Why It Matters That UAL 3411 was NOT Overbooked.

Millions of Americans watched in horror Monday as 69-year-old Dr. David Dao was forcibly removed from a seat on United Airlines Flight 3411 from O’Hare to Louisville for which he had paid in advance. He was knocked unconscious, suffered a bloody nose, and was dragged out of the aircraft. When the video went viral on social media, much of the professional press seemed to be employed by United Airlines. There were explanations for why flights must be overbooked, assertions that passengers can be removed for any reason, and arguments that, since four United crewmembers had to get to Louisville to operate a flight, removing four passengers from the flight was in the interest of the greater good. There were discussions of the regulations, defense of United’s property rights, and a general plea for passengers to follow the rules. This was certainly an improvement on United’s official attempts at damage control.

All of this was so compelling, it had only one tiny flaw: the central claim that supported the entire line of argument was, well, not actually true. The plane was not oversold, and even had it been, they would have had the right to deny boarding, but not to forcibly remove a passenger not in violation of the contract of carriage. The need to move crew from a delayed flight was, in fact, due to United’s mistake, and they didn’t have the right to forcibly eject passengers as a consequence.

The media’s response to this event and the long delay that will ensue until Dr. Dao is compensated speak to the culture of impunity for corporate wrongdoing in contemporary America. United has professional attorneys, managers, and PR flacks who can work full time to protect the interests of their company while ordinary citizens have jobs and responsibilities that will not permit them to secure their interests. Government has largely abdicated the job of tipping the balance toward consumers and workers. The result has been a steady drain of power, wealth, and influence toward the wealthy that is working to corrode our social cohesion. Whatever ideological objectives conservatives and neoliberals hope to serve will be undermined by a fragmented and mutually suspicious social order.

Not Much Ghost In This Beautiful Shell

I’m a big fan of Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost In The Shell franchise, a manga/animated feature/anime series juggernaut that’s been going. non-stop, for the last 22 years. It combines savvy military-style combat sequences like you might find in the best Masmune Shirow manga with a deeper and more interesting look into the nature of humanity and the effects of technological change on the “soul,” or “ghost,” in the parlance of the franchise.

GhostintheShell_trailer

The story revolves around an anti-cyberterrorism unit of the presumably Japanese government in the 2030s, which is led by veteran security bureaucrat Daisuke Aramaki and commanded in paramilitary and cyberoffensive operations by Major Motoko Kusanagi, formerly of the Ministry of Defense. The orginal manga and animated feature from the late 1980s through mid-1990s were groundbreaking explorations of the alienation of the human mind and spirit in a world increasingly dependent on information technology and the cyberenhancement of the brain and body. Most members of the team, with the exception of recent ex-cop Togusa, have a mix of human and cybernetic parts, with Maj. Kusanagi at the extreme with a completely mechanical body. Although she and everyone else assume that her brain was originally human, the creative ambiguity that the 1995 feature maintains on that score is a major source of mystery and tension in the story, helping to propel it through a mixture of hypnotic action and detailed procedural.

*SPOILER ALERT. SPECIFIC PLOT POINTS NOT DIRECTLY REVEALED, BUT OUTLINES ARE*

In the live-action feature I saw tonight, that mystery is dispensed with in the opening sequence, robbing the film of a good deal of its narrative power. There is a mystery about the main character’s origins, but it turns out to be a generic action-film kind of mystery, of a different order than the fascinating, labyrinthine story of the original. There seems to have been a certain carelessness in the story, in precisely inverse proportion to the obsessive care that was taken with copying iconic visual impressions from the original, and WOW, were they ever beautiful. One crucial scene involving a sanitation worker was arguably inferior to the original, but the rest are more arresting. This film is GORGEOUS. It was a little off-putting, however, because the scenes tend to remind the viewer that the original told a better story.

One of the annoyances of the film was an irritating pattern of contrived or silly plot points. Why can’t a direct neural connection to a hostile robot be ‘encrypted’ or firewalled? Why were a suspect’s restraints designed to permit suicide? Why was a private corporation allowed to send a combined arms battalion around a megalopolis, blowing stuff up and assassinating government officials? Why do the characters refer to our hero as “Major” when, in this film, she has had no military career, and why do they sometimes use it as a name and sometimes as a rank? If the vast majority of Newport City’s residents are cyberenhanced, why do they need expensive and power-intensive holographic advertising absolutely everywhere? Can’t the same thing be done in a cheaper and more personalized way in Augmented Reality in users’ existing enhancements?

