Over at Alex on Film I’ve finished watching the original trilogy of Jason Statham Transporter movies — The Transporter (2002), Transporter 2 (2005), and Transporter 3 (2008) — as well as the reboot The Transporter Refueled (2015). About what you’d expect from a franchise that apparently began life as a series of BMW car commercials. But maybe not quite as good as that. Generic stuff all around, though I didn’t think the reboot was as bad as reviewers made it out to be. Or, to put it another way, I didn’t find it to be as big a let-down.
I find it interesting when certain words and concepts get picked up by the media, who then ride them to the point where they become ubiquitous, sometimes with their original meaning greatly expanded or radically transformed. Why does this happen? Where does it start?
One example that became very popular during the Trump presidency was “empathy.” It got a lot of play because Donald Trump was seen (I think correctly) as someone lacking in it. But I suspect its mainstream adoption goes back to George Lakoff’s 2008 book The Political Mind, which popularized the idea that there are progressive and conservative modes of thought, with the latter characterized by authority and the former by empathy. At least the timing seems right.
The other big example, and one that I find a bit grating, is “existential.” Let’s face it, until recently the only time you would have heard this word being used would be in a discussion of developments in nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophy and literature. Today, however, it is used all the time by people who may have never heard of Kierkegaard or Dostoyevsky, Sartre or Camus. What it means now is, simply, “a matter of life and death.” That is, any situation where one’s existence seems at stake. I’m not sure where or when this took off, but it has the feel of a fad that’s likely to burn out pretty soon. It just seems stupid to talk about a business having to make an existential decision, or if dining out at a restaurant during a pandemic might involve such a choice.
Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching some movies about invisible people. Meaning movies that have their nominal origin in The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells (though Wells himself wasn’t the first to come up with the idea, which is as old as antiquity).
As I say several times over the course of my notes, the Invisible Man (or Woman) is a plastic figure, capable of being hero or villain, victim or superhero. The movies may be thrillers, action vehicles, or slapstick comedies. There is no one generic Invisible Man, or Invisible Man movie. Here are just some of them:
The Invisible Man (1933)
The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
The Invisible Woman (1940)
Invisible Agent (1942)
The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944)
The Amazing Transparent Man (1960)
The Unseen (2016)
The Invisible Man (2020)
Though votes are still being counted, and will likely be disputed whenever that process is completed, it appears as though the four-year run of the Trump Show in America has come to an end. But the results of the 2020 presidential election, whatever they may be, have made few people happy, aside perhaps from some Republican senators. Polling, again, appears to have been misleading. And while Trump may be removed from the White House, his party (that is to say, what he fashioned out of the Republican rump) is still a large and vital force in America’s politics.
This has led to much soul-searching among liberals, but most of the analyses I’ve read miss an important point. That point relates to what Trump represented, and in turn what Republicans now stand for. I’ve spoken before about the bankruptcy of traditional conservatism, and I think that is now pretty firmly established. The idea that this is a party of fiscal responsibility, family values, law and order, or even deference to the Constitution (a “phony” document in Trump’s phrase) is only a joke now. Even such basic principles that one would have formerly thought of as core to being an American – like a belief in democracy and the rule of law – have been extensively repudiated. But at the same time I don’t think it’s correct to say that it’s only a party now of indurated racists and toxic masculinity. Yes, Trump is a shameless racist and a pig, but not everyone who voted for him shares those qualities. He had surprising support among Latinos, for example, and women clung to him in this election as well. Nor do I think his base can solely be identified with out-of-work white men without a college education, those left behind by the new economy. Anger is more general in society than that, and is far from the special preserve of its so-called losers.
I also find it unhelpful to say, as many do, that the right only cares about power. Everyone wants power, and power is rarely an end in itself. I don’t think there is a widespread longing for authoritarian government (though I’ll hold out for that being a possibility). It seems unlikely to me that rural voters in poor districts care all that much about maintaining, or reverting to, an archaic and mostly legendary status quo just for the sake of holding on to some kind of vestigial cultural (if no longer economic) privilege. Instead, I think there is a clear objective in view.
What the right (I can’t bring myself to call it conservatism anymore) stands for, its sole mission now, is, to use the preferred euphemism, “limited government.” A little more strongly put, but still not strong enough for many, this means the “dismantling of the administrative state.” This is something I’ve gone on about before (most recently here) and it doesn’t seem worth going over again. The bottom line, literally, was that once they had passed the tax reform that would starve the government of over a trillion dollars of revenue, Republicans had done all that their donors had paid them to do (they were candid about this) and could effectively sit on their hands.
