felt a “cleansing, liberation, and a tremendous amount of hope“.

… The US Congress is openly discussing arming Ukraine. The former security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski recommends arming the citizens there for house-to-house and street combat. The German Chancellor, as it is her habit, is much less clear but no less ominous: “We are ready to take severe measures.“

German journalism has switched from level-headed to agitated in a matter of weeks. The spectrum of opinions has been narrowed to the field of vision of a sniper scope. Newspapers we thought to be all about thoughts and ideas now march in lock-step with politicians in their calls for sanctions against Russia’s President Putin. Even the headlines betray an aggressive tension as is usually characteristic of hooligans when they ‘support’ their respective teams.

The Tagesspiegel: “Enough talk!“ The FAZ: “Show strength“. The Süddeutsche Zeitung: “Now or never.“ The Spiegel calls for an “End to cowardice“: “Putin’s web of lies, propaganda, and deception has been exposed. The wreckage of MH 17 is also the result of a crashed diplomacy.“ Western politics and German media agree.

Read more…

The debate about climate change takes a new form. One familiar yet disturbing.

8 August 2014

Summary: The public debate about climate change has evolved, reverting to the standard form of American Politics. Fearmongering, relying on exaggerated and one-side evidence. No only does this chaff further confused the policy debate about this vital issue, it raises another question. We should worry why both Left and Right believe we are most easily influenced by appeals to fear. Perhaps they’re right. As AA tells us, recognition of a problem is the first step to solving it. Perhaps America’s greatest problem is this weakness of its citizens.

Civilization grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.

— H L Mencken, In Defense of Women (1918)

The generic political pitch in 21stC America

The generic political pitch in 21stC America

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Contents

  1. The new climate change debate
  2. An example of these trends at work
  3. Conclusions
  4. For More Information
  5. A fear-mongering classic: Reefer Madness (1936)

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(1)  The new climate change debate

Quietly climate activists (supported by journalists) have shifted the public debate about climate change. Logically, as their previous tactics were failing to produce their desired political change. Polls in the US showed flat minority support (here, here, and here).  Worse, the Australian people voting to roll-back their government’s ambitious policies. So they have adopted more aggressive marketing techniques.

(a)  The IPCC has dropped from their script. Formerly described as the “gold standard” description of climate science research, the most reliable statement of consensus climate scientists’ thinking, has become “too conservative”. Some activists began saying this in 2011-2012. It was a widespread response to the release of AR5 in 2013. For examples see Inside Climate News, The Daily Climate, Yale’s Environment 360.

Now ignoring the IPCC has become standard practice by activists and journalists, as in the articles cited in the following sections. It’s an excellent example of an open source movement at work (see John Robb’s seminal book Brave New War).

(b)  Activists have replaced professional climate scientists as their spokesman, people willing to give confidence apocalyptic forecasts without qualifications — or strong support in the IPCC or climate science literature. Compare and contrast these articles:

  1. NASA Talk Explores How Global Warming May Be On Vacation“, NASA press release, 4 August 2014
  2. There’s something distinctly fishy about claims that global warming has stopped“, Geoffrey Lean, news article in The Telegraph, 7 August 2014 — Oddly, many of his facts are wrong.

(c)  Aggressive broadcasting of research that supports their message, erasing mention of its qualifications and limitations. Contrary research is ignored. Countering this, putting individual research in a larger context, is a primary function of the IPCC’s work — another reason activists increasingly ignore it. The current hysteria about methane releases provides a clear example (e.g., by Jason Box this week), as the latest IPCC report (AR5, WGI, 2.2.1.1.2) disagrees (for more current rebuttal, see NYT’s Andy Revkin).

More examples: “Deadly irukandji and box jellyfish invading Sydney Harbour because of climate change, scientists say“, Daily Telegraph, 8 August 2014. Scary, but much of this is contracted by other sources — such as the Australian Marine Stinger Advisory Services’ Jellyfish & Climate Change page. Others are in the comments: about tornadoes.

Read more…

Auto loans: once a boon for America, now a bane

7 August 2014

Summary: One of the many oddities of this cycle is that many things that were good during the post-WW2 era have become bad in the new era now starting (unrecognizably so, as we remain unaware of our changed circumstances). Like debt. As we see with auto loans, once useful — now malignant. Our use of debt also gives clues to our future.

Consumer debt head volcano

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Contents

  1. Consumer debt in the old world, and the new
  2. Automobile sales point to our new world
  3. The terms are very easy
  4. Why are these numbers important?
  5. For More Information

(1)  Consumer debt in the old world, and the new

During the post-WW2 era increasing debt supercharged economic growth for the young and rapidly-growing West. But after 60 years of this our societies now carry massive debt loads, both public and private — while the numbers of elderly grow (who experience a crash of income upon retirement, plus rising costs to society for their pensions and health care). Carrying our current load might prove difficult; adding to it now is madness.

