Is the right to own property the “most basic right” of any democracy, as some Tea Party leaders insist? Could something like that be any more true than, say, that the right to be paid a just wage is “the most basic right” of any democracy?

Maybe. Maybe not. But the first question that comes to mind is, what is property?

Original sin? Marxism as an economic philosophy may be dead, but a lot of Marx’s observations about the nature of work and property still seem acute. In a nutshell, the real value of “property” comes primarily from the labour invested in it. So the thing of real value is not a thing, but the work of our hands.

So if someone has a lot of property and they want to protect their right to that property, the first question is, what right does the person have to that property in the first place.

Most likely — this sounds glib, but it’s probably true– it was stolen in the first place. From neighbors. From neighboring tribes. From the people living above the oil deposit. From the native peoples who hadn’t developed a culture of putting “no trespassing” signs and fences around their property. Property comes from the exploitation of natural resources, forests, fish, water– how does anyone obtain the sacred right to take exclusive possession of a tree?

Since property has no value in and of itself, when someone says they want to guard the right to private property, they are really talking about monopoly. It’s nobody’s “private” property– it’s always public. What I want to be sacred is my fence around it.

This is not to say I am against the general arrangement of things we have worked out in modern capitalism. Our system works pretty well as a way of distributing real wealth (the product of labour). It’s the perversion of this system — the tax breaks, monopolies, lax regulation– that make the system unfair.

All corporations claim to love competition but no corporation really wants it, and only the government has the power to ensure that there is competition, and the idiots who think the government should stay out of the marketplace actually seem to believe we would be treated better by McDonald’s, BP, Exxon, Monsanto, Archer-Daniels-Midland, and General Foods than we would be by Nancy Pelosi.

“What I don’t like from the president’s administration is this sort of, ‘I’ll put my boot heel on the throat of BP,’ ” Paul said. “I think that sounds really un-American in his criticism of business.”

Rand Paul, criticizing the Obama Administration for being “too tough” on BP, Washington Post.

Republicans at Work: “A ‘teacher’ told my child in class that dolphins were mammals and not fish!” a third complains. “And the same thing about whales! We need TRADITIONAL VALUES in all areas of education. If it swims in the water, it is a FISH. Period! End of Story.

National Republican Party Website voter feedback, quoted by the Washington Post.

Dien Bien Phu

The Japanese took Viet Nam away from France during World War II. At the end of the war, France– it’s manhood seriously in doubt, I suppose– tried to take it back. To do this– believe it or not– they accepted the assistance of some Japanese forces that had yet to be repatriated. You can’t make this stuff up.

Let’s go back a little further: history is incredibly rich in instructive detail about empires and irony.

The French chose sides in a long-standing civil war in Viet Nam, which had it’s roots in the 1850’s. Eventually, the French and their proxies simply elbowed aside the natives and took over. Why? History books simply tell you that the French “took control” as if there was something logical and reasonable about a European Nation walking into a foreign country on the other side of globe and taking control. It’s ours now. Your wealth will now flow into our pockets. You are now working for us.

With the defeat by Nazi Germany, France lost control of their colonies, to the Japanese. During the Japanese occupation, Ho Chi Minh agitated for a end to any foreign domination, and formed a guerrilla movement. When the Japanese were defeated, Ho proclaimed an independent Viet Nam. That seemed an insanely rational thing to do.

The French, deeply moved by the sad experience of being occupied by an evil foreign power, congratulated them and moved on.

Hoo hah! Did you believe that even for a second? No, France said, not so fast. They offered a puppet state to Ho; he declined.

It was the French and the Americans who defied rationality. The French decided to try to take Viet Nam back, as if they had some sacred title deed to the nation. After the negotiations failed, the French moved their armies in. A little cheesy, you might think. Having been soundly defeated by the Germans and restored to power by the Americans and British, they go marching into Viet Nam all bluster and courage and medals and parades. In fact, General Gracie, the British commander, allowed the Japanese to be re-armed in order to help the French retake Viet Nam from the Viet Minh!

