Category Archives: television

House of Cards: Season 1 (2013)

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After years of enduring Aaron Sorkin’s sanctimonious and insufferable fantasies of virtuous government do-gooders in shows and films like The West Wing and The American President, we finally have a show which goes behind the platitudes and gets closer to the true nature of political power.  Even better, the main character is a Democrat. For once, we are presented with a show which destroys the veneer of self-righteous moral rectitude that has been so assiduously constructed around the cult of liberalism through years of Hollywood and media propaganda.

House of Cards is basically the inverse West Wing.  It is a breath of fresh air for so many reasons, but mostly because it reveals how our relationship to power fuels every pathological tendency you can identify. The true conduit and amplifier of deceit, duplicity, vindictiveness, avarice, manipulation, spite, and violence is, for once, correctly identified.  After a seemingly endless parade of films and shows which demonize capitalism and money as the source of evil in the world, HoC points the finger in the right direction by focusing on state power.  HoC also reveals the political process as the zero-sum game that it is. All of the idiotic clichés that are routinely ascribed to capitalism (e.g. “dog eat dog”, “kill or be killed”) are more accurately represented as descriptions of life in government.

With a career that already has many iconic performances, Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Frank Underwood is easily among his finest.  Frank Underwood is the ultimate Machiavellian antihero; the Majority Whip in the House of Representatives who describes himself as a plumber who “keeps the sludge moving”. When his bid for Secretary of State is rebuffed by the newly elected, charismatic president, Frank sets his sights on getting his due. He’s the guy who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, but he’ll win because he already has you figured out and you’re drawn in by his wry smile and gentle southern drawl. You don’t know that he’s slipped the knife in your back until it’s too late.

In the opening scene of Season 1, Frank discovers an injured dog which belongs to his neighbors. He sees that the dog is suffering, but he takes it upon himself to kill the dog before reporting the incident to his neighbors. Why? Simply because it must be done.  Frank is terrifying because his conscience is completely unclouded by doubt or fear.  At the same time, you kind of admire him for his ruthlessness, his masterful manipulations and dispassionate sense of purpose. Frank is the perfect sociopath. He is always calculating the odds and he’s always two moves ahead.

Robin Wright’s icy performance as Claire Underwood is a perfect complement to the cunning sociopathy of Spacey’s Frank. With a set of dubious morals combined with a strangely believable devotion to her husband, the Underwoods are undoubtedly partially modeled after the Clintons.  Claire is also the executive of the Clean Water Initiative and the subplots involving the CWI provide some refreshing commentary on the myriad ways that even the most seemingly altruistic endeavors make common cause with jackals of the state.

Kate Mara does a brilliant job as the narcissistic, fame seeking journalist, Zoe Barnes.  Zoe strikes up a relationship with Frank which proves fruitful for her career at first, but discovers the real courage that one needs to have ethics and pursue the truth as a journalist.  Zoe’s tale offers poignant editorial on the ascendancy of clickbait journalism, the way politicians use the media to manufacture public opinion, as well as the ways in which women use their sexual wiles to get what they want.

Corey Stoll turns in a great performance as the doomed representative from Pennsylvania, Pete Russo. Russo is an idealistic freshman from a working class district whose moral compass and sense of self-control are already compromised and only degenerate further once he arrives in Congress. His story is a vivid reminder that fallible humans who are bestowed with power which exempts them from moral judgment and isolates them from the consequences of their actions is something that should be avoided at all costs. It is simultaneously a cautionary tale of the seduction of state power as well as the price one pays when loyalty takes precedence over principles.

By far, the best aspect of the show is that it is an extended exploration of power and the ways that it pollutes, perverts and destroys every fiber of human decency in those who wield it or crave it.  All too often, politicians point the finger at corporations and blame money as the sole force of corruption in politics, but they’re engaging in a game of misdirection.  The political apparatus is inherently corrupt because it is inhabited by people who sell corruption in the first place! This show is honest about this fact. Frank says it best when he expresses his disappointment at a former assistant turned lobbyist:

Such a waste of talent. He chose money over power. In this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the Mc-mansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn’t see the difference.

HoC is blessedly free of the tiresome trend towards gender correctness and takes aim at the scurrilous nature of identity politics.  With so many films and shows bending over backwards to kowtow to the Cult of Feminism by portraying the now obligatory Strong Female Character or the endless grating paeans to multiculturalism dutifully regurgitated by irritating social justice warriors, HoC commits the unspeakable transgression of portraying women and minorities as…FLAWED. I know! It’s hard to believe, but they went there.

The women make bad choices in men. They display insecurity, vindictiveness, and pettiness. The black and Latino characters aren’t just there to fill some checkbox of progressive virtue as prescribed by the Multicultural Politburo. They’re believable well-rounded characters with foibles and shortcomings.

The show fearlessly tackles the petty politics of character assassination that are all too commonplace nowadays.  Nowadays, you don’t need an actual Star Chamber. Thanks to identity politics, you can crucify people in the court of opinion and ruin their lives in ways that are worse than any state sanctioned tribunal could ever do. Zoe Barnes uses her sexuality to gain access and influence with men, but is more than willing to play sexual politics to ruin the reputation of her employer after he calls her a cunt.  Frank is more than willing to exploit his wife and lie about her emotional distress to discredit a labor attorney and win sympathy from the public in order to avoid getting destroyed in a televised debate.