Plus, there are other factors in play. Fifty years of growing inequality, for still poorly-understood reasons, have hollowed out the middle class — diminishing their ability to carry their existing debt, making them dependent on borrowing to maintain their lifestyle.

Some take another step beyond borrowing. Borrowing to buy cars and homes results in slowly accumulating equity, one of the most common ways middle class households save. Increasingly Americans abandon buying with debt for renting. Rent homes instead of owning. Renting cars (leasing) instead of owning.

(2) Automobile sales point to our new world

Accelerating borrowing was a natural leading indicator of economic recoveries during the post-WW2 era. So economists see the waves of desperate borrowing by consumers since 2000 as a good thing. Hence their excitement about the subprime lending boom that drove the housing bubble. Such as today’s subprime borrowing to buy cars.

The extreme case of this blindness to our changed conditions is glee about the shift to renting cars (aka leasing). It shows vibrant demand for cars! As we see in this excerpt from a report by BofA-Merrill global economist Ethan Harris, 6 August 2014, showing that after mid-2012 leasing grew faster than total spending on vehicles (2012 saw many such transition points for the US economy).

BofA Merrill graph: auto leasing

Auto leasing: BofA Merrill graph, 8 August 2014

Households go for the low capital option: leasing soars:

Household outlays on leasing are booming at a 20% yoy pace — a clear sign that demand for vehicles is alive and kicking. With average lease payments lower than typical monthly ownership costs and with a down-payment not typically required to enter into a lease, the surge in vehicle leasing is likely a sign that financial restraints are still holding back some would-be buyers. Thus, as the economy improves, bottled-up household demand for vehicles could translate to higher sales.

Yes, in our society demand is “alive and kicking” by subprime households for cars bought with low-rate loans on easy terms — or even just renting (aka leasing). But does it point to an economic recovery — or exhaustion?

Read more…

Why did we elect Obama, “the World’s Most Important Spectator”?

6 August 2014

Summary: Today we have an article by Prof Bromwich painting a portrait of Obama. As his term slides to its end and the 2016 election begins we must learn from our experience. Yet again we elected as President someone with inadequate experience but a powerful image, as if we vote for the best float in the Memorial Day parade. So long as we remain uninvolved in the political machinery, as consumers, our elites will serve us only choices that meet their needs — not ours.

Obama: Hope

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The World’s Most Important Spectator

David Bromwich (Professor of English, Yale)

London Review of Books, 2 July 2014

Reprinted with the permission of the author and LRB

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The first year and a half of Barack Obama’s second term has been preternaturally unlucky. The stymied enrollments for his healthcare plan, the multiple errors of computer co-ordination that forced people to wait days or weeks in front of blank screens, marred the new faith in government the plan had been intended to affirm. Just when, around the end of April, the trouble seemed to be halfway resolved, with millions finally insured and several deadlines put off, there emerged stories of faked records of treatment and months-long waiting lists at Veterans Hospitals. It was another failure of managerial competence, in another branch of government to which Obama had professed the warmest commitment. And there has been nothing resembling a success in foreign policy to offset the embarrassments at home. The United States, which always needs to be doing something, was in no position to do much about the Russian annexation of Crimea or the conflict in Ukraine.

A common feature in all these events was that Obama himself seemed far from the scene. He was looking on, we were made to think, with concern and understanding. But in matters like these, one could easily feel that a conspicuous sign of a ‘hands-on’ president was needed. Apparently Obama was startled by the bad rollout of healthcare – shocked and dismayed like all Americans. But shouldn’t he have known more about it than most Americans? Again, the Veterans Affairs scandal was something he learned about when he read the papers, but why only then? His show of injured trust and surprise had been received more charitably on the still obscure earlier occasion when four Americans were killed in Benghazi on 11 September 2012. He was notified at the time, but he was in the middle of campaigning and left the crisis to the State Department. Absent and accounted for. Yet there has been, all along, an airy and unnerving quality about these absences. Obama launched the bombing of Libya in March 2011, having previously signaled that he intended no such action, in an emergency speech during a state visit to Brazil.

Read more…

The nation responsible for the record high oil prices we pay is …

5 August 2014

Summary:  Why are oil prices so high? After inflation they’re above 1980 record highs. Peak oil enthusiasts have explanations (usually wrong, like their forecasts). There are many factors at work, including one simple but hidden reason: American foreign policy. The USA has played a large role in the suppression of oil production in three major oil producers, including two nations with some of the world’s largest petroleum reserves — and having the greatest potential for increased production. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that we’ve intervened in three oil producing nations, and high oil prices are an accidental by-product of our good intentions.

