Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Second Presidential Debate: What I Wish They Said

It's an old adage that in the United States of America, anyone could be President, This has rarely been so clear as it has become after the first two Presidential debates, in which we are reminded that it's not hard to find a better Presidential candidate than either of the two current front-runners.

I didn't watch the second Presidential debate Sunday night... I was returning my young cousin to Fort Bragg after he had waited out Hurricane Matthew at my house. But I did listen to it in the car on my ride home from work today. Although I'm sure many Americans heard what they wanted to hear, I wasn't one of them. I was one of the ones shouting back at the recording. [transcript] [video]

So here, with no small bit of hubris, I'm sure, is how my "perfect candidate"[1] would have responded had he been there:

QUESTION (Patrice Brock): Thank you, and good evening. The last debate could have been rated as MA, mature audiences, per TV parental guidelines. Knowing that educators assign viewing the presidential debates as students’ homework, do you feel you’re modeling appropriate and positive behavior for today’s youth?
Just to shake things up, Patrice, I'd like to start by answering the question you actually asked instead of replacing it with irrelevant talking points. As you say, the last debate could have been rated for Mature Audiences only. I'm saddened to point out that the campaigns themselves have only gone downhill since. And what I'd like encourage you in the audience, as teachers, and parents, and guardians of impressionable young people to do is to not let this teaching moment pass. Our young people can recognize bad behavior, even when it's committed in public by "important" people.

What our students should be reminded of, Patrice, is the nature of our government. Something baked into our Constitution which we have forgotten for far too long is that our country was never designed to have rulers. It is as Abraham Lincoln re-asserted, a government "of the People, by the People, and for the People". Our elected officials are civil servants. Servants.  And while the President of the United States may set an example, the President does not set the standard. That standard is set by the People of the United States, and it is the responsibility of every elected civil servant... but most especially our judges, Congressmen, Vice President, and even the President... to live up to that standard.

[What followed was a long exchange about sex talk; deleted emails; and whatever misdeeds the Republican and Democrat could throw at each other. The answer to all of these is the same...]
I'll wait for a policy question. I'm sure my opponents have their hands full explaining their own questionable actions.

QUESTION (Ken Karpowicz): Thank you. Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, it is not affordable. Premiums have gone up. Deductibles have gone up. Copays have gone up. Prescriptions have gone up. And the coverage has gone down. What will you do to bring the cost down and make coverage better?
Increase competition. One of the biggest problems with the unfortunately named "Affordable Care Act" is precisely that it stifles competition, and the increased cost and reduced coverage is directly attributable to that. Insurance companies no longer provide the policies that you once preferred because they are prohibited from doing so by law. What we have proven is that lawmakers know exceptionally little about the insurance industry. And that is a sad state of affairs, because the insurance industry is one where costs and risks are analyzed in excruciating detail.

And now we have the bizarre situation where we have people paying premiums even higher than the deductible that can never reasonably be met by an even moderately healthy human being. In effect they're being told, "Pay for your healthcare out of pocket and throw even more money into the system for no return." It makes no economic sense even when you take a broader view. The incentive is then to avoid the system because you're going to pay for your treatment out of pocket, every time; and you can't afford to do that because you've already been bled dry by payroll deductions. So instead of even expensive care, many people actually receive no benefit themselves, even while they are forced to pay for others. It makes for a sicker nation, specifically among those who are most productive. We know that because it's happening.

COOPER: You’ve said you want to end Obamacare. You’ve also said you want to make coverage accessible for people with pre-existing conditions. How do you force insurance companies to do that if you’re no longer mandating that every American get insurance?
At the risk of sounding like a purist, there is a definitional difference between actual "insurance" and coverage for pre-existing conditions. It's clear, though, when you look at any other insurance. Imagine walking into an insurance agent's office and saying, "I have no homeowner's insurance, and my house has already burned down. I want to buy homeowner's insurance and I want you to pay off my prior losses, now." That's what pre-existing conditions are. It's immediately obvious that this is unfair to private insurance companies because it is not insurance. There is no system that avoids indigent care. The question is how we handle it.

