I don't agree with everything he says here, but it's worth listening to. Terms like "freedom" and "greatest country in the world" too often become clichés, accolades to which we lay claim with no thought of what would actually merit them. Perhaps the most important line is toward the end -- "we didn't scare so easily".
Change is coming in Europe -- the question is whether the moderate
political establishment will accommodate it or be swept away by it. If
that establishment continues to ignore the popular will on issues like
austerity, immigration, and interference with national sovereignty,
eventually Europe's exasperated voters will start electing people like
Nigel Farage (who, though he deserves much kudos for leading the
independence movement to victory, is basically a crank otherwise), or
worse, to positions of national leadership. This would pose some of the
same kinds of dangers as the rise of Trump in the US. By accommodating
change despite their personal misgivings, Cameron and May have greatly
reduced this risk, at least in the UK. Other countries will soon face
This Sunday, France will face that test, as it holds its Presidential election. In the French system, if no one candidate wins an absolute majority in this first round of voting, a run-off is held between just the top two vote-getters (a wise system, I might add, since it filters out the effect of voters wasting their votes on minor candidates). The most controversial candidate, who is very likely to be one of the top two and thus make it to the run-off, is Marine Le Pen of the National Front.
The National Front was founded by Marine's father Jean-Marie Le Pen, during whose leadership it genuinely deserved the epithet "far-right" which is so casually (and often inaccurately) bestowed on all European political elements which oppose the European Union and high immigration. Since Marine took over in 2011, the party has moderated, abandoning its former doctrinaire-Catholic and anti-Semitic stances to focus on issues which actually appeal to the average French voter, such as limiting immigration, abandoning the euro common currency, and generally re-asserting national sovereignty. It has thus established itself as a major and serious political force.
Earlier in Marine Le Pen's career I hoped that she would indeed be elected President someday, but I can no longer do so. Her recent alignment with Putin and support for Trump shows a dangerous lack of commitment to democracy and Western values, while her call to reverse the legalization of gay marriage (in one of the world's most secular and tolerant nations) is reactionary and, ironically, aligns her with the Islamists who are the main remaining anti-gay political force in western Europe. Like Nigel Farage in Britain, she is right on her signature issues, but dangerously wrong in other areas.
According to polls, the other candidate most likely to make it to the run-off is Emmanuel Macron, a man without prior political experience who describes himself as "neither right nor left", though his support comes primarily from the left. He's also the most pro-EU candidate. Two others with a chance to reach the run-off against Le Pen are François Fillon, offering a standard right-wing program of tax cuts, longer working hours, and reduction of government; and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose platform mixes strongly-progressive economic and environmental policies with nationalist elements such as asserting French independence and strong criticism of the EU (hardly a surprising combination, since the EU's disastrous austerity policies should arouse the opposition of any true socialist). Polling strongly suggests that whichever one of these three makes it to the run-off against Le Pen will defeat her and become President.
If I were French, the choice would be easy -- Mélenchon. But from an objective viewpoint, who ultimately wins may matter less than how well Le Pen does.
In Britain, Farage never got close to becoming Prime Minister, but the movement he led ultimately forced the issue. David Cameron was a mainstream, pro-EU politician, but when he ran for re-election in 2015, he promised a referendum on the EU; and after winning, he kept his promise. The British people thus got the benefit of Farage's activism without the dangers of having Farage as national leader. The best outcome for the French would be the same. So the best outcome of Sunday's vote, and of the near-inevitable run-off on May 7, would be for Le Pen to do as well as possible without actually winning. The more strongly popular discontent expresses itself, the more likely it is that the winner will feel forced to address it, as Cameron did.
Mélenchon is fourth in the polls, but has been rising steadily since mid-March. Fillon, who most resembles a US Republican (though without the religious wingnuttery) is third, but has been damaged by a nepotism scandal. Macron is the most likely winner, but even he might be swayed to consider a "Frexit" referendum if the popular will asserts itself forcefully enough.
One point Americans might appreciate -- France has no equivalent of the Electoral College to muddy the waters.
First, his bizarre outburst of rage at his teleprompter (he must not have realized he was still being recorded):
Second, the immortal dance remix version:
We celebrate not only the end of O'Reilly's show, but the frantic exodus of hordes of advertisers from it since word of his (alleged) misbehavior went public. Some companies do have a conscience, while others know that association with nonconsensual grabbery is bad for business. Trump or no Trump, progress continues to be made.