America & Oil

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Contents

  1. Iran
  2. Iraq
  3. Libya
  4. Another perspective
  5. For More Information

(1)  Iran

After a long history of interference in Iran’s government, we initiated an ever-tightening and broadening array of sanctions on Iran after the 1979 revolution — continuing until today. See a list here; Wikipedia has details on US sanctions and the UN sanctions the US promoted. For analysis see the Council on Foreign Relations and the US Institute of Peace (USIP).

For analysis of sanctions impact on Iran’s oil industry see this USIP report: part one and part two. They’re working. Iran produced 6 million barrels/day of oil in 1974.  In July their exports hit a five-month high of 600 thousand b/day.

Iran has vast untapped reserves. See the EIA’s report on Iran.  From the EIA:
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Iran's oil production

EIA, 10 December 2013

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(2)  Iraq

Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, in August 1990 the UN imposed a broad array of financial and trade sanctions on Iraq, which lasted until the US invasion and subsequent destabilization of Iraq.

Read more…

Good news: rising seas might not cover these Pacific islands

4 August 2014

Summary: The press reports often and in detail about climate and climate science, with two exceptions. They tend to hide from the public the exciting progress in understanding climate (they stick to the myth that “the science is settled”). Equally sad, they ignore the (too rare) good news about climate and the environment. Many posts here have covered the former; today we look at some of good news.

The science is telling us it is already too late for us.  And so we have been asking the global community to say, OK, think about the future, the speculation of what will happen.  But don’t forget those who are already affected, those for whom it is already too late, we are working together collectively with the countries in the like situation, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, the Maldives, where the impact of climate change is about total annihilation of our nations.

— Anote Tong (President of Kiribati), interview on CNN, 8 June 2014

Kiribati

Kiribati, only 1-2 meters above sea level

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Content

  1. “Warming may not swamp islands”
  2. Some of the supporting peer-reviewed research
  3. Rising sea levels, past and future
  4. For More Information

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(1)  Good news!

Warming may not swamp islands“, Christopher Pala (writer), Science, 1 August 2014 — Gated. Excerpt:

… a song blasting over Kiribati’s state radio envisions an apocalypse for this fishhook-shaped atoll halfway between Honolulu and Fiji: “The angry sea will kill us all.”

… Many scientists quietly demur.

No doubt, the sea is coming: In a 2013 report {AR5}, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that global sea levels will rise up to 1 meter by 2100. But recent geologic studies suggest that the coral reefs supporting sandy atoll islands will grow and rise in tandem with the sea. The only islanders who will have to move must do so for the same reason as millions of people on the continents: because they live too close to shore.

Paul Kench, a geomorphologist who now heads the University of Auckland’s School of Environment in New Zealand, was the first to question the dire forecasts for Kiribati and similar island nations. In 1999, the World Bank asked him to evaluate the economic costs of sea-level rise and climate change to Pacific island nations. Kench, who had been studying how atoll islands evolve over time, says he had assumed that a rising ocean would engulf the islands, which consist of sand perched on reefs. “That’s what everyone thought, and nobody questioned it,” he says. But when he scoured the literature, he could not find a single study to support that scenario.

So Kench teamed up with Peter Cowell, a geomorphologist at the University of Sydney in Australia, to model what might happen. They found that during episodes of high seas—at high tide during El Niño events, which raise sea level in the Central Pacific, for example — storm waves would wash over higher and higher sections of atoll islands. But instead of eroding land, the waves would raise island elevation by depositing sand produced from broken coral, coralline algae, mollusks, and foraminifera. Kench notes that reefs can grow 10 to 15 millimeters a year — faster than the sea-level rise expected to occur later this century. “As long as the reef is healthy and generates an abundant supply of sand, there’s no reason a reef island can’t grow and keep up,” he argues.

It’s not new news. New Scientist wrote about this four years ago: “Shape-shifting islands defy sea-level rise“, 2 June 2010 — Excerpt:

Read more…

Transformers 4: the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America

3 August 2014

Summary:  Today we have another guest post by film critic Locke Peterseim. He discusses how Michael Bay’s “Transformers 4″, giant space robots knocking the oil out of each other amidst amber waves of grain, perfectly capturing 21st-century America’s  most fevered dreams of itself. Post your comments about the film — and this review!

Nicola Peltz in Transformers: Age of Extinction

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Transformers 4:
The Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America

By Locke Peterseim

Posted at the film blog of Open Letters Monthly
7 July 2013
Reposted here with his generous permission

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No, I’m not being facetious. This isn’t winking satire. I’m stone cold Steve Austin serious: Transformers: Age of Extinction is quite possibly the single most important cinematic document so far about how America fever dreams itself into continued existence in the 21st Century.

