Saving Capitalism

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Saving Capitalism

**1/2

 

The year was 1993. President Clinton nominated his old college pal Robert Reich as Labor Secretary.

Mr. Reich wasn’t just another juiced-in Friend of Bill with big pockets. Reich was a man of character and vision. He still is.

Secretary Reich understood the relationship between the government and the economy more clearly than his contemporaries.

At the time, Conservatives consistently clamored for less Federal intervention. They perceived government as the natural enemy of the free market. Liberals at the time, meanwhile, viewed government as the heroic police officer that stepped in and stopped rapacious businesses from getting their way.

Reich knew what we know now: both sides were preposterously wrong.

There is no free market. There is always government. Government sets the rules of capitalism in each country. But the rules aren’t always anti-business. Far from it. There are times when a government makes rules that are outrageously pro-business.

To Robert Reich, our economy is like an NFL game between two AFC powerhouses. There are always referees. You can’t have the game without them. But there is a serious problem when the referees rule that the go-ahead fourth quarter touchdown is an incomplete pass. Because then the refs have basically handed the game to one team. And now everyone is starting to lose faith in the sport.

The refs are the government. The New England Patriots are big corporations. And the Pittsburgh Steelers – the poor fools who had their winning touchdown stolen away in Week 15 – are the American workers.

For Secretary Reich, the solution was simple: next time there was a big rule change in Washington, he needed to make sure the new rule was NOT written by lobbyists for Bill Belichick.

Simple is not the same as easy. Reich completely failed. He resigned in quiet frustration in 1997.

Mr. Reich is too polite and loyal to explicitly say it, but he subtly admits the ugly truth: when it came to twisting the rules to give big business more power, Clinton was like Reagan on steroids. Corporate sponsored steroids.

“Saving Capitalism” – as the name suggests – doesn’t condemn capitalism at all. It states that the biggest threat to our glorious economic system is resentment caused by wealth inequality. And wealth inequality is caused by too much corporate money influencing Washington.

It’s a reasonable premise. Robert Reich is a reasonable man. I must warn you, my leftist readers, you may be horrified as he talks to Republican congressmen and lobbyists as if they are fellow human beings worthy of living. Indeed, you may faint when Reich chats with Trump voters and suggests that they are essentially on his side – the side of anti-Trust government action and populist reform.

His premise is reasonable. His dialogue with all sides is reasonable. His conclusion is idiotic.

Robert Reich concludes – quixotically – that if people get politically active we can turn the tide of history. We can boot big money out of Washington. We can change the rules and turn the Patriots into a .500 team again.

Reich is dead wrong. He was Secretary of Labor for a Democratic President with a Democrat-controlled Congress before Citizens United. And he accomplished nothing. Now he is suggesting that getting out the vote is going to solve our problems. Ha.

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Cuba and the Cameraman

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Netflix Original Documentary

Cuba and the Cameraman

***1/2

 

In the 20th Century, leftists around the world were rooting for Revolutionary Cuba.

Cuba was the best chance of having a classless, Socialist Utopia in the Western Hemisphere. If Cubans could succeed while thumbing their noses at the decadent Americans at the same time, all the better.

Cuba became a political Rorschach Test. Conservative critics pointed to the thousands of political prisoners who never received a trial and the overcrowded boats filled with desperate refugees. Michael Moore, on the other hand, concluded that Cuba’s free healthcare system is more efficient and humane than our own.

Well, the debate is over. In his epic documentary “Cuba and the Cameraman,” journalist Jon Alpert has proven that Cuba is terrible. How do you know he’s right? Because he was trying desperately to prove the opposite.

Alpert began sneaking into Cuba by boat every few years in the 1970s. He would always meet up with the same locals to see how their lives were affected by the Castro regime.

He befriended Luis: a Havana slum-dweller. Young Luis was a happy dude in a free apartment with running water. All was well. Jon befriended the Borrego brothers: three 60-something farmers who joyfully worked the fields all day, did extra labor for the government in the late afternoon, and sipped rum at night.

Young Jon Alpert had a good reason for only wanting to see the best in Cuba. He knew Fidel Castro.

In addition to the intimate portraits of average Cubans, Jon introduces us to El Comandante. Fidel Castro comes off as eloquent, witty, kind, and even humble. Castro is so generous with Jon that it is only natural that Jon is unable to find anything bad to say about the dictator.

But history has a way of speaking for itself.

When Jon returns to Cuba in the 1990s, he finds that Castro’s Socialist Utopia has become a 3rd World nightmare.

Jon knocks on Luis’s door. Luis’s brother reports that he was dragged off and imprisoned. No one knows why.