There are few scenarios more disquieting than a showdown between two mentally-erratic rulers with nuclear weapons in the middle of one of the world's most densely-populated and economically-important regions. Yet that's the scenario which seems to be developing in East Asia.
In brief, the North Korean regime, showing its usual bluster, is apparently about to conduct another nuclear or missile test. Trump has diverted the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group toward the region and warned that the US will not tolerate such a provocation. The North Korean regime has a history of ignoring foreign pressure to dial back its saber-rattling, and Trump has a history of taking aggressive actions without thought to, or even understanding of, possible consequences. But if the test goes ahead and Trump carries out some kind of military action against North Korea, the consequences could be enormous indeed.
The regime has repeatedly threatened that, if attacked, it would retaliate against our allies Japan and South Korea:
The map illustrates two salient points. First, Seoul, the South Korean capital, is very close to the DMZ (border between the two Korean states). In fact, it's within artillery range. The North has a formidable array of weaponry deployed along the border. The Seoul metro area has over 25 million people, about half of South Korea's total population. A Northern attack on a city of this size would cause horrific casualties and destruction.
Second, Japan, or a large part of it, is within range of even the primitive missiles the North possesses (it's estimated to have about 350 missiles which could theoretically reach Japanese territory). North Korea, of course, has atomic bombs -- only a few, low-yield and unreliable by modern standards, and we don't even know for sure whether the North can deliver them by missile -- but even one or two successfully delivered and detonated could inflict devastation comparable to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
In short, an impulsive action by Trump in this case would be risking the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in countries which are allies of ours. Needless to say, attacking Seoul or Japan would mean massive US retaliation -- but we can't count on that to deter the North Korean regime from carrying out such actions. Nobody knows whether the regime is really as crazy and delusional as it appears to be, or even who is actually in charge (some believe the military holds the real power, with Kim Jong-un being merely a figurehead). The risk of the nightmare scenario happening is unquantifiable, but real.
And if it did happen, the consequences would be enormous. South Koreans and Japanese would rightly blame the US for provoking the disaster. It could even lead to a permanent breach. Remember how the murder of 3,000 Americans on September 11 affected the US -- then consider the impact on South Korea and Japan of ten to a hundred times as many deaths.
South Korea and Japan are among the most technologically advanced countries on Earth -- more advanced than the US in some areas. Japan has a population almost equal to Russia (127 million vs. 143 million) and the world's third-largest economy. It's a potential superpower -- more so, really, than China or India. If Japan turned against the US and decided that its future security required complete political and military independence, the disruptive effect on the world order as we've known it since 1945 would be greater than that of almost any other imaginable event.
Maybe Trump will restrain himself. China has been trying to talk sense to him, and one can hope that Defense Secretary James Mattis (one of Trump's few really qualified appointments), while talking tough to North Korea, is also bringing his boss up to speed on the realities of the situation. It would have helped if the MSM had been less gaga in their coverage of Trump's missile attack in Syria and MOAB bombing in Afghanistan -- the man seems obsessed with his image in the media. But make no mistake -- this is by far the most dangerous situation to arise since Trump took office.
Near the end of March the land of my ancestors formally triggered the Article 50 process which will lead to restoration of independence from the European Union, in accordance with last year's referendum. This action also triggered the same babble of clueless negativity on the left (especially the American left) as the original referendum did. Some points to consider:
• The same people who, for whatever reason, are so hostile to the restoration of the UK's independence were presumably more supportive in earlier cases of the same kind of action, such as the secession of the Baltic states from the USSR or the independence of Third World countries from the European colonial empires.
• The restoration of independence is also a return to greater democracy. The real power in the EU, which includes ever-increasing interference in the internal affairs of member states, is held by an unelected and unaccountable oligarchy (which is, as such unaccountable regimes tend to be, massively corrupt). Removing this interference will restore full legislative power to the British Parliament, which is elected by the population it governs.
• Be wary of the dishonest use of language by EU supporters in which the word "Europe" is conflated with the EU -- intensification of the oligarchy's dominance over elected national governments is described as "more Europe", Brexit is described as "leaving Europe", etc. The EU is not Europe, it is a transient grouping to which some European countries belong.
• If the US were part of an undemocratic multi-national organization which interfered in our internal affairs as extensively as the EU does in those of its member states, we would have voted ourselves out of it a long time ago.