It reminds me of those parties in New York where people you thought were political or literary enemies all gather together and toast themselves.  Kissinger and Truman Capote and Barbara Walters and Jackie Kennedy and Prince Andrew– all together, schmoozing.

Here is the fork of history– how many lives would have been saved if the French had simply admitted that they didn’t belong there in the first place, and if they had simply congratulated Viet Nam on their independence and moved on? Where would we be today? How many French, Americans, and Vietnamese, and Cambodians, and Laotians, would be alive and well and perhaps even prosperous today, if some asshole Frenchmen had not decided that it would do France’s honor some good if it could bully some Asians into submission and take their rubber?

Yes, what they wanted, I believe, was the rubber.

Let’s not be overly simplistic– the communist government in the North were no saints; they destroyed the economy and caused famine into the 1950’s. Russia and China interfered, using them for their own purposes. But the decisive matter is this: Viet Nam resisted both the French and the Americans because they wanted independence, and once the French and then the Americans were gone, they turned on the Chinese and the Russians and did just what they said they would do originally: take control of their own nation. Had the French departed in 1950 as they should have, they would have learned their lessons about management of the economy much sooner. The moderates would also not have been driven from all levels of government the way they were when civil war broke out.

The Americans, we are told in one documentary, confronted Chinese troops in Korea, which led them to believe that communist China must be “contained”. The glib voice doesn’t tell us how the Chinese came to be involved in Korea, of the arrogance of McArthur, and the diplomatic bungling, or the hubris of the allies. (China wanted to stay out, but the Americans blundered into the border areas in order to crush the North Koreans. China warned the U.S. that they had an interest in who occupied the towns near or on their borders– the U.S. ignored the warnings and were completely taken by surprise by the Chinese attack.)

So the French, in order to cut off a possible Viet Minh initiative into Laos, moved about 10,000 troops into a valley in North Western Viet Nam called Dien Bien Phu. Comments on Youtube in response to a documentary on Dien Bien Phu rhapsodize about the honor and courage of those 10,000 French.  These commentators want you, the reader, to be willing to do the same thing, because it’s so honorable and courageous, for your government, if they ask you do.

Are you mad?

What is “courage”, when placed in the service of idiocy and patriotism?  The French built an airstrip and fortifications and promptly found themselves surrounded by 50,000 Viet Minh. Even the possibility of retreat had been excised.

In early stages of the battle, the Viet Minh lost 10,000 casualties to 1,700 French. At that rate, you might think the French might eventually win.

But all the lessons the U.S. later took 13 years to learn were in full expression at Dien Bien Phu already in 1954.

  • technological superiority may not prevail
  • the determination of the enemy should not be underestimated
  • an enemy with a deep and abiding knowledge of the terrain and culture will drive you crazy
  • a war should never be about settling scores or proving your manhood or making points: what, really, was the French interest in Indochina?
  • the full support of the nation is required for a long, drawn-out conflict
  • God knows that you are sacrificing the lives of others. God knows that you asked others to risk what you yourself would never risk for anyone: your life.
  • God knows that you were blinded by self-interest when you assessed the relative risks and benefits of the military actions you commanded.

How many of these lessons apply to Iraq?

They almost certainly apply to Afghanistan which, after 10 years of occupation, shows no sign of pacification.

Above, the monument to Ho Chi Minh.

It’s always been the oil. It’s never been about anything other than the oil. And the fact that naive Americans still fervently believe that it is about anything other than oil tells you a lot about how astoundingly successful the massive public con of “patriotism” has been. My goodness- it’s there, right in your face. It’s not even camouflaged. It’s Dick Cheney in the White House actually admitting that it’s about the oil. And the open question about whether George Bush ever, deep in his heart, did not believe it.

Invariably, the terms offered during negotiations after fighting has broken out and the costs have become clear are worse than those offered initially.

And so it was in Viet Nam: in 1953, the terms offered to the French were far less attractive than those offered at the start of the civil war in 1950. If you were the parents or wife or lover of a young soldier who died in the civil conflict before 1953— would a monument ease your sense of lost?