Luis’s brother shows Jon the dilapidated state of the apartment building. There’s no more running water. The path leading to the outhouses has collapsed so now residents have to urinate in the street.

Everyone looks fatter than before. At least Castro is feeding the people well, right? Not exactly. With no supply of meat or vegetables, citizens are stuck living on rations of sugar and rice.

Incredibly, the situation is even worse for the poor Borrego brothers. They are in their 80s now and as strong and eager to work as ever. But they can’t.

The country-wide meat shortage has taken an ugly turn. Machete-wielding bandits have been raiding the Borrego farm at night. Now all of their farm animals have been stolen and slaughtered, including their two oxen. They can’t even plow their own fields. It is a heart-wrenching scene. Even Castro-pal Jon Alpert can’t put a positive spin on it.

The conclusion is unavoidable: With a steady influx of foreign money pouring in, Cubans were able to live a tolerable 19th Century existence. Left to its own devices, Cuba became a hungry dystopian police state.

The debate about Cuba is over: President Kennedy was right. And Michael Moore is full of it.

Bush and Clinton: A New World Order

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Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States

Vol IX

Bush and Clinton: A New World Order

****

 

One of the lessons from the novel “1984” is that an oppressive government needs to have an enemy.

In the beginning of “1984,” Big Brother is at war with Eurasia. Suddenly, halfway through the book, the country is at war with Eastasia.

It doesn’t especially matter whether the threat is real. The point of having an enemy isn’t just perpetual warfare; it is total control over the minds of your own people.

Only in this context is it possible to understand American foreign policy from 1989 to 2001. On paper, the US acted with foolishness and needless bellicosity. When compared to the government in “1984,” it was a splendid success.

 

The story begins with the fall of Communism and the election of George H. W. Bush.

With visionary leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Oliver Stone asserts, we had a golden opportunity to change history and make Russia our lasting ally. Our leaders didn’t want that at all, though.

To make sure we stayed arch-enemies with the Russians, we shamelessly betrayed them. In 1990, the Kremlin agreed to let East Germany reunite with NATO country West Germany. In exchange, Washington agreed to halt the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe.

We what we should have done was disband NATO entirely. Its stated purpose was to guard Western Europe against the aggressive onslaught of Stalinist Communism. What the US did, however, was actively betray Moscow’s trust during its hour of weakness.

During the 90s, NATO began a belligerent advance right up to Russia’s doorstep. Today, the US is officially obligated to come to the defense of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania if Russia attacks them. Do our leaders genuinely care about the Estonians? Nah, they just want to antagonize Moscow.

Our leaders successfully ensured that the Russians continue to fear and hate us. Bravo. For their next trick, they found a way to have endless war in the Middle East.

 

In 1990, a US envoy told our old friend Saddam Hussein that he could take over Kuwait without inference. When Iraq invaded its neighbor, however, the Bush Administration changed its mind.

Operation Desert Storm was a splendid military success. But it had severe long-term consequences.

Osama Bin Laden had formerly viewed Communist Russia and the decadent Saudi monarchy as the ultimate enemies of Islam. After seeing thousands of US soldiers stationed in the Holy Land, Al-Qaeda had a new #1 target: America.

To Oliver Stone, Bill Clinton was a neo-con wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Under Clinton, our military became the ever-present policemen wherever there were Muslims misbehaving or in danger. US boots and bombs were active in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, and Iraq – often without the American people’s knowledge.

Stone argues that when 9/11 sparked the War on Terror, it wasn’t a real change; it was just a continuation of the Clinton policy of multi-theater warfare in the Muslim World.

After the Cold War, the United States could have chosen peace. Instead, it mapped out a path of perpetual conflict with Russia and Islam.

 

Essentially, we are at War with Eurasia and Eastasia. And the only winner is Big Brother.

 

 

Kedi (cat)

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Kedi

(Cat)

***

 

Everybody knows about the love that parents have for their children. Everybody knows about the loyalty that dogs and their owners have for each other.

America’s love affair with our cats is less well-known. That is because cats are mostly hidden behind closed-doors. You only see a cat-lovers’ beloved baby if you go into her house. And, even if you are in her house, the cat may have run away and hidden from you.

For nearly 40 years, cats weren’t even on my radar. I didn’t know anything about them. And I certainly had never loved one.

My feelings have changed in a big way since I’ve been living with my wife’s cats Lucy and Felicia. Now they are my cats, too. They are my children. The cats make our apartment a home.

During our toughest times as a couple, our cats have been there to comfort us and to remind us that we are a family.