Insurance isn't the only way to deal with such costs. One way to do it is with payment plans. Another way is to fund a corps of physicians who work a term of public service at flat salary in exchange for medical training specifically to address indigent care, or to encourage hospitals to fund such programs. Another way is with charitable funds or surcharges. And here I'll hold up as an example the 22 Shriner hospitals that deliver exceptional care to children without regard to their ability to pay. But we do ourselves no favors when we disallow competitive systems of delivery that drive the costs of care down, or insist that all patients be surgically made to fit the same Procrustean bed.

QUESTION (Gorbah Hamed): Hi. There are 3.3 million Muslims in the United States, and I’m one of them. You’ve mentioned working with Muslim nations, but with Islamophobia on the rise, how will you help people like me deal with the consequences of being labeled as a threat to the country after the election is over?
To start with, if I were elected President, you would not be labeled a threat after the election is over... not by your government, unless you were legitimately a threat. My administration would treat peaceful, law-abiding people as equal under the law. That said, we cannot be blind to the fact that although most Muslims are peaceful and kind, most terrorists are or claim to be Muslim. It's an unfortunate reality. So there are things that you can do to prevent being mis-labeled; one of which is to be vocal in your opposition to hatred and violence done in the name of Allah. Allowing more non-Muslims to see more Muslims as ambassadors of peace would help deflect those labels, and I would happily assist in providing a platform for such ambassadors.

QUESTION (Spencer Maass): Good evening. My question is, what specific tax provisions will you change to ensure the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share in taxes?
To ensure all people pay their fair share, you need a fair tax code. And that means a simple one. Politicians like to pretend that loopholes are accidents, and they are not. They are written into the tax code. They are a combination of economic whips, prods, goads, and lures that are very deliberate means of encouraging people toward specific behaviors. The very intent of such legislation is to take advantage of the fact that people will choose to do the things that benefit them the most, tax-wise. And then when people actually do what they were prodded into doing, other politicians call the prods and lures "loopholes" and pretend with the very best acting ability that the people who did what they were prompted to do and follow the letter of the law are "tax cheats".

To the politicians who make such claims, if you can't keep up with the laws you wrote, there's no shame on the taxpayer. The shame is on you. I will urge Congress to adopt a simple and fair tax code. There are a number of approaches that could work better than the convoluted mess we have, and I look forward to opening a dialog with our lawmakers as to which ones best fit our country's needs. One thing that absolutely does not fit our needs, though, is this antiquated obsession with controlling our citizens' every action. This government needs to remember who's boss.

RADDATZ: The heart-breaking video of a 5-year-old Syrian boy named Omran sitting in an ambulance after being pulled from the rubble after an air strike in Aleppo focused the world’s attention on the horrors of the war in Syria, with 136 million views on Facebook alone. 
But there are much worse images coming out of Aleppo every day now, where in the past few weeks alone, 400 people have been killed, at least 100 of them children. Just days ago, the State Department called for a war crimes investigation of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and its ally, Russia, for their bombardment of Aleppo. 
So this next question comes through social media through Facebook. Diane from Pennsylvania asks, if you were president, what would you do about Syria and the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo? Isn’t it a lot like the Holocaust when the U.S. waited too long before we helped? 
While the property damage has been extensive, between 300 and 500 civilians have died in the city of Aleppo, counting both sides of the city. You do the math and tell me if it's "a lot like the Holocaust". I say this not to minimize the importance of any individual life, but to remind you that there are matters of scale, and that war is never "sanitary". Syria is in the middle of a multi-sided civil war. In principle, I do not favor interventionism to change the outcome of that war any more than I would have favored whole scale foreign intervention in our own.

However, there is a plain difference between a national policy of regime change and humanitarian assistance. Human beings have a moral obligation to aid the defenseless, if it is with their power. That does not mean that we necessarily have to bring those people here, or even remove them from their own homeland. We could, for instance, assist in the establishment and defense of neutral areas to which civilian refugees could be located.

Regarding Russian intervention, which I oppose, it's important for us to understand why the Russians are intervening, and what they hope to accomplish by their indiscriminate bombardment. Without that we can't effectively negotiate. The full scope of that would take us beyond my time limit, but remember that the al-Assad Syrian government is Russia's sole remaining ally in the Middle East. The Russian bombardment seems calculated to drive the non-jihadi and jihadi rebel forces together so as to leave no credible alternative to the pro-Russian Syrian government. Knowing this gives us a basis for an devising an outcome involving neither civilian casualties nor an escalation to war with Russia. But this is something that we have to negotiate... given the Russian veto power in the Security Council, the UN is powerless.