There is a magnificent monument to Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. Isn’t it beautiful? You should read about Viet Nam in the 1940’s and 50’s and 60’s, and the wars, and the betrayals, and the genocides, and the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia to put a stop the Khmer Rouge, and then the Chinese putting a stop to the Vietnamese… you should look at the monument and contemplate it’s stolid quiet complacency, the almost zen-like beauty of it’s ghostly visage against the horizon, and you will see history. You will see the millions of shattered and destroyed lives, the starvations, the tortures, the explosions and fires, the bombs and bayonets, the rivers of blood– there they all are, asleep, anesthetized, dreaming of the lives they might have lived, were it not for the grand mission of history embalmed in the monument by the name of a general or king or president for life… in this case, a dried up old corpse named Ho Chi Minh.

Clarence Thomas, Wake Up

Thomas criticized the majority for imposing ”its own sense of morality and retributive justice” on state lawmakers and voters who chose to give state judges the option of life-without-parole sentences. ”I am unwilling to assume that we, as members of this court, are any more capable of making such moral judgments than our fellow citizens,” Thomas said. NYTimes, May 17, 2010

That is a stunning declaration.  What I do, says Thomas, as a Justice on the Supreme Court, is rubber-stamp any cockamamie decision you want.  But we know: as long as it is a conservative decision.

Wow! Even for a long-time follower of the diminutive career of Justice Clarence Thomas, this one is particularly mind-boggling. He appears to have forgotten what the Supreme Court is for. He calls it a “moral judgment” but what he is talking about is the job of the court to ensure that government legislation and policy does not infringe on the rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. Thomas, having accepted the job of navigator on this airplane, suddenly exclaims, “why are we on an airplane? We should be on a boat instead” and jumps out the window.

What is a “moral judgment”? The majority (6-3) simply agreed that the Constitution of the United States prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment”. Is it a moral judgment to force voters and legislators to obey the constitution? Could it be that the framers of the constitution didn’t mean cruel and unusual? Maybe they meant to ban “reasonable and humane” punishments instead.

One has to ask the obvious question: does Clarence Thomas know he is on the Supreme Court? Does he understand what a Supreme Court does? If the Supreme Court is not capable of “making such moral judgments” about what was meant by “cruel and unusual”, then what exactly, one wonders with astonishment, is the function of the Supreme Court?

But then we know what Clarence Thomas’ answer would be: to prevent suspects from defending themselves against criminal charges. To prevent citizens from suing corporations. To prevent corporations from being unprofitable. To prevent minorities from oppressing the majorities with their extravagant demands for equal opportunity, fair wages and a safe workplace. To prevent women from stealing jobs from white men. To prevent black men from stealing jobs from white women. To prevent parents of minority school children from demanding trained teachers and science labs. To prevent reporters from demanding information. To prevent police from having to seek medical attention for injured prisoners. To prevent privatized prisons from having to provide adequate space and staff for prisoners. To prevent witches from witching and sorcerers from corrupting the minds of young children with their liberal theories and scientific text books and pagan culture. To prevent feminists from being feminine and masculine men from using mescaline. To prevent guns from falling into the hands of pacifists and pacifists from falling into the hands of lesbians. To prevent lesbians from being lesbians or living in sin or enticing gay-bashing preachers to have children they could adopt.

Let us all now and forever and again deliriously sing the praises of the unlawful, the unconstitutional, the transcendent Clarence Thomas. May he go down in history as the only Supreme Court Justice to ascend directly into heaven.

Thomas might answer that the Constitution is not a moral document. But that’s not the issue and he knows it, for he asserts that Congress and the voters have the right to make “such moral judgments”. I think Thomas would concede that what he is saying is that the “moral” content of the judgment that a life sentence is too harsh for a mere property crime is not subject to constitutional constraints.

If the public wants to torture and hang a witch– so be it. Who are we to say they shall not torture or hang a witch? Who are we to say there are no such things as witches?

My other ecstatic tribute to Justice Clarence Thomas.

