Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Wind, the Willows, and a Chickenburger

A strange thing happened last night (strange to me, anyway). I was eating by myself at my local Fatburger, when a lean young man dressed all in black — matching his black hair — and with star tattoos on his tawny face and hands walked by my table.  Out of the blue,  he started talking to me. He asked me if I had ever read The Wind in the Willows.  I told him that it had been a very long time since I had.  He reached into this black backpack that he carried (along with a black boombox) and pulled out an old, slightly tattered hardback edition of the Kenneth Grahame children’s novel, which he laid on my table in front of me.  He told me the book was now mine.

He then sat down at the table next to mine and, seemingly without a second thought,  opened a black three-ring binder holding hand-written pages in blue ink, and started reading aloud from it.  The words he read (he later told me) were his own poetry. It was hard to tell if he was reading especially to me or hoping his words would be overheard by the other people scattered across the restaurant.  Unfortunately, I had a hard time hearing him because of the noise in the room, his rather quiet voice, and the deafness in my right ear.  Not sure where he was going with this impromptu literary event, I concentrated on eating my medium Fatburger with cheddar.

From what my left ear could hear, his free-verse, prose-like poetry was religious in nature, invoking the name of Jesus every once in a while.  Through his poetry, he said something that was hard for me to follow.  I can’t recall his exact words, but he said that he wasn’t really human, that he was a spirit who has been sent temporarily to the land of the living to accomplish some goal before being called back by God.  That sounds like a pretty good description of us humans as well, I thought to myself.

As he talked, I finished my burger.  In all this time, the young man hadn’t ordered any food from the front counter, which the customers usually do the minute that they walk inside the restaurant.  I took this to mean that he didn’t have all that much money on him.  Since I didn’t feel threatened by his obvious eccentricities, I offered to buy him something to eat from the restaurant.  He said something about wanting to get batteries for his boombox.  I could tell that he was hoping I would buy him the batteries instead of a burger.  

He added that he didn’t eat hamburgers.  This made me wonder why he had come into a restaurant that specialized in the dish.  Maybe, I thought to myself, he was just seeking some temporary shelter in a casual restaurant that wasn’t that uptight about lending its roof to the occasional vagrant.  I told him that my offer didn’t extend to batteries and that Fatburger had a few non-beef items on its menu.  The young man conceded that, spirit though he really was, his human body forced him to eat.  

In the end, I bought him a chickenburger in return for the book (spending almost twice as much money on his meal than I did for my own, a hazard that comes with offering to buy someone food).  As soon as his order was ready — I hung around Fatburger just in case there was some complication with the order, which there wasn’t — I walked back home, The Wind in the Willows tucked under my arm.  I’ve never done anything like that before.  If the stranger and I ever exchanged names, I’ve forgotten it.  But I was glad that I was able to buy him some temporary nourishment.  I hope that his human form benefitted from the small meal I bought him, and that this bit of nutrition allows him to accomplish something positive before he’s called back to the spirit world.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Return of the Political Post: It’s the Economists, Stupid

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 I wasn’t going to write any more political blogposts.  I still have some very strong opinions — and those opinions are still liberal — but I don’t have any real insight into the political world: I’m not a journalist or a political scientist; I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of what goes on in the Senate cloakroom; I’m not privy to any facts that can prove a partisan point one way or the other.  The best that I can do, politics-wise, is to parrot a pundit that I agree with.  And that’s not a recipe for a compelling political opinion.

But watching the above episode of MSNBC’s Up with Steve Kornacki (a show title that makes me think of Up with People) on the legacy of Bill Clinton’s 1993 budget got me thinking.  The Clinton era was one of peace, prosperity, and balanced budgets — as well as venomous Republican opposition to his policies.  And that makes me wonder: Since the country and the economy were working so well, why did the Republicans so stridently oppose Clinton the way that they did, going so far as to shut down the government?

To answer this question (although, if you’ve watched the above video, you already have a pretty good idea), I turn to an op-ed scribed by conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg.  Writing during the George W. Bush years, Goldberg lamented that the man in the White House at the time wasn’t getting the credit he deserved for the economic good news on his watch. Goldberg — wrongly — attributed this state of affairs to a hostile media that is quick to fault Republican presidents for what’s bad but slow to credit them for what’s good.  Goldberg grumbles:

If Clinton “created” those 22 million jobs in the 1990s, and if Bush “lost” a few million jobs in his first term, surely by the same standard Bush has “created” 5 million jobs since 2003. Of course, Republican presidents rarely receive such fairness. The media [i.e., nasty liberals, the lot of them] held [Ronald] Reagan responsible for the 1981-1982 recession but merely darn lucky for the boom that followed. Poppa Bush was blamed for the mild recession in 1991-1992, and, even though it ended on his watch, the press credited Clinton with “fixing” the economy in the 1990s.