The story is a very straightforward evil-corporation morality play with a villain we can spot in the first scene. This is a huge contrast from the original, in which we spend half the film following our heroes down a blind alley before they begin to piece together what is happening. If this were an original universe, the story’s silly and generic nature would hardy be worth noting, but in a franchise specifically aimed at intelligent and thoughtful Science Fiction fans, it’s a really weird choice. There’s still enough of the odd and alienated vibe from the original to turn off casual action fans, so the question really begins to assert itself: Who is this movie for, exactly?

Having said all that, I did enjoy the eye candy and the meticulously staged action sequences. Pilou Asbæk’s Batou and Takeshi Kitano’s Aramaki are high points. Scarlett Johansson is as watchable as ever in this, even if she’s an odd casting choice for all the obvious reasons. Hollywood has a famously voracious appetite for established content that can attract built-in fan bases in an increasingly crowded entertainment environment, but they might have bitten off more than they can chew with Ghost In The Shell.

Trump, Syria, And The Ford Principle

Historian Rick Perlstein, in his political history of the mid 1970s, The Invisible Bridge, points out that at many points of Gerald Ford’s partial term as President, he faced a dilemma:

This new presidency [Ford’s] was evolving a theme: Damned if he did, damned if he didn’t.

Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge, Page 309

When President Obama, fresh off the triumph of removing his nation from the quagmire in Iraq and giving the order for the successful assassination of Al Quaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, was confronted with the catastrophe of the Syrian civil War, he was faced with a similar choice: He could do his best to ignore the war and its atrocities and preserve his accomplishment of diminishing our war-fighting in the region, or he could react to a probable no-win situation with deepening involvement in a chaotic free-for-all without apparent good guys where our strikes against the Assad regime would likely strengthen Islamic State or vice versa. When he misspoke about a ‘red line’ being the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian war, he was trapped. Defying most of the advice he received, and in the absence of support on the Hill, he decided to try to negotiate away Assad’s chemical weapons. As we can all see, that approach ultimately failed.

The galling thing is that if he had gone the other way and done what Trump is doing now, that would likely have failed, as well. IS was much stronger in Syria in 2014 than it is now, and any effective program of strikes against the regime would have strengthened Islamic State even more. Obama’s critics in both parties would have seized on the strategic error as evidence of his unfitness for office and military naiveté.

As it is, the consequences are likely to be open-ended. Syria is allied to both Iran and Russia, meaning that its retaliation could appear anywhere along the spectrum of escalation, from suicide bombings to nuclear war. Syria has retaliated against American interests for less in the past, from nightclub bombings to the destruction of the Marine barracks in Lebanon. The Syrian regime seems likely to have carried out the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, as well. The American government blamed Libya for those attacks, for what I believe to be political reasons. I’m convinced that Syria launched those attacks as part of a campaign to drive the United Sates out of the Middle East. Those acts were carried out in retaliation for far less serious offenses by the US against the regime than Trump’s attacks on Syria last night, and against a regime less desperate and less ruthless than the war-ravaged government led by Hafez’ younger son.

President Trump believed that decisive action would show him, despite all evidence to the contrary, to be a better President than Barack Obama. He might want to be careful what he wishes for.

Why Obamacare Repeal Failed, or The Dangers of Believing Your Own Sales Pitch.

“… government had always been big for people like us [whites], and we were fine with that. But beginning in the 1960s, as people of color began to gain access to the benefits for which we had always been eligible, suddenly we discovered our inner libertarian and decided that government intervention was bad …”
Tim Wise, Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority

For four decades, the story of American politics has been the story of the triumph of conservative ideology in government. From the rise of Reagan to the impeachment of Clinton and the triumph of Trump, conservative messaging has driven political debate in the United States. Even at their lowest point in 2006-9, the conservative-dominated Republican Party was able to push back against liberals and moderates in both Federal and Sate government. The high point of Democratic legislative power, the Patient Protection And Affordable Care Act of 2010, was based on conservative ideas, took the form of a giveaway to private industry, and was explicitly modeled after Gov. Romney’s popular health care reform in Massachusetts. The “public option” idea for the legislation was removed to get conservative Democratic support in the Senate.