• Even if Brexit carries some economic cost, independence and democracy are worth paying that price for.
• Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland have never been part of the EU and their economies are doing fine -- notably better than those of southern Europe, which have been devastated by EU-imposed austerity policies and the common euro currency.
• It's likely that the oligarchy will try to play hardball in the independence negotiations with the UK due to (1) spite -- these people have shown over and over that they are vicious and vindictive -- and (2) the knowledge that discontent with the EU is manifesting itself in ever-more-aggressive form in other member states, including major ones like France and Italy. If the UK "gets away with it", others will follow.
• However, the UK is in the stronger position -- as a net importer from other EU countries, it is the "customer" in the relationship. It is, for example, Germany's third-largest export market. If the EU tries to impose punitive trade barriers, the UK could find alternate suppliers for what it currently imports from the rest of the EU much more easily than the rest of the EU could find alternate markets for what it now exports to the UK. (Ever since the original referendum, several non-EU countries have been expressing interest in negotiating their own trade deals with the UK once it is free to do so.) The main consequence of punitive trade barriers would be job losses in Germany and elsewhere in the EU.
• Conversely, one of the main "exports" from the UK to the mainland is financial services, which the EU could not easily replace -- skills and experience comparable to the London financial industry do not exist on the mainland. In any case, 56% of UK exports go to non-EU countries, a share which was steadily growing even before the referendum.
• The UK is one of only two western European nations with substantial military power (the other is France). If Europe eventually needs or wants to develop a common defense capability less dependent on the US, it will need the UK much more than vice-versa. The EU itself would inhibit such an effort. Nations could work in an alliance of sovereign states (analogous to NATO), but would never hand over substantial military forces to an entity which aspires to usurp sovereignty for itself.
• Change is coming in Europe -- the question is whether the moderate political establishment will accommodate it or be swept away by it. If that establishment continues to ignore the popular will on issues like austerity, immigration, and interference with national sovereignty, eventually Europe's exasperated voters will start electing people like Nigel Farage (who, though he deserves much kudos for leading the independence movement to victory, is basically a crank otherwise), or worse, to positions of national leadership. This would pose some of the same kinds of dangers as the rise of Trump in the US. By accommodating change despite their personal misgivings, Cameron and May have greatly reduced this risk, at least in the UK. Other countries will soon face similar tests.
• Republicans must have felt under tremendous pressure, maybe even from Trump himself, to get something done. From ACA repeal to Trump's budget to Flynn, it's been one fiasco after another. They're desperate for a success, any success.
• Once the filibuster's gone, it's gone. From now on, whichever party holds 51 Senate seats, or 50 plus the Vice Presidency, can do whatever it wants with Supreme Court nominations. Why would that party ever vote to give up that power by reinstating the filibuster?
• For the 2018 election, the Senate is now of supreme importance. A net gain of three seats would give us the majority. It's a tall order since few Republicans are up for re-election -- but the President's party usually takes losses in a midterm, and this is the most incompetent and unpopular administration in living memory.
• If we do regain the majority, the power it brings must be used to the utmost. In my view, if there is another Supreme Court vacancy, our Senators should refuse to consider any nominee Trump (or more likely Pence, by then) sends them. Hold the seat for the next President as the Republicans did, even if that means a vacancy for two years. Never mind that they claimed they did that because it was an election year -- we and they both know that's a flagrant lie, and there's no need to pretend otherwise. It will be retaliation in kind, and well deserved. Our Senators should make it clear that there is only one exception -- the only case in which we would confirm would be if the "President" re-nominates Garland, the man who should have been on the Court all along. Otherwise, we wait.
• Expecting our Senators to have that much backbone might seem unrealistic, but my sense is there are a lot of people pretty angry about today's development -- mostly because of the seat Gorsuch will take being stolen from Obama's nominee. That anger can be channeled into public pressure to stiffen our Senators' resolve. Pressure has worked, even on Republicans, on issues such as the ACA repeal and the Congressional Ethics Office. It can continue to work.
• Finally, what have the Republicans really gained? They've replaced Scalia with -- another Scalia, and one who's not even as extreme as the original on some issues. They've just restored the previous status quo, and not quite even that. The seat should have gone to Garland, a centrist, who compared to Scalia would have represented a real shift our way. But if we've gained nothing, neither has the enemy.