Goldberg’s gripe is flawed at best.  During the 40th president’s administration, I remember such media outlets as Newsweek and others referring to economic growth of the time as the “Reagan Recovery.”  Reagan was a very popular president, when he was in office as well as afterwards, and — when not genuflecting to his sunny persona — the news media weren’t going to be too critical of him for fear of alienating their pro-Reagan readers (and sponsors).  So, Goldberg’s kvetching is merely a bid for Republican victimhood.

But his diatribe gives us a glimpse into what many conservatives are saying about Clinton’s stewardship of the economy in the 1990s.  In a political inversion of Goldberg’s complaint about liberals unfairly withholding credit to Republican presidents for their good managing of the economy, conservatives contend that Clinton was just “darn lucky” to be president during the dot-com boom and other favorable financial factors.  Conservatives essentially argue that the economy would have been even stronger and more prosperous if it hadn’t been for Slick Willie’s onerous taxes on those who could most afford them.  In this view, the 1990s would have been prosperous regardless of who was in the White House. 

Conversely, this version of events says that Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, had the misfortune to be president when the economic tide turned and the “war on terror” made for a more financially difficult decade.  So, conservatives say, Clinton did everything wrong (raise taxes, expand government), but the financial landscape, by the sheerest fluke, just happened to get better anyway.  Meanwhile, Bush did everything right (lower taxes, loosen regulations), but the financial landscape, by the sheerest fluke, just happened to be, according to the Washington Post, “the weakest eight-year span for the U.S. economy in decades.”  In other words, conservatives are telling us to trust them and not to believe our lying eyes.  This is their story — narrated in the above video by conservative economist Avik Roy — and they’re sticking to it.

When you point out to a conservative economist that the economy grew after Clinton’s more liberal financial policies but contracted under Bush’s conservative ones, you will get the response, as Roy says in the video, “Correlation is not causation.”  But Roy and others who answer this way get the saying wrong; more correctly, it’s “correlation is not necessarily causation.”  I understand that several other factors were also responsible for the economic boom of the 1990s, but Clinton’s policies surely contributed as well, especially the role of higher taxes on the wealthy bringing down the deficit.

To be hypothetical, if a U.S. president raised taxes the way Clinton did and the economy performed as it did under Bush, and then another president cut taxes the way Bush did and the economy performed as it did under Clinton, I submit that conservative economists would not be saying, “Correlation is not causation.”  I submit that these economists would be pointing to the hypothetical presidents’ actions on taxes and the subsequent fiscal performances as a vindication of the economists’ conservative theories.  But since the actions of Clinton and Bush, and the respective financial outcomes of those actions, seem to refute their thesis, conservative economists are quick to fall back on “correlation is not causation.”

I’m not an economist.  For all I know, there may very well be complicated and inconspicuous reasons — reasons more discernable to a professional economist — why Clinton’s economic policies (under normal circumstances) ought to have failed, but miraculously didn’t, and why Bush’s policies (under normal circumstances) ought to have succeeded, but disastrously didn’t.  I’m willing to believe all of this, but I don’t.  And I don’t because of my experiences with the U.S. economy over the last 20 years: the way it prospered under Clinton and the way it declined under Bush.  In other words, the empirical evidence is on the side of the liberal economists: Clinton raised taxes and had a prosperous economy, while Bush cut taxes and had (to put it charitably) a substandard economy. 

If conservative economists are going to convince me that Bush’s approach to the economy was superior to Clinton’s, they will need to come up with an explanation that compellingly contradicts my experiences of the last two decades.  They will need to provide powerful and palpable evidence that my perceptions mislead me.  They will need to prove that Clinton’s wrongheaded fiscal policies just happened to luck out, when they shouldn’t have, while Bush’s wiser policies just happened to strike out, when they shouldn’t have.  But so far, all these conservatives have are assertions.