QUESTION (James Carter): My question is, do you believe you can be a devoted president to all the people in the United States?

QUESTION (Beth Miller): Good evening. Perhaps the most important aspect of this election is the Supreme Court justice. What would you prioritize as the most important aspect of selecting a Supreme Court justice?
Any Justice I select will know, understand, and embrace the intended role of the Supreme Court, which is to ensure the Constitutionality of any law brought before it for review. It is not the role of the court to legislate from the bench or to opine on whether or not a law is a good idea. It's not their role to judge based on whether they would have passed it. It is not their role to undo the legislative will of the people based on any political agenda. The People of this country elect their Congress to enact legislation, and it is the role of those nine Justices to ensure that it is in compliance with the highest law of the land and nothing more.

QUESTION (Ken Bone): What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs, while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?
We'll start by setting aside emotion to apply some common sense and solid science to the problem. Good policy is not made without engaging your head. And it happens very often that when people discuss energy policy, they blindly rule out anything that makes practical sense. Our energy production has to meet our demand, and there are finite limits to which we can reduce that demand. The lower limit remains prodigious. At the present it is beyond the means of wind and solar combined, so we must continue to rely on more conventional generation even as we employ alternatives where it makes sense. It does not necessarily follow that a change to the environment is a change for the worse; so I would push to use clean, effective sources of energy where practical, and these must include hydroelectric and safe nuclear power. In particular, most of the objections to nuclear power are based on obsolete arguments when faced with contemporary reactor technology, and I would encourage educating the public in that regard.

Our larger challenge lies not in the power plant, but on our roads, and for that we look to the expertise and innovation of our private sector. The rewards for success here are astronomical, and we as a capitalist society must understand the basic economics of innovation. We must understand the true purpose of patent laws as well as the purpose and benefit of the limitation of their scope; and we must not allow government over-regulation to stifle innovation by removing the market rewards that have historically propelled us to world domination in technological invention. The market incentives are naturally there; the government does not need to tax or print money to provide them. Instead, the government should get out from between the innovators and and those incentives.

QUESTION (Karl Becker): Good evening. My question to both of you is, regardless of the current rhetoric, would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?
Neither Mr. Trump nor Mrs. Clinton shy away from the challenging and often embarrassing task of representing the views that they believe are in the country's best interests. We disagree on what those interests are, but their willingness to serve is noteworthy.

[1] Note that I make no attempt to represent the views of Gary Johnson or the Libertarian Party here... or any political party, for that matter. Though I support Johnson for President, there are a number of views on which we differ, and I've made no attempt to identify them prior to answering these questions. These are the answers of a hypothetical candidate I would be comfortable supporting.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

I Aim to Misbehave

Donald Trump once bragged that as a rich guy he can get pussy, and the Democrats lose their minds. Suddenly this is a level of immorality that can't be condoned in the White House. Except that these are the very same Democrats (and you know you are) who excused Bill Clinton getting blowjobs in the White House from a woman who was not his wife. And Democrats staunchly defend Hillary Clinton for her attempts to destroy evidence in an active investigation, though they drove Nixon out of office for far less. That's because Democrats are hypocrites. It pretty much comes with the title.

Republicans are now defending this as "a private conversation" and "locker room talk". Except that these are the very same Republicans who wanted Bill Clinton impeached, and managed to do so. That's because Republicans are hypocrites. Again, it pretty much comes with the title.

In the case of both of these parties, the "go to" defense of any misdeed is to point to the other party and say "well, they did worse". And that's true of just about everything. For any of its misdeeds, one party can find something like it that the other one did that was worse. The problem is, this isn't an excuse for doing it yourself. Rather, it's evidence that you don't walk the high road.

And you can sit there and lie to yourself that Clinton's not a misogynist and racist like Trump, but to do it you have to forget that she called rape victims liars, and that she called called Paul Fray a “f*cking Jew bastard!” You have to ignore that she derided black men as “super-predators” saying, “we have to bring them to heel.”