The Lofti Raissi Case

The Lofti Raissi Case

It’s been a few years since Lotfi Raissi was finally released but people who actually believe in the competence, wisdom, and good judgment of the authorities in Britain, Canada, and the U.S., should reread this account every day. I mean every day–first thing in the morning, like a prayer: this is your tax dollar at work. You are paying for the keystone cops. But this is not a harmless comedy– these people are doing real damage to all of us.

The important thing about the Lotfi Raissi case is what it reveals about the practices, policies, and — most importantly– competence of American and British police authorities. What it reveals, actually, is that the idiots are in control. What it also reveals is that law enforcement officers have been consistently willing to lie to obtain convictions.

It is the tragedy of our age that the public largely supports violent, inhumane measures against anyone the police think might have ever been thinking of becoming a terrorist. We’re not safer– we’re generating 10 new terrorists for every new outrage. If you were an Algerian, just how would you feel about the treatment of Lotfi Raissi?

Streep’s Choice

Sophie is not a Jew, of course: she is a Pole. In fact, it is at times suggested that she is an anti-Semite, and Nathan certainly accuses her of it.

Hollywood simplifies. Reality is complex. Read this document about the remarkable experiences of Eleonore Hodys. I respect “Sophie’s Choice” for leaving intact the complexities, and thus giving us a taste of the astonishing ability of real events to confound our expectations.

As I said, I basically like “Sophie’s Choice”, but if you are a bright young author out there and you’re writing your first great book, please resist the temptation to have your characters fall over themselves praising your talent, as Styron does in “Sophie’s Choice” (Stingo is obviously a stand-in for Styron as a young man in New York); Sophie and Nathan, of course, think he is brilliant.

* * *

The mystery of Meryl Streep: it’s a great performance… that constantly calls attention to itself. It’s hard to describe what is meant exactly by that phrase– “calls attention to itself” — but I know it when I see it. (Dustin Hoffman — in “Rain Man” for example– is another great practitioner of the art of calling attention to himself being a character.) She’s so good in other respects, it’s almost possible to completely ignore it. But there are scenes when Streep is so much the actor being a brilliant actor that you almost forget the character: all you see is technique. Brilliant technique, but still technique. It’s so obvious in her performance that I could never believe in the relationship with Nathan– there doesn’t seem to be room in her technique for him, let alone a real passion.

The greatest flaw in actors like Streep (Ryan Gosling is another) is that they intuitively demand that every scene be absorbed into their performance. I always felt that any actor could have played Nathan– all you had to do was stand there an let Streep paint the colours of her day on your canvas. It’s the kind of technique that wins awards.

Streep is a very, very good actress at times, but one of the least generous actors I’ve ever seen. By generous, I mean giving the other actors and the film-maker space within which to do their own work. I mean studying the other actors to see what they’re doing and how you can contribute to the overall effect, rather than just call attention to yourself.

Kate Winslet is the opposite of Streep– look at her in “Heavenly Creatures” or even “Titanic”–: not as accomplished as Streep, but far more generous, and often more convincing. In “Heavenly Creatures”, she makes Melanie Lynskey, her co-star, look brilliant.

Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Amy Adams– all generous.  Rachel McAdams is usually generous.  Meg Ryan is generous in “When Harry met Sally”: she gave Crystal room to ham it up.

Barbra Streisand and Robin Williams and especially Jim Carrey: utterly selfish. Every scene they are in is always only about them.

Next time you’re at a movie, ask yourself if the actor you are watching intently on the screen is contributing to the impact of the other actors.

And one more note: according to Wiki, Streep obtained an unauthorized copy of the script before it went into production and went to Alan Pakula’s house and threw herself onto the ground and begged for the role.

Smart girl: she knew it would win her an award because,

a) it has Nazis,
b) it has an accent.
c) it’s a period piece

[added 2019-11-20]

Your Reward for Buying a Ticket

It’s a lot of money– $72. For a ticket to a Blue Jays game.

Nobody goes to Blue Jays games. When the Blue Jays were very successful and packing them in–18 years ago, now– tickets were about $30 for the same seats. The stadium was full– 50,000 people coming out every night to root for the Jays. If I remember correctly, the Jays were the first team to break the 2 million mark in annual attendance.