The moment that’s perhaps most emblematic of the pernicious confluence of identity politics and character assassination is a funny scene in which Russo is deployed to visit a “libertarian drug fiend marinating in a trailer home” to get dirt on the character that was nominated for Secretary of State over Frank.  Russo’s job was simply to ascertain whether Kern penned an article unsympathetic to Israel while in college.  He didn’t, but it didn’t matter.  The innuendo that proliferated through the mediasphere was enough. Kern’s nomination for Secretary of State was torpedoed, he got branded a racist and was consigned to oblivion anyway.

Simply put, House of Cards is a treasure trove of viewing pleasure.  Premium channels have been a fertile ground for cutting-edge television in recent years, and kudos to Netflix for having the stones to put this out.  This is a show for the ages.  Highly recommended.

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That Jeff Daniels Monologue from The Newsroom Rebutted

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First off, I have to give credit where credit is due.  Despite the fact that he’s little more than a propagandist for the left, Aaron Sorkin is a talented writer.  He has a great flair for soaring rhetoric and this monologue is a testimony to his abilities. 

That said, this is propaganda disguised as monologue and there’s a lot to unpack.

The thing that really struck me is how sentimental the left is for what it perceives as its glory days. I’ve read and heard a gazillion snarky commentaries deriding conservatives for their Reagan nostalgia, but I don’t see a whole lot of difference between that kind of pining for bygone times and this.

The other thing that’s very interesting about this monologue is that it reveals how modern liberalism uses cynicism and shame to promote its own brand of inverse nationalism.  He’s openly denigrating overt expressions of positive nationalism, but he’s using this reproach to elicit sympathy for expressions of nationalism and state policy that he believes are more worthy of national pride.

The problem with the monologue is twofold; his characterization of “freedom” is in and of itself a straw man and he consistently conflates individual achievement and economic freedom with state policy. 

Yes, it’s true that Canada, Japan, UK, Italy, Spain, Germany and Spain have freedom. But it’s relative just as it is here.  In addition to forking over a giant chunk of your earnings, anyone starting a business is going to have to contend with a giant tangle of laws and bureaucratic nonsense in order to keep the lights on.  By these measures, some of those countries are freer than ours, some much less so

He bemoans low academic achievement, but says nothing about whether it’s a good idea for the state to monopolize public education and doesn’t acknowledge that perhaps this is the problem that’s contributing to that outcome.

He laments the incarceration and poverty rates, but doesn’t say anything about how the welfare state, the criminal justice system, the police state and the public school system collude to contribute to these outcomes. 

He lashes out at outsize military spending and the meager household income metrics, but says nothing about the Federal Reserve. 

He talks about how “we” built the greatest economy in the world.  Individuals built the greatest economy in the world, Aaron. I’ve been pretty successful at selling my skills in the private sector, but I haven’t really built anything. 

Furthermore, hearing Sorkin rhapsodize over the achievement of American capitalism feels both wildly disingenuous and highly selective.  After all, this is the guy who’s built a career romanticizing and glamorizing fictional politicians and portraying capitalists as conniving, manipulative degenerates. 

And is there anyone in the contemporary Democratic political establishment who will say anything even remotely charitable about the market economy nowadays?  The hands down favorite amongst progressives in the current presidential candidate field has both refused to identify as a capitalist and has built a career waving the banner of socialism. The apparatchiks of the academic, activist and pundit class certainly aren’t singing the praises of capitalism either.  Of all the the lines in this monologue which reek of falsehood, the stink of this one is the most foul. 

He claims “we struck down laws”, but I’m really hard pressed to think of the laws to which he refers.  Despite the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, DOMA has not been repealed. The PATRIOT Act is still on the books.  The NDAA authorization passes every year without a peep of opposition. The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria continue without so much as a token gesture of dissent from the left. 

He alleges that “we cultivated the greatest artists”.   It’s a partially true statement in that we have a relatively free market which has produced a rich diversity of art and media from which to choose, but I detect a small tinge of collectivist pride in that statement.  Everyone knows that taste is subjective and that the artists that people revere as “great” will vary with each individual.  If anything, this is one realm where he should drop the annoying preaching and start praising the virtues of free speech and free markets.  Those principles have contributed very directly to the diversity and richness of our culture and art. 

But perhaps the most interesting lines are the ones which say that we “acted like men” and were informed by “great men”. I’m both surprised and disappointed that feminists didn’t storm social media to deliver a fauxtrage beatdown on Aaron Sorkin for being such A DYSGYSTYNG FUGHYNG PYG!  Personally, I don’t have a problem with the statement since, by and large, it’s true.  Were there important women in history who contributed to philosophy, politics, and commerce? Absolutely.  This does not change the fact that the major historical movements of war, politics, philosophy, commerce and exploration were made, in fact, by FUGHYNG PYGS.  

Ultimately, he’s appealing to our inner greatness and capacity for morality, generosity and compassion.  This is laudable.  Unfortunately, he’s tying these virtues to an institution whose virtues are dubious to non-existent.

Economics of Star Trek

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I’ve always enjoyed Star Trek.  Like many others, I’ve enjoyed its hopeful vision of the future, its far reaching technological speculations, its exploration of moral and social concerns and perhaps most significantly, its wild speculations of a post-scarcity economy.
   
The author of the piece makes a game effort at rationalizing the Star Trek economy, but given the timeline, I don’t see how it comes together.
 
How can you mass produce warp and transporter technology, weapons systems and marshall the considerable labor and materials needed for a Federation class starship without a private sector and without resorting to totalitarianism?
  
Between these types of questions and the general veneration of government bureaucracy and the slavish deference to hierarchical command structures, Star Trek’s general affinity for rational thought and secular ethics goes very flaccid.  

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Sorry, dude.  You simply can’t build a fleet of starships without mobilizing considerable labor and resources. Proto post-scarcity my ass.