In the case of Trump, evangelical Christians are posting thanks to God for having "raised up Trump" as He did King David or King Cyrus, forgetting that it is by their deeds that they must be judged, not their promises. As yet, Trump has done nothing as President, and certainly nothing to warrant such praise. Do you not suppose that poor Germans in 1933 praised God for raising up Adolf Hitler?... because they absolutely did. I cannot be so quick to confuse the platitudes of a politician with the answer to prayer.

Where you condemn the one and praise the other, you are a hypocrite. Where you pretend there is a difference, you are a liar. I, for one, got tired of being a liar and a hypocrite. I castigated Bill Clinton for his lack of a moral center, and will do no less for Trump. And as I agreed with Nixon's decision to vacate the White House for the good of the nation, I'm not going to let Hillary slide on her commission of misdeeds that outweighed his. Sure, it would be cool to have a woman as President, but it would be an embarrassing mistake to have this one.

The Biggest Problem

When I look at all the issues that are up for debate in this election, I note that the biggest issue of all, though cried about, is never actually debated.

The biggest problem we face is not immigration. This same issue, in similar magnitude, has been around literally for generations. It was a major issue in Reagan's campaigns, for Pete's sake. These people are not taking American jobs; for the most part, they're filling jobs that Americans won't. And if you don't believe me, I want to be there when you tell a laid-off Detroit steelworker the good news that the Mexicans have been kicked out and we've now freed up plenty of jobs picking melons down South. The ones that are working are paying taxes into a system for benefits that they cannot receive. And their children are American citizens under the Constitution and therefore as "entitled" as any other citizen.

The biggest problem we face is not foreign relations. Frankly, for all the blundering we've done, we may find that things work a bit smoothly when they're not 'managed' by people from a half a world away who don't understand the language, much less the culture of the people that we condescend to 'educate'.

The biggest problem we face is not the economy. A President has damned little control over the economy in the first place beyond acting as a standard-bearer and cheerleader. Congress passes budgets; Congress passes tax law. The President may veto or not, but in either case the economy flourishes and falters based on the People's willingness to take chances on investment and both short- and long-term purchases. The major economic "theory" that dominates every Administration is that the current President is immediately to thank for any economic success, while his or her predecessor is perpetually to blame for any economic failure.

The biggest problem we face is not race relations. This divide is merely a symptom of the real problem. And it is not the Supreme Court, at least not in the way that most of you think. It is not that there are more Justices on "their side" vs. "our side".

The biggest problem that we face is that there are sides. It is this bullshit binary thinking that not only enables, but encourages Democrats and Republicans like you to be the undeniable hypocrites that you are. It is that culture of "team politics" that encourages you to defend the sins you spent most of your previous decades denouncing. It is that same culture that encourages you to decry the fact that there aren't enough partisan Justices on your side, rather than promote Justices who (as the Constitution demands) are partial only to whether the Law is Constitutional. The biggest problem that we face is that your only concern for the issues is how to defend your team's position on them. As only one example, Trump's statements on Mexican immigration are indistinguishable from Bill Clinton's... but what got cheers for Clinton gets cries of racism for Trump. When the other team does what your team did, they're despicable. You don't give a damn about the issue itself; you care only about promoting the team, and it's stupid.

A Solution

There is one way to draw you away from continuing to be institutionally stupid, and it's to remove the binary teams; dismantle that bi-partisan system that the Democrats and Republicans have so carefully built and maintained. If you had to actually examine the issues and weigh them rather than unconditionally adopt and defend them; if you were not bogged down by the fiction that your vote is wasted if you do not vote to deny someone else their say rather than express your own; then much of this would disappear.

The way to do that is to institute ranked choice voting.
  • If you knew that a voting for your conscience is not a wasted vote because if your candidate is in last place your vote will be transferred to your second choice, then you could vote conscience and not your fear.
  • If "third-party" candidates were not excluded by the arbitrary walls that are built by the "Big Two" parties, and their members' votes were transferable, more serious candidates could be offered. There would be no "third parties", just political parties. 
Voters would look more closely at a broader array of solutions offered by a wider selection of candidates. In voting, they would rank their choices from most to least preferred. As candidates with the least votes are eliminated, their votes would be transferred to the voters' next choices, until a final choice is made by a popular majority within each State. When applied to Congressional elections, such a system will make possible more diverse representation and less partisanship, as progress will only be possible by an increase in statesmanship. Inter-party cooperation will have to more closely approximate that of parliamentary systems.

