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Trump’s recent poll surge didn’t exactly make me think he’d win, though it did raise my level of anxiety about it. Even if the outcomes look favorable, elections are naturally higher anxiety times for me! At any rate, the polls are shifting away from The Orange One, resuming the usual equilibrium of a public that has made up its mind about Trump, and despite the “expectations game” I don’t really think the debates are going to help him to turn that around. Debates are basically the only presentational element of politics that Clinton excels at, and while the stories of his debate prep (or lack thereof) may be deliberate disinformation, it’s basically impossible to make a candidate who knows nothing learn everything within a few weeks. In terms of beating expectations, Sarah Palin did okay in the 2008 debate, and it didn’t help her from dragging down John McCain.

Still, it seems crazy that Trump is still in this, and while I don’t agree with everything in the article I think that John Judis makes a solid point here:

Compare for a moment Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton’s response to the consumer fraud perpetrated by Wells Fargo. During Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf’s appearance before the Senate Finance Committee, Warren told Stumpf, “You should resign. You should give back the money that you took while this scam was going on, and you should be criminally investigated by both the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission.”

By contrast, Clinton’s response was an open letter to Wells Fargo customers. “I was deeply disturbed when, last week, we found out that Wells Fargo had engaged in widespread illegal practices over many years… Today, Wells Fargo’s CEO will appear before Congress. He owes all of you a clear explanation as to how this happened under his watch. There is simply no place for this kind of outrageous behavior in America.” Clinton then went on to present a raft a proposals for reforming the banking system:

“First, we need to defend the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau… Second, we need real consequences when firms on Wall Street break the law…it’s frustrating that a bank can simply pay a fine and keep doing business as usual – with massive compensation for the executives responsible. That compensation should be clawed back. I’ve put forward an agenda to enhance accountability on Wall Street. Executives should be held individually accountable when rampant illegal activity happens on their watch. .. Third, we need to make sure that no financial institution is too big to manage. I’ll put additional safeguards in place to address the risks that the big banks continue to pose to our system. .. I’ll appoint regulators who will stand with taxpayers and consumers, not with big banks and their friends in Congress.”

It is a telling difference. Warren’s response is visceral, unambiguous, hard-hitting. You can tell immediately where she’s coming from, why she’s bothered, what she things should be done. It’s a response that is designed to be shared on social media and that will make people say, “Hell yeah!” Clinton’s is cerebral and even intellectualized. While there are phrases that could fit into Warren’s reaction (“deeply disturbed”, “outrageous behavior”) they’re not nearly as sharp, and the bit about a clear explanation defangs it. What explanation could there be, other than fucking greed? And then there’s the inevitable pivot to policy, as one expects from Clinton, which kills any remaining emotion there. You really do see why Warren is the better politician here: Warren can certainly rattle off policy proposals and details about financial reform with the best of them. But she also understands anger, knows when to channel it, and understands the effectiveness of symbolism and political theater (not to mention thematic and narrative politics). Clinton, ultimately, only has policy to fall back on. Wondering what might have happened had Warren run against Clinton is the ultimate what-if, but moments like this make me think she could have won. Much as we might want to blame the media for covering Trump obsessively, Clinton’s relative lack of facility with crafting a narrative and developing resonant themes (particularly compared to Warren) make her a less dynamic candidate, and while it could certainly be argued that the even keel makes a good contrast with Trump, you still want to be able to break through the clutter. And while I continually find myself reading articles about how sexism explains away virtually every negative feature of this campaign, I can’t help noting Warren isn’t generally known for secrecy or lack of transparency. I could be wrong, but I’ve never particularly considered those sexist stereotypes. Plenty of men get that reputation as well. Such as Chris Christie, who may just face impeachment as well as legal punishment over BridgeGate.

Ultimately, Clinton’s mastery of policy is going to fit well with the debate format, and even during the now-over Trump surge I never thought her likely to lose. But the “this is the only woman” crowd have long accentuated the positive and ignored the negative with regard to Clinton: in an era of personality-based politics, populist anger, and deep distrust of politics and politicians, Clinton is not exactly an ideal match for the times. Granted, Trump embodies almost every negative element of these things in a funhouse-mirror way that horrifies key voters, and having Clinton as a foil for that should work out. But that’s why it’s close.

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In 1997, Tony Blair won the sort of victory that few politicians ever do: a landslide election win, near-North Korean personal approval levels, and a completely disorganized and hopeless opposition. Almost no obstacles to fundamentally remaking British government and society presented themselves. His failure to do just that is explored deeply by Bower’s book, and it argues that Blair (and New Labour in general) simply weren’t up to the task. Blair’s incredible belief in himself, his distaste for introspection or reflection and his tendency toward an oversimplified and moralistic view of matters continually lead him awry, and his “big picture” thinking led him to avoid crucial details that invariably snowballed into major crises, such as his Brexit-precipitating immigration rules. (Incidentally, when you consider these traits of his personality, the “inexplicable” friendship with George W. Bush becomes a lot more comprehensible–they’re deeply similar people.)