In my few years of being a cat daddy, I’ve learned that cats are not as smart as dogs. They don’t understand the concepts of gratitude or guilt or the dignity of labor.

But what they lack in sophistication, they more than make up for in love. A large portion of their tiny little brains are devoted to love – the love they feel for you.

In America, only us lucky cat people fully understand the magic of felines. In Istanbul, everybody does.

 

In Istanbul, there are no housecats. There are just cats.

During the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul was one of the busiest international trading ports in the world. Back then, it was common for trading vessels to have a cat on board to kill mice. Often, those cats would get off the boat and make their home on the streets of the city.

When Istanbul built its sewer system, large rats became a dreaded problem. Neighborhoods eagerly welcomed feral cats to help clean up their communities.

Organically, a unique system was created. The city has tens of thousands of cats on its streets, and millions of owners in its houses. The local cat is no one’s property. It is everyone’s pride and joy.

All the locals interviewed for “Kedi” have different stories about how cats impacted their lives. But they all have the same philosophy: it is wrong to keep a cat locked up; they belong to the city and they belong being free.

They are free, but doesn’t mean they are unloved. Some cats crave human affection even more than they crave Fancy Feast.

For the people in Istanbul who are lucky enough to be chosen by a cat as their primary human friend, there is a special pride and gratitude.

Several Turks interviewed explain how they used to be overwhelmed by the city and close to depression and madness. But their relationship with a neighborhood cat grounded them and gave them positivity, perspective, and purpose.

Cat-lovers will adore “Kedi.” The film explores the fundamental truth about cats that we have discovered: with their quiet, mysterious companionship, they help us more than we could ever help them.

Sour Grapes

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Sour Grapes

***1/2

 

Most people agree that wealth inequality is a serious problem. The large and growing wealth gap isn’t just unfair, it is a danger to the stability of our regime.

Politicians like Elizabeth Warren and especially Bernie Sanders are popular, above all, because they are seen as advocates for the people against the rapacious rich.

The problem is that politicians seem to think there is only one way to redistribute wealth: raise taxes. It is a little fishy that the one idea they have is the one that specifically enriches and empowers them.

If we were serious about taking from the rich, we’d come up with a more imaginative gameplan.

How about encouraging corporations to give their employees shares of stock in every paycheck? This would ensure that Wall Street rallies would benefit workers and not just the wealthy.

That’s just one idea to get some money out of the hands of super rich people. Rudy Kurniawan came up with a way better one.

With the rise of the dot.com millionaire came the rise of the high-priced wine auction. At these auctions, super rich nitwits blew thousands of dollars on individual bottles of over-hyped old French vino.

Out of nowhere, a young Indonesian immigrant named Rudy Kurniawan burst onto the scene. No one knew where he was getting his money or what his angle was, but Rudy began cornering the market on elite fine wine and driving up the price.

You would have thought that American wine snobs would hate Rudy. But the directors of “Sour Grapes” can’t find anyone who has a bad word to say about him.

Rudy was as generous and gregarious as he was mysterious. He threw parties and shared his best wine with friends. Rudy impressed wine snobs with his exquisite taste and unique ability to recognize different vintages.

But Rudy made one powerful enemy: billionaire wine collector jerk Bill Koch. While his brothers like politics, Bill likes to go out of his way to ruin people’s fun.

Killjoy Bill wants to make sure that all of his vast, overpriced wine collection is legit, so he has a professional investigator on staff. The investigator and his ex-CIA colleagues discovered some inconsistencies with Rudy Kurniawan’s wine labels.

Apparently, the FBI has nothing better to do than investigate wine fraud, so they got in on the case, too. It all ended in 2012, when the feds busted down Rudy’s door and uncovered the counterfeit wine-making operation in his kitchen.

Rudy had been bilking the superrich for years: selling $20 bottles of wine for $thousands.

The question is, though, did Rudy do anything wrong? No one complained about the wine. Rudy was such an extraordinary connoisseur that he always fooled buyers by filling the bottles with cheap wine that had the same taste as the original.   “Sour Grapes” interviews outraged Burgundy vineyard owner Laurent Ponsot. Monsieur Ponsot came all the way to America to make sure that Rudy was punished for defaming his family’s wines. I find Ponsot’s position obnoxious and absurd. If Rudy was able to fool elite wine buyers with his California counterfeits, it seems clear that Ponsot’s fancy snooty French wines aren’t that special.

 

Let me recap the score of the wealth distribution game: Senators Sanders and Warren are folk heroes for threatening to soak the rich. Meanwhile, Rudy Kurniawan is serving hard time in federal prison for selling overpriced bottles of tasty wine to rich people.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the government is working to protect the interests of the 1% rather than redistribute wealth.