Today a President is chosen by a mere plurality, meaning that if you have the most votes, you can be elected, even if less than half of Americans voted for you. In a three-way race, the President can be elected with as little as 34% of the vote; and we've seen Presidents elected with low numbers.

A Path

Knowing that institutionalized partisan stupidity is the most pressing issue of the current generation, I'm borrowing a phrase: "I aim to misbehave." I am stepping off the ridiculous treadmill built by bi-partisan decree, and I will be voting for a Libertarian President. Because of partisan bickering, it is even mathematically possible for him to win, even if he gains only the electors of a single State[*]. While this is a long shot, gaining the White House isn't the only definition of victory.

Even a small number of Americans voting their conscience will deny the winning party a majority of the popular vote. Enough Americans doing so will deny the winning party any semblance of a mandate. The last time a President didn't win the popular vote, it was George W. Bush, with half a million votes less than Al Gore, and the resulting confusion wound up before the Supreme Court. The public was outraged by that percentage point in 2000. The outrage would only grow if that margin increased to 10%, leaving it abundantly clear 60% or more of Americans did not want the winner in office. With ranked choice voting, and only with ranked choice voting, that 60% would have agreed on an acceptable choice, even if it were not the first choice of all of them, and a more acceptable candidate would have been elected. (BTW, if Gary Johnson were to win the long shot scenario, the same argument holds). It would be a much easier task to sell America on the already obvious benefits of ranked choice voting, thus addressing the #1 problem in American politics today; the one that exacerbates all other problems.

I'm not concerned that my candidate may not win this election. I'm focused on a longer goal that will be furthered no matter who wins. When you make the phenomenally idiotic statement that a 3rd party vote is a vote for the other side, you assume that I should prefer your side. You're both wrong about that. You're the problem. We have the cure.

I aim to misbehave.

[*] If Gary Johnson were to win New Mexico, then neither Trump nor Clinton would have the required number of electoral votes to win. The election would go to the House of Representatives, who would presumably vote along strict party lines, still denying either party a win. In this event, the only path to keeping the other side out would be to elect the third party candidate.

P.S. I don't often put in an unsolicited ad, but I'm recommending these... I bought one of these in brown, which I'm adopting as my official stealth election T-shirt. It comes in other colors, but mine's in the proper color, brown (see Firefly). 

Get it at Sunfrog.com

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Happy Birthday, Neil

It's a day late, but belated happy birthday wishes to Neil deGrasse Tyson, astronomer and popularizer of science.

And because I know how hyped Tyson is on "teaching moments", here's one I saw on the American Humanist Association's Facebook page:

Of course, he mis-spoke, or perhaps more accurately, spoke in shorthand.

Way in the back of his mind, I'm sure Tyson remembers that science is a process... a method. It's not a fact that can be true or false. The conclusions of science are not only falsifiable (or else they're not scientific), but many of them have been found to be false over time and have been revised and/or replaced.

Now, "science"... the process which leads to that falsification, is always valid. But remember that we say that the scientific conclusions that were "falsified" by further scientific inquiry, we don't mean that they were made false; rather, they were discovered to be false all along.

So don't walk away believing that "science" is always true. It's not. It's the best method we have of formulating our best guess of the moment at how things work.

If you think what you know is always true, then what you have is a religion.

All that aside, Happy Birthday to Neil.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Astonishing iPhone of the Future

Business Insider reports the following:

This old thing will be obsolete before it's even released.

Apple are already working on the next iteration of the device... not only will they remove the home button and headphone jack, but they'll do away with all of the hardware entirely. The Virtual iPhone will be the lightest and most cleanly designed product Apple ever produced. Since it will be hardware-free, this will allow Apple to convert their labor-intensive Genius bars into payment kiosks; allow the company to free up expensive engineering staff; and concentrate on what's really important to them... taking your money.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

XKCD - Not so smart this time.

The XKCD comic by Randall Munroe is often informative, and often smart. Today, though, it misses the mark.

