The Cracker Project

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The rightward drift of the Republican Party over the last fifty years has transformed the GOP from the representative body of the professional and business classes to the party of racialized Heartland angst. This metamorphosis has transformed the Party’s prospects as an apparently permanent minority in mid-Century to an apparently permanent lock on real policy-making power in Washington and the States. Turns out it’s fun, easy, and profitable to convince relatively privileged people they are the victims of The Conspiracy Of The Undeserving.

The only downside to this wildly successful branding shift has been that the mostly white, largely rural customer base buying this particular make of offal is shrinking as a share of the population.

American Population by Ethnicity, 1990-2030

No corporation, no matter how successful, would voluntarily choose to tie itself exclusively or predominantly to a shrinking customer base. The chronic short-termism of American politics and the belief that Republican-dominated states can use gerrymandering and “anti-fraud” voter requirements to put off the date of reckoning have convinced a critical plurality of Republican voters and politicians that the Whitey Gambit is a sustainable strategy, but, you know, math.

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Washington Post

Nevertheless, as time goes on and the clock tolls more ominously, Republican efforts to appeal to more and more middle-aged white people have produced some thoroughly extreme rhetoric and policy. The President* won office largely on his promise to build a “big, beautiful wall” on the Southern border for which Mexico would, somehow, pay. Muslims would be prevented from entering the country. The efforts of the previous President to reduce police harassment of young black and Hispanic men have been halted and largely reversed. Pundits have long projected that Republican Presidential candidates would need two percent more of the white vote every cycle to counteract the country’s demographic shift. These extreme policies seem to have done the trick. President* Trump got all the honkies he needed, barely.

I’m old enough to remember when the GOP thought it needed the support of non-white voters to hold power in the United States. The combination of safe seats, an increasingly extreme donor base, and continual fear of Primary challenges from the Right has served to counteract, you know, math. So, the Cracker Project goes on.

 

 

Ken Burns’ Vietnam War

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PBS has been hyping the new film series from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick for nearly a year. While I have been anticipating the release, I also had a few concerns about the treatment the subject would get at their hands. Recent American television documentaries on the war have been a mixed bag.

Early in the previous decade, the makers of the popular World War II series Battlefield made a miniseries on the Vietnam War that dodged a lot of potential bullets. It was even-handed and adequately explained the political roots of the war while being very detailed on the military aspects of the conflict. The overall watchability of the series was hampered, however, by low production values, which also afflicted its Second World War predecessor. Its dearth of interviews,though, was a strength, leaving room for a coherent narrative.

Early in this decade, The History Channel aired its ‘Vietnam in HD’ series, which used pretty, remastered footage to great effect. Narratively, however, it might as well have aired on FOX News. The title was the most Vietnamese thing about it.

Late last decade, Burns and Novick produced their epic treatment of the Second World War, titled simply The War. It focused on four US towns, which gave it a weirdly narrow feel that seemed out of place in a show about a truly global war. This narrative gave the work a claustrophobic feel that, of necessity, left a lot out and, even worse, reinforced the erroneous American view of a US-centric conflict rather than correcting it. In that sense, it seemed an unnecessary project. The Burns trademark interview-centered narrative did nothing to mitigate these flaws.

After staying up too late on multiple nights to binge-watch Burns’ and Novick’s new 10-part, 18-hour PBS epic on the Vietnam War, I can happily report that these errors, for the most part, have not been repeated here. The political roots of the war; the American blindness to the multipolar nature of communism and the nationalist roots of the Viet Minh, North Vietnam, and the NLF; the memos that showed that American officials knew the effort to prop up an illegitimate regime in Saigon were likely doomed; the internal squabbles within North Vietnam over the pace and direction of the war: it’s all here. It also represents a more masterful grasp of tone and mood than we have seen from these filmmakers in some time.

In the first seven minutes of the Tet Offensive, starting about a half hour into the sixth episode, we are treated to a cascade of violent imagery of the NVA/NLF assault on Saigon, culminating in a lucidly hallucinogenic ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ playing over strategically timed footage of dead VC and civilians while the lyric ‘it is not dying’ reverberates through the recorded Leslie Cabinet, before abruptly segueing into Johnnie Carson telling us that his show would be postponed before going, without intro, into an NBC Special Bulletin. The result is a head-snapping lesson in how disorienting the Tet Offensive must have seemed to the miniskirt-enthralled masses at home. It’s a brilliant quarter-hour of film-making that rewards (or punishes) us for sitting through the previous ten and a half.

The series’ attempts to be even-handed occasionally cause it to pull some punches, but most of the offending moments are mediated through interviews with US veterans and former officials whose biases are all too clear. Communist atrocities are discussed, but so are American. Throughout is infused what I would call a Centrist narrative that the war was a mistake, with successive American administrations chained to a Manichean version of the Cold War and unable to see the Nationalist roots of the Vietnamese revolutionary movement. Antiwar movements in the United States are generally dealt with sympathetically, with the exception of the tendency to display NLF or North Vietnamese insignia at most antiwar rallies. Toward the end of the series, a great deal of attention is paid to American POWs and their role as subjects of the peace negotiations, a role that seems exaggerated given their infinitesimal number, when compared to the titanic suffering occurring everywhere in the theater. There may be some historical justification in that emphasis, as they did in fact play a part in the negotiations. In context, however, their suffering, however real, takes on the character of ‘First World problems’ when compared to the millions of Vietnamese dead in the conflict.

This series devotes more time and attention to Vietnamese voices, North and South, than other mass-market American television of the past. This pays off in a number of ways, fleshing out the narrative and giving a more complicated picture of the motivations of America’s friends and enemies than we have seen. There is some truly fascinating material here, from ARVN officers to South Vietnamese diplomats and a variety of North Vietnamese and NVA officers and combatants.

There’s no doubt that this series is worth your time. While it lacks a truly radical narrative, there is plenty here to indict an American regime that quite simply lost its mind and killed millions. It also contains many sincere American voices defending or questioning their actions in one of America’s worst moments.