Now that nobody wants to come, the tickets are $72 each.

Why don’t they lower the price? One guess. Obviously, because there is no competition. Who is is going to fill up a baseball stadium by charging less than the Blue Jays? Nobody. That’s how baseball operates. In exchange for this special dispensation from the usual rules of competition and free enterprise, you get…. what? Yes, there is a reason why there is only one top-tier professional baseball league– because the government officially allows them to stifle competition. In exchange for that, you get to buy the team a stadium, pay $72 for a lousy seat, and buy cold chicken and fries for $14.95.

If the stadium is empty, why not lower the prices? I believe they are afraid that it will alter the public’s perception of what they should pay for a major league ticket. And once lowered, it will be difficult to fool us again.

So when nobody else wants to come to a Blue Jays game but you do, and you are generously willing to pay the outrageous sum of $72 for a lousy seat (there are no good seats anywhere in the Skydome, or in most stadiums), what exactly do you get for your hard-earned dollars?

You don’t get to see a replay of close plays. Nope. You should have stayed at home if you want to see if a runner really beat the throw to second base.
You get assailed with noise and flashing lights emanating from every square inch of the stadium. Constantly. All the time. After a while, you realize that the owners of these professional teams are desperately aware of the fact that their product is actually quite dull and uninteresting to most people most of the time so all the special effects are required to prove to you that you are having an exciting experience.

You get to buy crummy food for high prices, warm beer, ugly, cheap souvenirs, a “program” that consists mostly of lavish praise for mediocre players, and over-priced shirts and hats with the precious logo on them.

Within five minutes of the start of the game, half the stadium decides to get up and buy something to eat or go to the bathroom, forcing you to stand up to let them pass, five, six, seven times.

The seats are too small to ever feel comfortable.

The netting in front of home plate, to protect the fans from the rare event of a fluke foul tip hitting someone in the head, is annoying and ugly. I bet it’s possible to have a reasonably safe normal backstop without that massive, ugly net.

Most people seem to spend most of the game waiting to see if they get shown on the jumbotron video screen. When they do get on the screen, they jump up and down with excitement, spilling their beer. Then they go home happy, having paid $72 to see themselves on a giant TV screen.

I can’t prove it but at times it seemed like they were playing crowd noise through the speakers, as a way of hyping the alleged excitement of what was going on on the field.  I have no doubt that it is something they would do if they wanted to, while holding nothing but contempt for spoil-sports like me who want to hear the honest sound of a stadium crowd.

Every player on the Blue Jays is presented as some kind of god-like super-athlete of unspeakable accomplishments.

It’s hard to believe that on May 9, this conglomeration of staggering talents is in third place, 5 games back of Tampa Bay.

The Blue Jays in 2010 are a very odd team so far. This was a rebuilding year– they traded away their best pitcher, Roy Halliday– yet, so far, they are hanging in there in the American League East, in third place. They are five games back of Tampa Bay and the Yankees, but in any other division, they would be first, or close to first.

They lead the league in home runs, and they have had four starting pitchers throw no-hitters into the seventh inning. Four different pitchers. They also have five players hitting below .200, including the hugely expensive Lyle Overbay, and last year’s breakout star Aaron Hill.

Unfortunately, Alex Gonzalez, who leads the team in home runs with 10, doesn’t seem likely to continue the pace. Vernon Wells is a nice guy but, like Overbay, ridiculously overpaid given his achievements. I don’t expect much from the Blue Jays in 2010.

The hope for this team for the future is the five or six starting pitchers (Marcum, Romero, Cecil, Morrow, Eveland– and young Drabek in the minors), who look very promising, along with Adam Lind and 20-year-old Cuban prospect Adeiny Hechavarria.

Those starting pitchers, seriously, look like the core of a very strong starting rotation in another two or three years.

Travis Snider has yet to show he can handle major league pitching. Bautista and Fred Lewis are place-holders. I like John Buck so far.

But the Blue Jays will never again be able to match the Yankees and Boston in spending (as they did in 1992-93), so, this season, and all the rest, the Blue Jays will likely finish 3rd.