Aside from such negative acts as cutting taxes and deregulation, Republicans don’t see government as having any function. Climate change is only a hoax and so nothing need, or should, be done about it. “Infrastructure week” became a running joke right out of the gate and the wall was never built, as everyone knew it wouldn’t be. The big, beautiful health plan Trump promised turned out, four years later, to only be binders full of blank paper. One can’t emphasize this enough: there was never even any intention of the government actually doing anything in any of these cases, because government itself was seen to be the only problem that needed fixing. And the only way it can be fixed is by getting rid of it. When the COVID-19 crisis struck, to say the administration was wrong-footed would be to mistake what happened entirely. Trump, and his task force, didn’t want to do anything. They figured government shouldn’t get involved. Right-wing apologists, even of the Never Trump variety, argued for government getting out of the way so that the saintly private sector and free markets could do their work. The MAGA crowd took their lead from this and railed against anyone in government telling them to wear a mask or cut down on social gatherings.
So aside from the Republican negative agenda of government self-euthanasia (tax cuts, deregulation, downsizing or shuttering government departments) there was nothing else but the rallies, led by the orange-faced Hate-Monger. At the Republican convention in 2020 they didn’t even bother with a platform. Now that the tax cuts had been passed there was nothing left to do but to go on looting the till, stripping the copper wiring from the wall, and, as Sarah Kendzior likes to put it, selling off the country to the oligarchs for scraps. This serves the interests of the 1% very well, and for a large segment of the population, educated by Fox News and suffering the daily frustrations, aggravations, and humiliations of having to deal with all levels of government authorities, hatred of the government and the public sector is an easy sell. Most of us, even on the left, can relate. Indeed for some on the left the government is an even bigger bogeyman.
This anger is a force underlying much of what Democrats have, apparently, failed to understand. In a piece on Latino support for Trump that ran in The Atlantic just before the election it was said that Democrats didn’t get the strong strain of “self-reliance” within these communities, with that quality just being another way of referring to their distrust or dislike of government (self-reliance being something totally other than, or at least not including, personal responsibility, something that Trump rejects categorically). In a post-election essay in the same magazine George Packer wondered about the two Americas but failed to draw a conclusion that I found obvious in his earlier book The Unwinding. As I said in my review of The Unwinding:
Government of either party and at any level is now despised as being not just useless but parasitical and downright destructive. Elected representatives couldn’t get anything done if they tried, and it’s clear they have no intention of trying to do anything but continue to service the very rich. As the chapters on Jeff Connaughton show (he’s an idealistic young man who goes to Washington and is disillusioned), even those in government hate government.
When one party in a two-party system is a wrecking crew committed to dismantling the state I’m not sure the country can still be considered governable. Moving forward, the Republicans have no interest or incentive to be anything but Mitch McConnell’s “party of no.” Meanwhile, the support for this radical anti-governmentalism is unshakeable. This is now a platform Republicans will be held to, while at the same time never being held accountable for any failure to provide good governance. Even in power they can always blame the evils of their own government, which have been so evident over the course of the last four years, on a shadowy Deep State residing somewhere in the bowels of D.C., perhaps a basement where children are kidnapped and sold as sex slaves.
If you believe stories like that – and I’m afraid a great many people do – then we are quite beyond hope of finding common ground. Just as the Republicans have no reason to work with Democrats, Democrats have no reason to compromise or try to appeal to anyone who voted for Trump in 2020 after just witnessing a record of crime, corruption, and incompetence, unparalleled in American history. Joe Biden’s finest moment on the campaign trail came in the early going when an older man (older even than Biden) said he was struggling with the stories about Biden’s son in Ukraine. An exasperated Biden turned away, saying simply that if he was concerned about that, in the face of Trump’s various enormities, then he was never going to vote for Biden anyway. I’m sure he was right.
The name that’s usually given to this tribal bifurcation is polarization, a word that’s been kicked around a lot for a while but that has now truly entered into a terminal phase, abetted not just by different media bubbles but the work of algorithms that control our consumption of news. The left and the right speak different languages, and are pursuing ends that are not just opposed but wholly incompatible.
Trump was the culmination of various trends in American politics that are still operative, and which one should expect to get worse. As Ronald Brownstein writes of the now “impermeability of the nation’s divisions”: “The clearest message of this week’s complicated election results is that the trench is deepening between red and blue America.” The anger that characterizes the political zeitgeist will only deepen, fueled by growing inequality, economic crisis, and self-reinforcing media silos that profit out of manufactured outrage. Who can believe this will end well?