Ghost in the Shell -- super-human, super-beautiful, super-violent
First off, I should acknowledge that I haven't read the original manga on which this movie is based, so I'm going purely by what's in the movie itself. Since Americans are notoriously not great readers of books, especially foreign ones, most American viewers will be in the same position.
Set in a near-future world on the brink of the Technological Singularity, where high-tech enhancements to the human brain have become commonplace, the film deals with the next logical step -- transplanting a human brain into a mechanical body of human appearance but far greater than human capabilities. In this case, though, the cyborg thus created ("the Major") is intended for use as a superweapon against "terrorists", complete with false memories to provide motivation.
The best part of the movie is the visuals, which are amazing. The future urban setting is perfectly realized as a clean, bright, colorful anti-version of the dystopian world of Blade Runner, with giant animated billboards replaced by even more intrusive giant moving hologram advertisements, a sort of beautiful migraine of a city. It raises the issue that computer-enhanced brains might be subject to hacking just as computers are -- a problem more plausible, and scary, than the cliché of robot insurrection. It asks whether memory or behavior is the essence of identity (though it doesn't really answer the question). It also serves as a warning to technophobes who hope that the Singularity can be stopped by inhibiting technological progress -- it's obvious that in a world where some nations or groups embrace machine-brain enhancement, others which renounced it would be left in the dust, utterly unable to compete.
In this clip, the Major intervenes in an attack in progress:
It's not without flaws. How is a private company able to get away with murderous experiments on human subjects, and using hugely-destructive weapons in an urban environment? I also was confused at first whether the setting is China or Japan, since both languages appear on signage and the urban setting looks more like Hong Kong (where it was largely filmed) than like Japan.
It has surprised me a bit to see Ghost in the Shell compared with The Matrix, which it somewhat resembles aesthetically but far less thematically. It's more comparable with Blade Runner, which dealt with machines so humanlike that treating them as less than human raised daunting ethical problems. But it also reminded me of Robocop, an early (1987) effort to deal with the integration of mind and machine, with the integration being done in a similarly unethical manner. Ghost in the Shell also resembles Robocop in being full of highly-kinetic violence which tends to blast the philosophical issues right off the screen -- there are probably more shooting deaths in this movie than Japan actually has in a decade. Movies like this do do some service in the sense that brain-machine integration, and the blurring of the line between human and machine, are issues we will actually be confronting within a decade or two (whereas the universe turning out to be a computer-generated illusion probably isn't).
I should also address the most idiotic criticism of the film which has been making the rounds on the internet, which is the objection to a non-Asian actress (Scarlett Johansson, who does a great job) playing the Major, who is eventually revealed to be Japanese. What Johansson is portraying is an artificial body into which the brain of a Japanese person has been transplanted, which would not necessarily resemble that person's original human appearance (Mamoru Oshii, the director of an earlier anime film of the story, made the same point). Since the Major's implanted false memories include being a member of a family who arrived in Japan as refugees from elsewhere, it would make sense to give her artificial body a non-Japanese appearance to fit the memory. It's striking that several other major characters are also non-Japanese, and I'd be curious to know what nationality characters like Ouelet and Cutter were in the original story (if they were even in it), but it seems to be common in manga and anime to depict multinational teams of characters working in a future Japan (Silent Mobius being another example).
Finally, it seems odd that Ghost in the Shell is already being described as a box-office failure based on disappointing results within the US, when it seems to be doing better globally and hasn't even opened yet in Japan or China, probably the most promising markets for a film of this sort.
A minor point I found particularly satisfying occurs near the end. When the malignant Cutter's fate is in the Major's hands, she consents to his death without hesitation or phony moral qualms, asking only that he be told it is justice.
Here's an assessment by a critic more familiar with the source material:
I can kind of see, though, why it's not being well-received in the US. It's a bit too weird and doesn't really fit the standard action-movie formula. (Blade Runner, probably the greatest SF movie ever made, got mixed reviews and mediocre audience share when it opened here.) Given US ticket prices these days, people probably prefer not to take a chance on anything they're not already sure of. It's their loss, though.
Individualist, transhumanist, American patriot, socialist, atheist, liberal, optimist, pragmatist, and regular guy -- it has been my great good fortune to live my whole life free of "spiritual" concepts of any kind. I believe that evidence and reason are the keys to understanding reality; that it is technology rather than ideology or politics that has been the great liberator of humanity; and that in the long run human intelligence is the most powerful force in the universe.