1945: The Savage Peace

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1945: The Savage Peace

***

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

-Jesus, about the people killing him

 

The way we treated the Japanese during World War II is unfathomably heartless. We all apparently agreed that it would be great if every Japanese person was shot, burned, or blown up.

Yes, a few hundred Japanese soldiers attacked Pearl Harbor. But Pearl Harbor isn’t exactly Putney; it was a military base located 2500 miles away from the US.

On paper, that doesn’t feel like a reasonable justification for the relentless mass murder of Japanese civilians; but that’s exactly what we did.

We claim to be a Christian country. Theoretically, we follow the teachings of the man who told us to “turn the other cheek.” In practice, we are no more moral or mature than a seven-year-old boy shouting “he started it” after we beat up a kid we don’t like.

Vengeance is not a moral justification for violence. Wrath is a deadly sin; it’s the most terrible and destructive deadly sin of all.

 

“1945: The Savage Peace” is not your father’s World War II program.

It exposes – in unflinching detail – the mass murder and ethnic cleansing of Germans.

At the war’s end, it was decided that all 12 million ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe would be removed as quickly as possible. Coming up with a humane way to make this happen was not high on the list of priorities for the victors. “These are Germans, after all,” they thought. “The very people who started all of this.”

Czechoslovakia was probably the least ravaged of any Eastern European country. Nevertheless, the proud Czech people did not care for the fact that they had been ruled by Germans. Soon after the Nazi regime fell, new Czech president Edward Benes called for “the Final Solution to the German question.”

This was as bad as it sounds. Armed bands of semi-sanctioned vigilantes rounded up German citizens and harassed, beat, or killed them. The Sudetenland had been largely German for generations. The millions of residents were kicked out of their homes and forced to march to Germany.

As with everything in WWII, things in Poland were worse. The least fortunate Germans were shipped to the USSR as “reparations labor” and never seen again.

The hundreds of thousands sent to Concentration Camps didn’t fare so well, either. It’s a little known fact that soon after Nazi Concentration Camps were liberated, they were repopulated with ethnic Germans.

East Prussia had been German for all of modern history. Suddenly, the region was part of western Poland. Millions of Germans were uprooted and forced to move west with nothing but the clothes on their backs. No one knows how many died of starvation and disease along the way. And nobody cared.

 

We are quick to separate groups of people into Us and Them. And once someone from the Them group hurts one of Us, it is disturbingly easy to start thinking ourselves as the good guys and them as the bad guys. Then all bets are off.

That’s why Czechs and Poles were comfortable slaughtering Germans. That’s why our grandparents were comfortable fire-bombing Japanese cities. That’s why no one seems to care that our government is blowing an Arab’s limbs off with a drone this very afternoon.

Vengeance is never noble and never morally defensible. It’s just another type of murder.

Until we all agree to forgive our enemies instead of hate them, humanity is doomed to perpetual violence.

Tokyo Idols

 

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Tokyo Idols

***

 

One of the strangest aspects of our society is that it’s normal for young women to fanatically obsess over pop stars. From the Beatles to the Backstreet Boys to Bieber, young women have been screaming together at concerts for our entire lives. And we all just shrug our shoulders and accept it.

I’m not ready to accept it. It is collective madness. For years, I assumed that it has something to do with the female psyche since we never see men going to concerts together and screaming for Beyoncé or Pink.

Well, I was dead wrong. It isn’t just women who go insane for pop stars. In Japan, men do it too.

“Tokyo Idols” is an educational, eye-opening documentary. It teaches us about a different culture’s pop music scene. And it explores the troubled psyches of people who devote their lives to it.

 

Right now, there are hundreds of teenage girls in Japan who call themselves Idols.

The Idols perform upbeat pop performances at clubs. If they get big enough, they record songs and music videos. They make most of their money by participating in well-organized meet-and-greet events, where they chat one-on-one with passionate supporters.

This all sounds pretty normal and pretty American, right? Absolutely not. All of the fans at the Idol meet-and-greet are men. Mostly older men.

You would think that a documentary about Idol culture would condemn the participants or at least make fun of them. Director Kyoko Miyake does neither.

You can’t help but respect and root for Rio. When we meet Rio, she is 19. She is an aging elder statesman in the business and she knows it. Rio is trying to parlay her Idol fame into a serious singing career.

At her core, though, she is a sensible hard-working young woman with a loving family and a growing bank account. Good for her.

Life is not going so well for her fans.