It starts of like so...

And it continues on at 500 year increments to the familiar "hockey stick" projection at the end:

But the problem isn't the length of the graph, nor the bottom of the graph. Personally, I doubt anyone would dispute the contents of the graph itself at all. It's the caption at the top of the graph:


And the problem with it is that this is not true. Not by orders of magnitude. It's a blatant falsehood.

THESE are the kinds of changes they're talking about:

In fact, this is the actual graph trace they most often use. Randall's timeline is cropped to the very end of the geological timescale of this graph. Let's repeat: they're looking at 600 millions of years; he crops it to the last 20 thousand.  They're looking at a temperature scale that peaks well above 25 degrees Celsius; he crops it to a fraction of that.

When you do that, here's what it looks like to the person you're misrepresenting:

The problem with strawmen such as this is that you can never get away with it, and it never makes you look smart. The people who you're misquoting know that you're misquoting them. The end result is that you either look hopelessly ignorant, or you look like a liar. It's not a false dichotomy. You either didn't know the actual argument (i.e. you're ignorant) or you did know and you chose to replace it with some other argument you just made up (i.e. you lied).

I've read XKCD for a very long time, and one thing that you cannot say about Randall is that he's ignorant.



Note, please, that I'm illustrating why you shouldn't use strawmen.

This post is not about whether climate change does or does not occur. For that matter, Randall's comic is not about that, either. He concedes that people say it does. But what he's doing is misrepresenting their views to make them look as if they've not done their own research. In doing so, he paints himself as the little kid in the corner who doesn't know jack shit about what the grown-ups are talking about. That's unfortunate, because he could have instead focused on their actual views and the numbers that they actually use.

But he didn't, and as a result he proves nothing.

He doesn't even make them look ignorant.

He actually makes them look more informed than he is.


* On further consideration, it could be a false dichotomy in a sense, if we consider that Randall's engaging in a completely different logical fallacy. He could be using a faulty generalization. That is, taking the opinion of a minority and applying it to all people who say that the climate has changed before. However, a faulty generalization is simply another form of ignorance... ignorance about the ubiquity of your sample as opposed to ignorance of their views. So nu...

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Movie Review: The Legend of Tarzan

I saw The Legend of Tarzan at the cheap cinema. I'd read a lot of bad reviews of it -- it garnered only 36% among professional critics on Rotten Tomatoes -- which is why I waited; but having seen it, I disagree strongly with those reviewers. Specifically to the reviewers who thought the pacing was "slow", I advise you to get your ADHD treated... it's affecting your job performance. I have more to say to other reviewers below.

Rather than relating a blow-by-blow, I thought I might just ramble a bit, listing some of my expectations, likes, and dislikes about it as they come to mind. It's in the dollar-cinema now, folks; and the story itself is based on 100-year-old books, so there will be spoilers

From what I'd heard, I expected this production to have an anachronistic "modern" sensibility with respect to the characters. The first rule of historical anything is that you cannot judge the people of that time by the standards of today. I expected this to be violated. I also expected the film to be filmed with unbelievable CGI animals and out-of-place Legolas-like derring-do.

Well, this is Tarzan. It's going to have animals, and in this day they're going to be CGI. But with one unimportant exception (an alligator on a leash) I wasn't pulled out of the narrative by bad rendering. The animals didn't talk, and they didn't behave unlike animals. The 'gorillas' firmly mirrored those of the books, which means they weren't gorillas at all... they were the fictional species that Edgar Rice Burroughs called the mangani. In the same way that bonobos are not chimpanzees, these differ from gorillas in temperament and intelligence. This is the first movie that I recall having seen that makes the distinction explicit.

Tarzan himself did not command the animals, nor did he 'talk' to them except using body language appropriate to the animals themselves. This was introduced expertly in the first meeting of Tarzan and animal on the screen.

Speaking of which... the title character is addressed as 'John' for most of the film. John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke. The movie isn't an origin story (THANK YOU!) and it doesn't begin in Africa, but in London. Lord Greystoke has long been settled in his ancestral home with his wife, Jane Clayton (nee Porter). 