Bower also makes a strong case that Blair was in some ways a remarkably weak leader, particularly in his dealings with Gordon Brown, who formed the only effective obstacle to his ability to make change. Rather than firing Brown or otherwise seeking to reduce his influence, Blair simply declined to deal with him, and gave his subordinate veto power over domestic policy out of his own fear of losing power.

Blair’s ignorance of history, geopolitics and the basics of government comes into play continuously. And his preferred management method–setting ambitious targets in the press for, say, energy, failing to follow up, and then weathering a crisis when bad headlines arrive–is not exactly something that makes any sort of intuitive sense if you want results, though it does if you only care about what the media is saying. This is not to mention his, ahem, checkered post-political career, though Bower convincingly connects the secretive and money-obsessed modern Blair with his political self, and all those donor scandals, among other things. Overall, the man comes off as a slippery salesman: an absolute believer in whatever he’s selling you, kept going by a corresponding belief in himself, but any ethical principles, genuine morality or depth are merely an illusion, part of the sell. The principal difference between his political career and afterward was the product: first himself, then his influence. I enjoyed the book quite a bit–there is an editorial slant and elements of it have been disputed, but it’s an undeniably coherent and plausible take on the subject matter, not to mention readable.

It is interesting to read the book in the light of the still quite recent downfall of one of Blair’s biggest acolytes, David Cameron. There’s considerable irony to their trajectories. Comparing the Iraq War to the Brexit referendum is more than a little facile: one caused numerous deaths and destroyed a state, the other will most likely have indirect economic effects. Still, in both cases, the leader saw political problems through the primary lens of media management. Both were more salesman than statesman. And while Blair may arguably have broken the Labour Party beyond repair–absent the balm of election wins, its ancient and vituperative rivalries have snarled once again–Cameron’s legacy may likely be sacrificing his country’s future to win an election. It’s enough to make a person bemoan the combination of boundless self-confidence, crudely oversimplified morality, and a taste for power bereft of real substance that has caused countless damage over the past decade. The system truly is broken.

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Nice to see the Times (among other publications) showing a newfound willingness to call a spade a spade and denounce Trump lies as such. Though the cynical part of me thinks it has more to do with Trump bamboozling the media into showing his infomercial than to any real fear of Trump than a change of heart on the false balance question. But that is slouching back toward empiricism a bit.

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Apple yanking the headphone jack smacks of trying to create talking points to continue to show themselves as the future. That is all.

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As if there was any doubt that David Cameron is an utter prick:

Cameron, who stood down as an MP on Monday, has refused to give evidence to the select committee. In one of his few reflections on his major military intervention, he blamed the Libyan people for failing to take their chance of democracy.

Probably some humanitarian hawks do actually care about the people they purport to liberate. But then there’s David Cameron, who seemed to have other things in mind. Don’t let the door hit you…

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I guess I missed the official anniversary of the airing of the first episode of Star Trek. The usual busyness but it is a hell of a thing. It is pretty amazing that a show that barely limped to a third season fifty years ago has had such staying power, but of course it has evolved with the times:

  • The Original Series is pretty inextricable from that old American mid-’60s moral certitude, with Kirk regularly passing judgment on societies that seemed to work okay, but didn’t conform to his own values. It was progressive on race, less progressive on gender, and ultimately incoherent about war–the show’s antiwar episodes have dominated the show’s legacy, though episodes like The Omega Glory and A Private Little War embody sentiments that would have pleased the hawks of the day. Much of the series does hold up well thanks to the writing, though going through the series becomes really tough sledding about a handful of episodes into season three.
  • The Animated Series is not entirely canonical but well worth the time of the dedicated fan. The series is overall sort of hit-or-miss, with bargain-basement animation and seemingly every voice other than the main cast provided by James Doohan. Furthermore, it is hilarious that the creators of the show basically changed nothing about the style of storytelling for the conversion from prime-time drama to Saturday morning cartoon–Roddenberry evidently figured that children had the same appetite for heady themes as adults did, and the show shockingly didn’t last too long. Still, the moments where it really clicks–Yesteryear, which explores Spock’s backstory, and The Slaver Weapon, which gives us the rare Spock-Sulu-Uhura team-up for a very well-crafted cerebral sci-fi adventure–make it well worth the time investment (which is small anyway–only about 10 hours or so).
  • The Next Generation is a show that is of its time in one way: it survived two mostly-bad initial seasons that today’s viewers would never have stuck around for. The time period when “what’s good on TV” was a list with maybe two items on it seems an impossibly distant memory now, when nobody bats an eye if The Weather Channel uncorks a prestige scripted series. Still, even despite the thinness of quality TV in the late 1980s, if ever an episode of television felt like a suicide note, it was the second season finale Shades Of Gray, a clip show that mostly just underlined how bad the series had been to that point. It’s hard to come up with a compelling “greatest hits” with at most a handful of good episodes to show for two long seasons, and one has only to imagine how dispiriting it was for the people who worked on it. Incredibly, the series rebounded to become an era-defining show, grabbing Super Bowl-esque ratings on a regular basis, successfully pivoting the series toward a more modern foundation of teamwork, diplomacy, and respect for different cultures, and remaining relevant for decades through the magic of internet memes. And the highs are so dizzying: The Best Of Both WorldsThe Inner LightThe Measure Of A Man and others make this a high point of the purely episodic TV era.
  • Deep Space Nine was the neglected child of TNG: underpromoted, neglected, misunderstood. Over the past decade or so–particularly since the advent of streaming–its stock has shot up among fans, who can appreciate as a whole what wasn’t appreciated during its original run, back when people didn’t tune in religiously every week. In a lot of ways, it marked the final step forward for the television side of the franchise to date. TNG improved on the first series in so many ways: complexity, character development, nuance. Deep Space Nine went much further than that, dabbling in serialization, moral ambiguity, and, most notably, conflict between characters. Quite a lot of Star Trek fans never forgave them for it. But those unable to stomach the darkening of Roddenberry’s moral universe should recall the aforementioned pro-war episodes and the mishmash of early TNG. Roddenberry’s vision changed over time, and looking back now, it’s even harder to make the argument that this show broke it–not only because of Battlestar Galactica being a reminder of how much darker and bleaker it could have been, but also because raising questions without easy answers and no-win scenarios of unthinkable consequence are not a departure from the bases of Star Trek: they have been at its center all along.
  • Voyager held enormous promise at first: the pilot (called “Caretaker”), which I still quite like, positioned the series as a sort of hybrid of DS9 and TNG, with the promise of both traditional Star Trek planet-exploration adventures as well as the promise of interpersonal conflict (though with the strong indication that it would ultimately be overcome). You watch that episode and you think you’re going to be in for a great series. Then you watch the first episode proper and you realize that it was all a hoax: this was just going to be The Next Generation with a not-taken-that-seriously twist. (One of my favorite episodes, The Voyager Conspiracy, functions as a late-season meta-critique of the show’s foundational premise, which holds that the ship was too well-prepared for its departure into wildly unexplored space for it not to have been a put-up job. The episode never actually refutes this critique because it is fundamentally irrefutable.) To be fair, seasons four and five are actually pretty good seasons of television, and throughout the show you see flashes of what made TNG great, like Michael Jordan in his last years on the Wizards occasionally making a shot that reminds you of what he was. But what a great opportunity lost by playing it too safe.
  • Enterprise was, on the other hand, a much riskier proposition. It reads as the franchise’s then producers trying to keep up with the changing television landscape, and largely failing. Instead of pushing interpersonal conflict to the side like TNG and Voyager, it was at the center of the show, perhaps even the main theme. The show embedded elements of serialization into the series from the beginning, which got thicker as the series progressed. It even tweaked with the look and feel of Star Trek: it had a power ballad as the show’s theme song, and it didn’t put Star Trek in the title (at first). And it sought to deal with sexuality in a more adult manner than Trek ever had before, which proved thoroughly embarrassing. The decontamination room was a smart idea to make the whole thing more lo-fi, but the porn lighting and close-ups on people rubbing gels on each others bodies wound up having the exact opposite effect as intended. As, in fact, did many of the show’s innovations. Interpersonal conflict didn’t make up for the show’s many poorly-drawn characters. And the usual two slow seasons of self-discovery model was a non-starter in the new era of good television. In the end, many long-time Trekkies (myself included) were affronted by many of the attempts to distance the series from its predecessors–having characters being into sports, watching recognizable media and the rest felt like an implicit and unwarranted franchise self-critique that its characters hadn’t been previously relatable–and the prospective new fans weren’t fooled by the absence of the Star Trek moniker. This is the irony of Enterprise: the very touches intended to modernize the show instead crippled it. Nevertheless, there is some good stuff in the latter two seasons, though given the serialization it’s difficult to say whether it plays well on its own, or whether it’s worth wading through a lot of the junk of the first two seasons, like Dear Doctor, which plays better as a desperate guilty-conscience rationalization of a genocide than as an affirmation of medical ethics and evolution (which is what it was intended as).

This is of course ignoring the Star Trek films, which I’ll go over some other time.

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Bill Clinton might well be the top candidate for luckiest person of all time. The economy was so good that he got away with maybe the worst staffing skills in the history of the modern presidency, Dubya excluded. From making an insane neocon his first CIA Director, to appointing an FBI Director who spent his entire time in office investigating Clinton himself (and totally missing 9/11), to appointing a successor at CIA who was George Tenet, not so good. This is not to mention the likes of Janet Reno, Madeleine Albright, Alan Greenspan (twice), etc. Admittedly, some of these people were not first choices, like Reno. Regardless, here’s hoping Hillary Clinton takes Bill’s advice on staffing with a grain of salt given that the aforementioned first CIA Director is a Trump guy.

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