Kyoko Miyake could have easily said: “Hey, look at these creepy old men who may or may not be pedophiles! They can’t tell the difference between an animé character and a real girl. Let’s judge them!”

But to her credit, Miyake helps us understand how a normal Japanese man could grow up to become an Idol groupie.

Rio’s fans all have similar backstories. When they were Rio’s age, they were trying to lead a normal life. They had girlfriends, and they were trying to get promoted at work and save enough money to marry and start a family. Somewhere along the line, they gave up and dropped out of the Tokyo rat race.

They couldn’t handle the cost or the responsibility of taking care of a family. But they can handle the lesser challenge of filling a studio apartment with Idol merchandise and going to shows every night.

By the end of “Tokyo Idols,” I didn’t think most of the fans are creepy. They are just sad, lonely human beings. They are grasping onto the one thing in their life that brings them joy.

 

In the end, I have to admit that there is nothing fundamentally wrong about going to concerts and screaming for your favorite pop star, whether you’re male or female. It is ridiculous and undignified, but it doesn’t hurt anybody.

If you are still doing it at age 25, however, you probably need to reassess your life.

Bobby Sands: 66 Days

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Bobby Sands: 66 Days

***1/2

 

Northern Ireland could have been a lovely place to live in the 1960s and 70s. It enjoyed relative peace and prosperity. It didn’t have any problems that cooperation and togetherness couldn’t solve.

But no such luck. Of all the many virtues of the Irish people, togetherness has never been one of them. This was the time of the Troubles.

The Troubles began when gangs of young Protestant men began fighting similar gangs of Catholic men. Officially, the local police and the federal government in London was neutral in the conflict. As time passed, however, it became increasingly clear to the Catholics that the Establishment was against them. In the face of oppression, the IRA became more militant.

Though the Catholic Irish Republicans were right to think of the British as colonial oppressors, it was the British who were winning the propaganda war. Most people – even most Irish – viewed the IRA as a terrorist organization. Most people didn’t see them as revolutionary heroes; they saw the Republicans as cowards who sent letter bombs and blew up cars by remote.

If the Republicans were to accomplish anything positive, they needed to flip the script. That’s where Bobby Sands came in.

 

In 1972, Bobby Sands was a teen IRA soldier serving his first prison term. While his fellow revolutionaries were reading about Mao Zedong and Che Guevara, Sands was studying Terence MacSwiney.

Terence MacSwiney was the Lord Mayor of Cork during the Irish Revolution. He had a powerful new theory about warfare. He argued that the winner is not the side that inflicts the most violence, but the side that is willing to endure the most suffering.

MacSwiney practiced what he preached. He starved himself to death in a British prison in 1920. A year later, Ireland won its independence.

During his early years behind bars, Bobby Sands was treated well. Irish revolutionaries were treated like respectable political prisoners. Suddenly, the British government decided to strip the IRA prisoners of their political status and treat them like common criminals.

Now 27 year old Bobby Sands had a cause to fight for. And he had a tactic with which to fight. On March 1, 1981, Bobby Sands began a hunger strike, demanding that the UK recognize that his men are political prisoners. Several other young men joined the Fast.

“Bobby Sands: 66 Days” does a magnificent job of teaching us about Irish history while also helping the viewer understand Bobby Sands, the brave young man who altered the fate of Northern Ireland with his martyrdom.

Republican propagandists ran Bobby Sands for Parliament to spread the word of his hunger strike. When a dying Sands won, he became a household name from Montpelier to Melbourne.

Sands’s demands were modest, but London never gave in. Unfortunately for the Fasters, Britain’s Prime Minister wasn’t known as the Empathetic Pushover Lady; she was the Iron Lady. Bobby Sands died; as did nine of his fellow Fasters.

Finally, the IRA called off the Hunger Strike.

But in death and defeat, the Republicans had learned a surprising lesson. If they could get an emaciated felon elected to Parliament, it was clear that serious political power was within their grasp. Sinn Fein began its evolution from Extreme Left mischief-makers to serious British politicians.

Replacing bombs with bon mots and Molotov Cocktails with cocktail parties led organically to The Good Friday Agreement, which finally granted Northern Ireland dignity, equality, and self-rule.

 

“Bobby Sands: 66 Days” has a happy ending, as the violence finally ended. But I don’t understand why all that that killing and bombing and maiming was necessary to begin with.

Looking back, the differences between the Catholics and Protestants were not so great as to explain or justify murderous hatred and revolutionary war.

Thank goodness we live in a country where we don’t let relatively minor difference lead us to divide ourselves and hate each other. Right?