The very subtle humor of the film is firmly established in a scene where Her Majesty's Government requests the services of 'Tarzan' on a public relations mission to the Belgian Congo. Lord Greystoke replies by quietly sipping tea with his pinky finger extended. I almost laughed out loud.

I think the characters are well-drawn. Alexander SkarsgÄrd skillfully portrays the difficult balance between the dignity of John Clayton's aristocratic heritage and his unique, barbaric upbringing. He manages to bring that aristocratic bearing to Tarzan; as well as a touch of embarrassment over his humble beginnings to Lord Greystoke. Before I move on, I want you to look at that picture with the tea again. Observe how he's holding his hands. Nice touch.

We're quickly introduced to George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), an American envoy who entreats Clayton to accept his government's invitation so as to investigate reports of slavery in the Congo. However, this is not a stereotypical Colonial "White Savior" story. It's far more personal and respectful than than than that. As Jane explains, the villagers and their chief respect Tarzan not out of hero-worship; but because "no man ever started with less." Clayton's mission is to save Jane; but the task of routing the slavers belongs to Williams.

Jackson portrays Williams perfectly. He's a badass in his own environment, who quickly discovers that, heritage aside, Africa is not his environment. Nevertheless, he keeps up and holds his own. As with all the characters, he has dimensionality. He's not just about getting the slavers. We learn he has some guilt of his own.

Oh, the look on that face. Oh, the reason for it.

Jane is the daughter of American missionaries, played by Margot Robbie. Although she is a smart, strong, independent woman; the story does not portray that unrealistically. She's closer to Lois Lane than Harley Quinn in this film. A notable moment: they work the Johnny Weissmuller "Tarzan yell" into the film in a way that doesn't sound cheesy in the slightest. I had firmly expected that if they were to use it, it would be in a "ha ha" kind of moment, as when the William Tell overture plays in "The Lone Ranger". It wasn't like that at all. Instead it was a little bit creepy, and provided the perfect moment for Margo Robbie. Jane's reaction to the yell was an expression that communicated every word of, "My husband is going to f*ck you up and you don't even know it. I feel so sorry for you even though you deserve it, you bastards." All of that in one look.

Sidney Ralitsoele
I LOVE the casting of the natives, and it bothers me that I don't know more of them by name. Hands-down, my favorite is Wasimbu (Sidney Ralitsoele). I don't even recall if Ralitsoele has a single line of dialog in the film. His strongest scenes didn't require it. 

Djimon Hounsou plays Chief Mbonga, who wants Tarzan delivered to him to face the crime of killing Mbonga's only son. Again, this is a fully fleshed character whose motivations drive the (somewhat convoluted) plot; not just someone stuck in there to provide native flavor. Not only does he look like he was chiseled from a solid block of onyx; the man can emote.  I truly feel for him when he has to choose between justice for his son and justice for his people.

Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou)
Now it wouldn't be one of my reviews without my unvarnished opinion, would it? I've seen a hyper-sensitive reviewer ask whether it's even possible to make a Tarzan film that isn't racist. To me, the answer to that is not only "no", but "what frakking moron would want to?" This depicts events at a time when Africans were being enslaved, not in America, but in Africa. If you do any period piece in Africa set in that time, and you didn't depict racism, then you flatly didn't do your job as a filmmaker. If you want to see Tarzan without race, go watch the Disney cartoon... there isn't a single Black person in there, though it is full of sanctimonious White voices. No really, check out the credits... not even one Black voice in that "African" adventure. Not even to play an animal. It's like a private safe space for Liberal hypocrites. This is by design. Disney deliberately left all Black people out of the production so as not to appear racist. And you won't find a word about it in the reviews, either (88% positive on Rotten Tomatoes). So if you're looking for Tarzan without the discomfiture of race, you should be quite comfy there. 

The fact is, director David Yates manages to do something in The Legend of Tarzan that Disney didn't even try... and that is to portray Blacks in Africa as people. They're not caricatures. They're not wallpaper. They're neither idealized nor demonized. They're not Westernized and sanitized. They're just people, as they lived in Africa in 1890.