In an earlier post I talked about the remarkable production of the “Read the transcript!” meme among Trump supporters, to the point where it became a popular slogan to print on baseball caps and t-shirts. This despite the fact that nobody had read the transcript (of Trump’s telephone call to the Ukrainian president) because Trump had locked said transcript down on a secure server and wasn’t letting anyone near it.
One thing Team Trump does well is self-unaware merchandise. This was brought home to me this week on seeing a picture of a Trump supporter, complete with Trump 2020 ballcap, wearing a face mask saying “THIS MASK IS AS USELESS AS OUR GOVERNMENT.” Apparently such a message does not conflict with the fact that Trump is the president. That is, Trump is the government, along with the Republican Senate, and Republican Supreme Court.
I suppose the belief is that none of this matters because somehow the (liberal?) Deep State or shadow government is really calling the shots. In any event, it’s hard to find a better image for how fundamental the hatred of government is among today’s political right. Even when in control of the government they still want to tear it down (or “dismantle it,” as the language goes). This degree of political nihilism is insanity, but it’s the guiding ideology of the right.
Over at Alex on Film I’ve finished up working though the Halloween franchise (I had an earlier post after doing the original and the Rob Zombie flicks here). The only ones I skipped were Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1994) and Halloween: Resurrection (2002). Maybe I’ll get around to writing notes on them someday.
It’s a weird series. There’s no through narrative, even of the most strained, supernatural kind like in the Friday the 13th franchise. In fact, there’s not much to the whole Halloween mythos aside from the (literally) tortured relationship between Michael and Laurie. And the movies, with the exception of the first, are not every good. Aside from exploiting the brand it’s hard to see how or why they’ve hung around for nearly half a century.
Halloween II (1981)
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)
Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998)
Halloween II (2009)
I first noticed something disturbing about fifteen years ago. I was lending books out and not getting them back. What made this disturbing was not discovering that I had friends who would take advantage of my generosity, but that they were surprised I wanted them returned. “You mean you want it back?” one of them gasped in disbelief.
I’ve since stopped lending out books (and DVDs too). I’m afraid that one day I’ll be informed that the borrower no longer has it in their possession, having thrown it out. This loss of status is something I talked about in Revolutions, and a lot of other commentators have addressed it as well. Here is what I said then:
What will be the consequences, not just for us but for our cultural inheritance? What will happen when people come to see Pride and Prejudice no longer as a novel, or even a book, but only as a worthless file to be diced, sliced, mashed-up, manipulated, and (mostly) ignored? . . .
There is something more to this transformation than the shedding of a Benjaminian “aura.” Not just the integrity of the text, but our sense that text can have any value or meaning at all is being lost.
I was thinking of all this again recently while reading William Deresiewicz’s The Death of the Artist. There’s nothing new in what he’s saying, but it’s a message that is still worth heeding. At least it helps explain why I wasn’t getting those books back.
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of free content, as well as the most demoralizing, is the extent to which it devalues art in the eyes of the audience. Price is a signal of worth. We tend to value more what we have paid more for or worked harder to get; what we have gotten for free with a click we tend to value not at all. With Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and the like, music, text, and images are now akin to tap water, accessed with a turn of the spigot and supplied in an endless, homogenous stream. . . . We used to take pride in the books, albums, and movies that we kept on our shelves, personal touchstones as well as permanent companions. Now that we don’t even store anything on our hard drives, art is here one minute, gone the next.
Nor is this devaluation purely psychological. The creation of art cannot be automated, nor can technology make the process more efficient. Quality, therefore, will sink to meet price. Artists who are paid less, all else being equal, will be forced to spend less time on making any given thing. Kim Deal, the indie rocker, remembers how, at a certain point, music came to be “considered not only just free but trash, a bother to have to wade” through. We still put a tremendous amount of value on the arts in general, but less and less on any given work.
I had an earlier post where I mentioned Len Deighton’s use of the word “azoic” (lifeless) in The Ipcress File. I’ve been revisiting Deighton’s spy novels for a viewing of ’60s spy movies I’m preparing for Alex on Film, and recently turned up a passage in Funeral in Berlin where the hero is driving past a timber plantation where saplings are planted in rows and he looks out to where “the graticule of trees glowed with fiery foliage.”
A graticule is the grid of lines, typically of longitude and latitude, on which a map is drawn. I didn’t know that. Thanks again, Len!
Over at the Toronto Star I’ve got a reading guide to some of the more recent books on the Trump White House and what led to it. Whatever happens in November, I’m sure there are going to be many more.