In broader strokes, public higher education, which was once almost free in much of the country, is now increasingly unaffordable for families without substantial savings, placing education and opportunity out of reach for a large and growing share of America’s youth. The top tenth of one percent of income earners, deriving most of their revenue from investments, pay a fraction of the tax rate of those they employ. Financial services represent the largest sector of the economy. Business regulation has been largely dismantled, permitting multi-billion dollar companies to operate with illegal business models. Education and health care are increasingly influenced by politicized Christian radicals.

With all this success, it was natural for GOP leaders to assume that the broader public supported their anti-government, pro-business views for the same ideological reasons they did, thumbing through well-worn copies of Von Mises, Hayek, or Rand. With the ascension of Donald Trump and the collapse of Paul Ryan’s American Health Care Act under the weight of angry town halls across the nation and a 17% approval rate, that assumption has earned some scrutiny. The question remains, however: If middle-aged white voters didn’t share the minarchist ideas of the House GOP caucus, why did they keep returning them to office?

One answer that suggests itself is that the pro-police, pro-military, theocratic, anti-government platform of the Republican Party appeals to people with, ahem, ethnonationalist, views.

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N*gger, n*gger, n*gger.” By 1968 you can’t say “n*gger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N*gger, n*gger.”

  • Lee Atwater, 1981

The roots of the modern War On Drugs are to be found during the Presidency of Richard Nixon, whose chief domestic policy advisor told Harper’s writer Dan Baum:

“You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

If the public has been absorbing this ‘dog whistle‘ message for two generations, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that they got the message loud and clear, or when the Lieutenant-Governor of South Carolina opposed providing free school lunches to poor children because, as with stray animals, it encourages them to breed. Nor should we be shocked when former Speaker of the House and all-around great guy Newt Gingrich calls Barack Obama the Food Stamp President.

Nor should be be completely blind-sided when, decades into this process of racialized radicalization, some of the those the Party manipulated this way become the Party’s leaders and the dog whistle becomes a megaphone:

Racial Anxiety‘ or ‘Racial Resentment‘ have become the largest drivers of support for Republicans and their policies. For a crucial margin of white voters, feelings of white victimhood are their conservatism. Far from laissez faire, they’re closer to the ideology of Herrenvolk Democracy, in which democratic participation and the benefits of the State should be reserved for members of the majority culture.

Enter Paul Ryan, from youth a believer in Austrian and monetarist economics and in Ayn Rand, the novelist and pop philosopher who viewed the wealthy as the possessors of all moral merit. Ryan probably believes that refraining from taxing the wealthy would produce more wealth overall, but supports it regardless as a moral value. He may be tactically pragmatic, but has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to shrinking the role of the State as a moral and ideological crusade, which is what he has in common with the ideological leadership of the Tea Party and the members of the House Freedom Caucus. Unlike Lee Atwater and John Ehrlichman, they no longer see law-and-order and anti-tax policies as racial code. The grifters fooled their successors.

So, when Caucus members and Republican “mainstream” congresspersons,  who are ideologically identical, ran into a buzzsaw at town halls from red-state crowds dependent on Obamacare, they had a conceptual as well as tactical problem. They had made the mistake of taking the sales pitch for the product because they are the generational inheritors of the modern conservative movement, not its architects. They either will not acknowledge or don’t realize the role of white racial resentment in forming conservative allegiance in the general population.

For a decisive minority of white people in the nation’s interior, the consequences of deindustrialization can naturally be blamed on trade, aid, the rising minority share of the population, and immigration, even if the facts do not support that conclusion. Neither do they see any conflict between that view and the other tenets of modern American conservatism. Unlike the ideologues in the conservative media and on the Hill, they see no conflict between interventionist, protectionist Herrenvolk Democracy and “religious freedom” laws, the Drug War, and “tax reform.” This explains why, despite the protestations of pundits, the vast majority of Republican voters had no trouble touching Trump on their voting screens. Paul Ryan may have forgotten he was talking in code, but the voters didn’t. They wanted the benefits of the State, as manifested in the ACA, at the same time as they wanted the racially-specific “undeserving” excluded from such benefits. That’s why the House GOP’s American Health Care Act, which would have penalized exactly the modest-income middle-aged whites who were Donald Trump’s margin of victory in the Rust Belt, had a 17% approval rate even though it was what the GOP had been promising for years.

Ultimately, American Conservatism is in a crisis because its leaders don’t know what movement they’re leading.