So, conservative economists, I’m willing to let you convince me that I have it all wrong.  I’m willing to be persuaded that George W. Bush’s economic policies were superior to Clinton’s.  But in order to sway me, you will need to find a compelling way to get me to re-evaluate what I have seen and felt these last 20 years.  So, go ahead, conservative economists, change my mind.  The burden is on you.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Tomorrow Belongs to You — If You Speak English

I suppose that if you know enough about a subject, you have a hard time accepting its compromised representation in the movies.  Not everybody knows as much about what that film is portraying, so its makers sometimes need to take artistic license with the subject in order to make it more comprehensible to people who have better things to do with their time than learn as much about the topic as you. 

For instance, I have a brother who’s a musicologist specializing in the music of Medieval Europe.  He absolutely refused to see the fanciful film A Knight’s Tale (2001), which is set in Medieval Europe but scored with more recent rock hits. Anyone with a knowledge of the modus operandi of current Hollywood can understand the film’s choice of rock music as a hook for younger contemporary audiences, but the filmmakers’ decision to score the movie that way must have looked to him like dissing his specialty.  Similarly, I wonder how many experts in Spanish history can’t get past the decision of Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) to put the historical figures of conquistador Lope de Aguirre and friar Gaspar de Carvajal (who may have never met) on the same South American expedition, when their different expeditions were separated by some 20 years.

I don’t consider myself an expert on Nazi Germany, but I’ve looked into the subject enough to spot a few inconsistencies with history in the multitude of movies set during or near World War II.  When you start to study the Nazis, one of the first facts about them that you encounter is how ultra-nationalistic they were.  It’s not for nothing that “Nazi” is short for Nationalsozialismus (“National Socialism”) — Hitler, Goebbels, and their ilk were constantly stoking the nativist impulses of their German followers.  Whenever I think about the Nazis (which, to keep myself sane, isn’t all that often), one of the first things about them that comes to mind is just how wacko they went with their extreme brand of nationalism.

Consequently, whenever I see a Nazi speaking English in a movie made for Anglophone audiences, I need to work extra hard to suspend my disbelief.  One exception is when a movie’s characters consist entirely of people who are supposed to be speaking to each other in German; then I can hear the English more easily as a substitute language.  Also if the film can contextualize its setting so that a Nazi would logically speak English (for example, 1953’s Stalag 17), I can more readily accept that kind of portrayal.  But when a film includes a variety of nationalities — with some non-German characters standing in opposition to the Third Reich — and Nazis speaking to each other in English, my suspension snaps.  During the Third Reich, a German speaking English would be seen by the Nazis as an advocate of decadent cosmopolitainism. 

This brings me to Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972), his film version of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 1966 Broadway musical, which was, in turn, adapted from two other sources.  One of the best-known songs from the 1930s Germany-set musical is “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” an anthem-like song belted out in English by a Hitlerjunge to an audience of other Germans in a Biergarten.  When I watch this scene on stage, I can accept this character’s incongruous use of the English language, placed against the artificiality of the stage’s set design, as a contrivance needed to communicate with the English-speaking audience.  However, in the naturalistic setting of Fosse’s film, this Nazi singing to other Germans in English strikes me as a supremely surrealistic moment: he’s calling for national pride by singing in the language of another nation.  As euphonious as Fred Ebb’s lyrics are, I don’t think that they are absolutely necessary to the scene.  In fact, given that the scene is supposed to convey the rising of a virulent German nationalism, the English lyrics subtract from the scene’s believability. 

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that in Bob Fosse’s film version of Cabaret, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” I believe, should have been sung in the German language.  And I don’t think that the song would even need subtitles to convey the swelling forces of fanaticism that are engulfing the lead characters (played by Liza Minelli and Michael York). 

Watch the German-dubbed scene below, and see if you can imagine it inserted, unsubtitled, into Bob Fosse’s otherwise Anglophone film version of Cabaret.  I think that such a treatment would (1) fit better with the film’s more naturalistic environment, (2) more accurately convey the extreme German nationalism that underlay the Nazi movement, and (3) instill a slight sense of incomprehension into non-German-speaking audiences that would mirror the main characters’ own inability to understand what’s going on around them. 

‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ sung in the 1972 film version of ‘Cabaret’

Note: “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” in this rendition, is translated as “Der morgige Tag ist mein.”  “Morgige Tag” is an archaic, poetic way of saying “tomorrow” (Morgen) in German.  So, to use an English equivalent, the German title literally means “the morrow is mine.”

Also, in case you’re wondering why the old man with the blue cap and the round glasses in the scene looks so confused, his cap marks him as a member of the German Communist Party (which is different from that of the Soviet Union), so this elderly political leftist is probably bewildered by the rise of Germany’s extreme right wing.