For the most part, critics have been baffled and stymied by Michael Bay’s seemingly never-ending Transformers action-toy film franchise. Each entry feels bigger, louder, longer, dumber than the last; each one earns more than the last worldwide; and each time out, critics, pundits, fan boys, and anyone concerned about the death of cinema, the death of culture, or just the death of alien space robots that turn into cars has repeated sounded off about the movies’ spastic visual cacophony and narratives that—to the extent they exist—weave in and out of logic and coherence.

And yet, the films keep coming back. Unwavering, unrepentant. We can make snarky jokes about plot holes, and pacing problems, and product placement, and the fetishizing of both girls in jean shorts and American muscle cars until we’re blue in our intellectualized faces and it will make no difference.

Transformers director and maestro of Bayhem, Michael Fucking Bay—the perpetual bad-boy idiot bro-savant—didn’t become Michael Fucking Bay because he stays up at night worrying about what critics and fan boys think of his movies. No, he stays up at night banging hookers on the hoods of solid gold sports cars filled with cocaine because his films have become giant temples of crazed cash-making wretched genius excess.

Read more…

Israel learned from its patron the art of righteous theft and killing

2 August 2014

Summary:  Just as the West’s endemic antisemitism has infected other nations in the Middle East (or exacerbated it), Israel acts out the West’s standard imperialist scripts on the Palestinians. Take the natives’ land, oppress them, and their violent reaction justifies repeating the cycle. In Israel today, as in the many previous times in Western history, it’s done with righteousness. and indiscriminate violence.

The trade of Bible for Land

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The Most Dangerous Moment in Gaza“, Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic, 1 August 2014 — “What happens if this conflict comes off the rails?” Excerpt:

There is near-unanimity in Israel already that Hamas represents an unbearable threat. Add in the perfidy of a raid conducted after a ceasefire went into effect and near-unanimity becomes total unanimity. The most interesting article I’ve read in the past 24 hours is an interview with the Israeli novelist Amos Oz, the father of his country’s peace-and-compromise movement, who opened the interview with Deutsche Welle in this manner:

Amoz Oz: I would like to begin the interview in a very unusual way: by presenting one or two questions to your readers and listeners. May I do that?

Deutsche Welle: Go ahead!

Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?

Question 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?

With these two questions I pass the interview to you.

The point is, if Amos Oz, a severe critic of his country’s policies toward the Palestinians, sounds no different on the subject of the Hamas threat than the right-most ministers in Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing cabinet, then there will be a national consensus that it is not enough to manage the Hamas rocket-and-tunnel threat, but that it must be eliminated if at all possible.

This is the typical madness of imperialism. Let’s look at from different perspectives.

First, consider Oz’s question. If I shoot my neighbor it is simple self-defense. But that’s not an analogy with Gaza, which require that I use heavy weapons to destroy his entire apartment building — or the entire city block. By Oz’s analogy, I’d be guilty of mass murder. How odd that neither Oz or Goldberg see this.

Read more…

See the true trend of the US economy, hidden in the daily news

1 August 2014

Summary: today’s post is another helping you more clearly see the present. We look at the condition of the US economy in pictures, cutting through the statistical noise and economists’ hopes that fog our vision. It’s easy to see, if we try.  When we decide to try, America will become a different (and better) nation.

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Clear vision

During the past 4 years I have reported (& predicted) that the US economy has remained locked into slow growth, vulnerable to a shock (perhaps knocking it into recession), despite constant forecasts of acceleration coming really soon — returning us to normal growth.

If we had accurate newspapers, most economic reports would read like this:

The new economic data released today — the XXXX number — came in slightly less than expected by the consensus of economists, continuing its stable slow growth since early 2011. The monthly numbers change, but the trend does not. Also unchanged are economists’ assurances that the economy will accelerate during the next few quarters.

We often obscure this slow growth by reporting the change in terms of absolute numbers rather than percentages (since the population and economy grow over time, the same number represents a smaller percent change over).

News without the fake drama — would it sell advertisements? Or rather, we get the quality of news that we refuse to pay for.

This week the government released major new economic data. As always, analysis focused on tiny monthly changes (i.e., statistical noise) that support their forecasts, pretending to be ignorant of the tools to show statistical significance. And conservative financial “experts” whined about the large revisions made to past data (amnesiac about their complaints that the government taxes and spends too much, and the resulting gross underfunding of the vital government statistical agencies — our eyes by which to see the world.

So what did we learn?

(1)  Real Gross Domestic Product

Let’s look at real GDP excluding inventory swings (which mask the trend), also called Real Final Sales. It has run at 2% per year for the past 3 years (starting Q2 2011). The month-on-month per cent change shows the trend, if you are familiar with such graphs.
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GDP: Final-Sales
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The same numbers shown as percent change since a year ago (YoY, year-on-year change) more easily shows the trend — flat for 4 years — but will more slowly show the eventual change in the trend.

Read more…

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