The monsters in this film are White. Christopher Waltz plays Captain Leon Rom with exactly the right mix of oil and poison to evoke the baddies of 1930s Hollywood.  As a representative of the Belgian king, Rom is doing his utmost to fully exploit the Congo to refill the depleted coffers of his monarch... and enrich himself in the process, of course. To do that, he needs an army of mercenaries. To pay them he needs cash, and he can get it if he delivers Tarzan to Chief Mbonga, who's sitting on a fortune in raw diamonds. To get Tarzan, he kidnaps Jane. And there you have the plot.

To Rom, exploitation of the Congo means not just the resources and mineral wealth, but enslaving the people. He's a bad guy all around. He's obviously racist, as folks were wont to be. And if that weren't evil enough, he carries a rosary of indestructible Madagascar spider-silk, which he uses as a weapon. That little dig at religion might help the snowflakes get past the race thing, if they only forget that Jane's parents were well-loved missionaries in the Kuba village. 

Rom is backed by 20,000 lily-white mercenaries and their banker. If you ground the lot of them into fine powder and sifted it carefully, you might find a single shred of decency and honor among them. So I note with no sense of injustice that the titular character and his wife happen to be of the same race as the 20,002 bad guys. Enough of that nonsense.

There are a few things about this movie that I especially liked:
  • Tarzan isn't some demi-god. He doesn't win every fight. There are even some fights where the point is to not win. And sometimes he just flatly loses a fight. There's one point where that happens -- embarrassingly -- and my first reaction was, "wait a minute! That doesn't happen to heroes," followed quickly by, "but it should, more often!"
  • Director Yates manages to subtly work in just enough of every pop-culture reference to Tarzan that anyone can find an Easter egg. The casting and character design, as well as the treehouse, even strongly favor the aforementioned Disney cartoon. There was the Johnny Weissmuller yell, of course. The distinction drawn between gorillas and Mangani. Lord Greystoke's calloused knuckles. 
I actually have a hard time thinking of anything that I particularly don't like about it. Although I wouldn't call it perfect, it's as good an adaptation as I've ever seen. The pacing does start out slow, but as someone who's not six years old, I enjoy the exposition. And when it does get to the action, that action is so furious as compared to the prim urban scenes that the excitement is magnified. 

As the credits rolled, my biggest question was how The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen failed to include John Clayton as a member.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

A Parable

The experiment was a shambles.

"We'll just have to let God sort it out," said the Professor.  I laughed.

"What's so funny?" He was looking at me with an expression I didn't recognize.

I stammered, "Well, it was just... funny, I guess. I mean, you're a scientist, and... uhm..."

"And I shouldn't be calling on God, is that what you mean?"

"Well... it was a joke... right?" Nobody seriously believed in those dusty old myths anymore, did they?

"It's because of my studies that I believe in God," he began. "What do you think sets Man apart from the animals? Intelligence? Tool usage? Language? Nothing? When I was an atheist, all of those were reasonable answers. Then I realized that all other animals, though they lack intelligence, are born with a great deal of knowledge. Animals do complex things... amazing things for which there's no easy explanation, and we wave a hand and call it instinct. No one teaches the tailor-bird how to weave, or why. No one tells a sparrow where or when to migrate. No one teaches a bear to hibernate. No one teaches an ant how to build a city. On the whole, animals are not self-destructive; they do not wage war (except maybe some of those ants). They know their place in the world. They're born stupid, but wise.

"We humans are entirely different. By comparison we're brilliantly intelligent, but we're born completely ignorant. Why, we can barely procreate without someone more experienced to teach us how. Archaeology reveals that we started with nothing, and what learning we have survives only so long as we tell others. And we have to work very hard for that information. Numerous times we gained astonishing insights, only to lose them in a generation. How do you build a pyramid? I don't know either. You'd think we'd be smart enough to just look at one and see; but we're not. And it seems to me sometimes that the more we learn, the more we lose. Even as we put men in orbit, we kill our progeny and deny our true nature. We seem destined not only to be born ignorant, but to remain that way. Understanding this opened my mind to belief in God."

I cocked my head in confusion. The Professor noticed, and smiled kindly.

"Oh, don't you see, boy? What more fitting punishment could there be for a people who stole from the Tree of Knowledge?"

If you enjoyed this story, you may enjoy another of my blogs, 
Look though the archives for short fiction of a unique variety.

Photo of Magnolia Plantation & Gardens by F. Everett Leigh